Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Updated: May 2, 2021
I started to develop an irresistible taste for Quentin Tarantino after seeing some of his classic hits, like the Kill Bill movies and especially Pulp Fiction. His sense of style, action, and character established him as one of the most unique moviemakers of our time, and rightfully so. This year, he crafted yet another masterpiece in the form of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The story focused on three people who went through their everyday lives in 1969 Los Angeles: fading cowboy star Rick Dalton, his best friend/stuntman, Cliff Booth, and the gorgeous, elegant Sharon Tate. Rick was struggling to keep a steady balance on his acting career after the typical bad guy trend he nailed down in western movies and TV shows in the past were becoming old-fashioned, so he was asked by his agent, Marvin Scwartz (played by Al Pacino) to consider starring in roles in Spaghetti Westerns, which Dalton had a personal distaste of. Meanwhile, Cliff Booth went through life in town when he wasn’t busy being Rick’s right-hand man, when one day, he picked up a hippie girl from the streets and ventured into uneasy territory when he met up with the Manson family. And Sharon Tate thrived in the societal wonders of late 60s LA, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were to creep up her way that would've led to the infamous Manson murders.
The movie's atmosphere was just oozing with undiluted nostalgia. 1969 Los Angeles felt exactly as you would expect it to look: bright, prosperous, glamorous, cheerful, and optimistic. From the sets, to the movie shooting scenes, to the advertisements, to the drive-in theaters, to the TV shows being broadcast, the collective representation of the era took you back to a place where the brightest, enthusiastic, sophisticated of entertainment and displays were commonplace. But it didn’t shy away from some of the harsher life elements, either. The movie discussed about change with regards to filmmaking, it focused on the eccentric lifestyles of the hippies and especially the Manson family, and it did drop quick references to the then-occurring Vietnam War.
At first glance, I didn't find the movie's story to be that cohesive. It felt more like a series of circumstances that Rick, Cliff, and Sharon went through before they built up to the climactic Manson murders. However, each of the subplots were really strong, interesting, and fun to watch. And, when I thought about it long enough, both the story of Rick Dalton and that of Sharon Tate stood as counteracting symbols of life in late-60's Hollywood. Dalton's represented change in the movie industry and how it was going in new directions that old-timers may have had a disdain for. And Tate's, while it may not have looked interesting on paper, was just a fun, stylish homage to the lifestyles that made the Golden Age of Hollywood so cherished.
The number one factor that made the setting so interesting, and the stories so easy to follow, were the characters. Their unique personalities and the actors' out-of-this-world performances helped them stand out in their own way and took the viewers along for the ride.
Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, was fascinating through his struggles to keep up with the times; he was used to playing the traditional bad guys in old cowboy movies and TV shows, but was not satisfied with the different filmmaking approaches that Italians, least of all Europe, took on the whole Western genre to which he was so accustomed. His expressions clued you in on his confidence over seeing things go his way when they clearly were not – made more disheartening by his drinking problems – and they resulted in him going through meltdowns that made it hard not to sympathize with him every once in a while.
His stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, was a pretty cool guy, even if he wasn’t quite as interesting as Rick Dalton. He was a bit cocky, and him being a stuntman resulted in him being perceived as someone who knew how to fend off someone he could've told were eccentric or dangerous people. In which case, he could’ve shown to people around him how tough he can really be under such circumstances. It was most evident when we went to the Manson family ranch to drop off a girl he met on the street, and from then onward, he always put on a good laugh and a confident facade before unleashing a charging warrior that's been ready to strike.
One of the other characters that I found fascinating was the little girl who co-starred with Rick Dalton in their latest picture. She spoke like she was highly experienced, despite her being only eight years old, and her arguments about acting made her one of those unique kids that you'd find yourself gaining a weird sense of wisdom from. Watching her read a biography on Walt Disney was a big plus, too.
The hippie girls and Tex, a.k.a. the members of the Manson family, were just as hot, diverse, and wild as they were unnerving. Not helping was the fact that they all occupied a ranch that used to be a famous movie set, with the original owner of the property, George Spahn (played by Bruce Dern), still living there, albeit blind and almost not acknowledging his new housemates. This stood as a nice little satire of the Hippie lifestyle that emerged in the late 60s, and a nice foreshadowing of the dangers that laid ahead for the main characters.
Last, but not least, you have Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.
Sharon Tate established the cheerful societal aspects of Hollywood; someone who was honest, carefree, and lived life to the fullest. Now, that wasn't to say she didn't have some personal dramas of her own. Even though we only heard it through social gossip, Sharon had to deal with complications in relationships after getting acquainted with Roman Polanski as he shot his latest picture in London. But outside of that, it's been pretty much a nice, obstacle-free life for Sharon...had it not been for the Mansons plotting to murder her.
She did not have as much involvement in the movie as the two main leads, but she was such an acting powerhouse here, that I noticed many other people wishing she did.
In fact, as soon as Sharon Tate's real life sister, Debra Tate, heard Robbie acting out her parts as Sharon, they left her a weepy wreck. She stated that listening to and watching Margot Robbie as her sister was like getting a visit from Sharon Tate herself, as if from beyond the grave. The acting was that pitch perfect.
Sometimes, it made me understand where these people were coming from in that Robbie deserved to have more screen-time. And, yes, I occasionally wished that her personal dilemmas would have been given more focus. However, in a strange way, I think it would’ve been too distracting when the movie was already loaded with engaging subplots on both Rick and Cliff's ends to hook the viewers with. And, I believe that if what Robbie pulled off was so engaging that it left the viewers wanting more, then that means she really nailed it in the little screen-time that she had. Dare I say it, I don’t know if I would change a thing about it.
Ultimately, I am pleased with how all three of the subplots played out: Rick Dalton’s for its themes of change, Cliff Booth's for its balance of dread and coolness, and Sharon Tate's for capturing the elegance and liveliness of the time period in personal fashion.
And this brings me to the one part of the movie that completely floored me: the ending.
Before I saw the movie in theaters, I did have some slight knowledge of the infamous Manson assassinations, and that Sharon Tate was indeed killed during then. So, going in, I was getting set for the murders with mounting dread and forlorn anticipation.
It did result in a bloodbath when it occurred, but not the kind I had in mind. Once Brandy, Cliff's dog, chopped on Tex's balls, the rest of the ending threw my expectations out of the window and quickly became downright bonkers, one of the most insane endings I have ever seen.
Cliff took down Katie, one of the gang members as Brandy continued to tear into Tex, while Sadie, the third gang member, after becoming ravaged by Brandy next, fell into a pool outside, where Rick Dalton was, and then her top half was burnt to a crisp by his flamethrower. Thus, the good guys saved the day and Sharon Tate remained alive.
It left me at a loss for words. My inner historian wanted to complain about it for taking liberties, my inner vigilante applauded the creative decisions made against the Mansons, and the real me was still left speechless over the whole thing.
After watching it, I felt compelled to do research on this to see what other people thought about the ending. While some were not very pleased with the liberties taken here, most others congratulated Tarantino for twisting his viewers' then-unnerved expectations and providing an ending that strengthened its tribute to who he knew was a real-life sweetheart and provided poetic justice to those who took her away from this world. After all, this wasn’t meant to be a true story, but rather a “historical fiction”-al take on Sharon Tate and the significance she had in Hollywood, even if it was treated like as much of a B-story as Cliff Booth's. Other such people believed that whenever anyone heard of Sharon Tate, the first thing that normally came to mind was her death at the hands of the Mansons, as opposed to what she stood for before it. In which case, it made sense for the Mansons to be killed off in this movie, even if it was in the bloodiest and most exaggerated of ways.
But there was only one thing more shocking than the ending and its execution, and it was that Dianne Lake, who testified about the Mansons’ murder and was put on trial with her fellow assassins for it, actually expressed contentment with the ending. She said that for all the love that she had for her Manson buddies, she acknowledged just how evil, twisted, and heartbreaking the murders were and found the deaths of their fictional counterparts to be, in her own words, “fitting”.
Wow… Talk about a method to the madness!
Anyone who used the creative medium to rewrite historical events in a way that even certain relatives of historic people can approve of had clearly done something right.
In fact, that’s how I eventually felt about the movie in my retrospective reflection on it: it managed to do everything right. The characters, the acting, the stories, the atmosphere, the homages, its grasp on history, they all contributed to a colorful, vibrant, and crazy collage of a bygone era where innocence and free-spiritedness once flourished. It was made more engaging by an interesting commentary on change, its reflection on what made the era so special with nostalgic fondness, and its sense of justice provided in a way that only Tarantino can provide.
I guarantee you, you are going to have a rollickin' good time with this one.
My Rating: A
Another aspect of the movie that I have a strong fondness for is the dialogue. Having watched some of Tarantino’s other flicks, including Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies, there’s a certain electricity to the words and conversations being spoken that are just dedicatedly stubborn to the eyes and music to the ears.
I found the actor portraying Bruce Lee in this film to be pretty quirky. I think it had to do with how hammy his sophisticated demonstrations of kung fu and honorable showdowns tended to be. I especially got a chuckle out of his undergoing fight with Cliff as a quote-on-quote "friendly fight".
Collis, Clark. “Quentin Tarantino Wanted to Show That Sharon Tate Was 'More than Just a Victim'.” Entertainment Weekly, 24 July 2019, https://ew.com/movies/2019/07/24/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-sharon-tate-quentin-tarantino/.
Collis, Clark. “Sharon Tate's Sister Wept at Margot Robbie's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Portrayal.” Entertainment Weekly, 26 July 2019, https://ew.com/movies/2019/07/26/once-upon-a-time-hollywood-sharon-tate-sister-debra/.
Hitt, Tarpley. “ An Ex-Manson Family Member Reviews Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’” The Daily Beast, 15 Aug. 2019, https://www.thedailybeast.com/ex-manson-family-member-dianne-lake-reviews-quentin-tarantinos-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood.
Romano, Evan. “The Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood Ending, Explained.” Men's Health, 26 July 2019, https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a28518101/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-tarantino-ending-spoilers-manson/.