There’s a new champion in the Hollywood nostalgia stakes. Move over Ready Player One and Shazam. Now we've got Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I’d say vied with Pulp Fiction as his best work to date and one of the best films made in quite a while.
It’s carefully set in 1969 when the studio movie was buckling under the competition of TV, European action movies and kung fu - and the time of the Manson Murders.
This creates a note of jokey menace which is an interesting contrast to Francois Truffaut’s La nuit américaine set four years later, where the maker treats the mix of scandal, insecurity and phony glamour in film making as an inviting fairy land. To my surprise Tarantino emerges as the sharper observer. Ad-libbing in his promotion interviews, Tarantino proves to have an inexhaustible flow of trivia information on the films and TV of the era, quite putting the children of the Cinémathèque to shame.
This comes up in the film as the unending parade of citations - impersonations of Steve McQueen, Sam Wanamaker, Connie Stevens, Mama Cass, Michelle Phillips & Rumer Willis (as Joanna Pettet), mini-skirts, The Mansion, a Joanna poster, C.C and Company on screen, Henry Wilcoxon’s credit from A Man in the Wilderness, the Burt Ward voice-over, Gordon Mitchell in the spaghetti thriller car chase, Leonardo DiCaprio inserted into The Great Escape, Pendulum playing in the cinema opposite the one where Margaret Robbie’s Sharon Tate goes to see herself in The Wrecking Crew- Tarantino enjoys Tate getting a laugh in his film where the clip comes up.
Robbie, prominently billed, whom we know is smart from her Tonja Harding, gets attention playing dumb. Cross-cutting hers and the imitation Steve McQueen strut is one of the film’s best gags.
|Julia Butters, Leonardo DiCaprio|
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows that Tarantino is able to shape all this into something that is not just an exercise in prompted recall but also a shrewd comment. The only character the film puts up as really sympathetic is child performer Julia Butters. She takes her acting unnervingly seriously but recognises the implications in the pulp western that Leonardo DiCaprio is reading in relation to his own situation. DiCaprio, reduced to villain in Timothy Olyphant‘s series, and needing to be prompted on his dialogue as the (edited) scene plays out, is something we haven’t seen before and it adds conviction, complete with its connection to his drinking.
The striking element that is examined without obvious comment is a class division. Brad Pitt, who does the more dangerous movie work, operates out of a trailer next to a pumping oil field with a pet fed on canned meat dog food. It gets its own star spot. He straps on his macho utility belt to repair star (albeit fading) DiCaprio’s mansion that has a parking spot with a front-of-house billboard of his image.
In what is a long film, the build-up to the action finale is imposing. One of the things that drives it is that we know we are seeing Hollywood - indeed the movie business - in decline. What we are watching is a companion piece to The Last Picture Show. Texasville has the same contempt for the Eurotrash movie. We get Al Pacino wanting to sign DiCaprio for a movie with “the second best director of spaghetti westerns”, a slander for Sergio Corbucci who was the leader in his field. The switch when DiCaprio achieves his screen persona gets an audience cheer.
The more realist counterpoint comes with the ride scantily clad young Margaret Qualley hitches with Brad Pit to the Spahn stunt Ranch, now the base of The Family, offering to blow him while he drives. Her scenes should launch a star career. Pitt taking it upon himself to investigate the situation of Bruce Dern’s George Spahn, his one-time employer, is an interesting inversion. What’s happening is as it’s represented by Dakota Fanning’s foul mouthed Squeaky Frome and not the coercion that Pitt anticipated. His good guy act is not appreciated by Dern but it does give us a chance to see Pitt's character doing his hard man, about which we were wondering till he took down Bruce Lee/Kato carrying on about the spirit of the warrior, prompting Zoë Bell’s “The Dude killed his own wife” with the clip that builds to Pitt with the spear gun pointing in the wife’s direction.
This comes (very Brecht) book ended by black and white Academy frame clips - an on-set interview showing the relationship between star and stunt man, which the film will expand, and then the fake Red Apple cigarette commercial.
What we’ve got is a film that seems to be all texture, without the form and devices of literature, without heroes and headed up by a couple of star actors who win our admiration anyway, opposed to a genuine psychopath who seems to be a twisted version of the film’s achievers. It’s a great viewing and it stays with you afterwards - maybe always.