Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s Ultimate Love Letter to 60s Cinema and Bare Feet

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019, Sony/Columbia Pictures)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows the adventures of a washed-up actor by the name of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double/partner Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who believes he is a has-been and can’t get cast in lead roles anymore, like he had with Bounty Law, a popular late-50s TV show. We follow Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth during the weekend of Feburary 1969 and one fateful August night on Cielo Drive and their next door neighbor — Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Those that believe that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will focus on the Tate Murders by the Manson Family, with an ultraviolent touch from Quentin Tarantino will be severely disappointed, and thank God that’s not what the movie is about. The film is a full-on tribute to what Tarantino loves the most — movies. This film is a cinephile’s wet dream, where every sequence parodies and/or riffs a certain cinematic style. There are many references that only cinephiles and/or people who LIVED a little bit could understand. The film opens at a 4:3 aspect ratio, for a TV trailer of Rick’s show, Bounty Law. The NBC jingle kicks in, exactly the way it was done in the 50s. It’s no secret that I absolutely adore older movie trailers — they don’t make them the way they used to. Let’s be honest here, every single movie trailer that came out in the 40s, 50s and 60s made every single movie look like the greatest thing ever. Tarantino parodies them admirably and amically, he also gets the TV structure of a 50s-60s TV show perfectly, as we see a sequence from Bounty Law with a great wild cameo from Michael Madsen, until it fades to black with alarming, dramatic music and then cuts to the opening credits.

It’s amusing, but the most out-there reference is when “The S From Hell” is overheard on TV at George Spahn (Bruce Dern)’s house. The aformentioned Screen Gems logo got the name from traumatizing children after a TV show like Bewitched. It’s a fitting use of the logo’s horrifying synth soundtrack from Eric Siday, as Cliff walks to George Spahn’s room. The whole scene in which Cliff meets with the Manson Family after driving Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) home has this extremely uneasy vibe, as you believe they murdered George Spahn since they won’t allow Cliff to see him, even though he was an old friend. The scene is terrifically written — and the use of the S From Hell accentuates the uneasiness of the sequence and makes it far scarier than it actually is. Subtle refernences like this or the riffing of late 60s Italian Cinema, particularly Spaghetti Westerns made by Sergio Leone in an overlong sequence in which Rick Dalton shoots a villain part for the TV show Lancer. Rick Dalton was known in the 50s for its protagonists role, a little like Henry Fonda. No one would’ve seen or thought that Henry Fonda would play such a cruel and despicable character in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but he did and pulled off one of the greatest performances of his career. The villainous role of Caleb in Lancer is making it look like a washed-up actor needs a serious career revival and plays an antagonist that will save his career or a performance that will go down as the greatest of his career history. The Leone tributes move on to wide angles slowly paced dialogue-heavy sequences, including a tension-filled confrontation between Dalton’s character and Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry’s final film role), brilliantly played by Luke Perry. The film is wholly enhanced in IMAX, immersing you more than ever in the movie’s wild story of late-1960s Hollywood, due to Robert Richardson’s terrific cinematography and the sound design.

Tarantino loves overlong dialogue-heavy sequences, and this is probably his most “dialoguest” film, but the writing is always fresh and sharp, due to the film’s terrific performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as Rick Dalton — especially during the sequences in which he has to ACT. In “real life”, he has a very insecure and stammering personality, you almost feel bad for him. One great scene has him repeat the word “line!” multiple times and then he talks to himself about how worthless of a piece of shit he is to embarass himself in front of all those people and vows to stop drinking. DiCaprio has always been one of my favorite actors, but this is one of his greatest performances to date, alongside Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The same goes with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, whose performance is incredibly hilarious and his character the most compelling. The scene in which he trips after smoking a cigarette dipped in acid is fantastic, or the one where he confronts Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of a film produced by Randy (Kurt Russell) is great. Lee’s daughter hated how the film portrayed Bruce Lee, but Mike Moh gives such a terrific performance as Lee that I didn’t really care. Hell, he even looks the part. But if the film would respect Bruce Lee’s legacy, that means it should also respect Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and how the Manson murders were laid out, right? This is Tarantino, not real life.

Tarantino invents his own universe and proceeds to rewrite history, the way he likes it. This film celebrates brilliantly the legacy of Sharon Tate in one small sequence, in which Tate goes to see her own movie, The Wrecking Crew (while reclining her bare feet on the chair in front of her), and admires the audience reactions to her performance. The real-life Tate is shown on screen with Dean Martin, and makes the scene more remarkable. You can see the pride in Tate’s eyes, symbolizing “that’s me!”, and that’s the pure beauty of Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate. Yes, you can say she doesn’t really do anything or is wholly underused, BUT (and hear me out) in every scene she is in, she completely lights up the room with her terrific personality and amazing, sparkling energy. Her smile is incredibly contagious and it can only be due to Margot Robbie’s incredible acting skills. In my opinion, this is the performance of her career, even with her limited screen presence and lines she gets. Everytime she would be on screen, she would own the sequence completely and make the most of her on-screen presence. It’s the work of a true genius actress. She, DiCaprio and Brad Pitt should be considered for Oscar nominations. Other great performances in Extended Cameos are Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Lena Dunham (of all people) and Damien Lewis who does an amazingly spot-on impression of Steve McQueen.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Margot Robbie in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019, Sony/Columbia Pictures)

But the film’s best sequence and most exciting comes within the form of Quentin Tarantino’s Ultraviolent revenge and revisionist take on the Tate Murders. Tarantino pulls off an Inglourious Basterds and decide to kill Charles Watson (Austin Butler), Patricia Krenwrinkel (Madisen Beaty) and Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) in the most vile and ultraviolent ways possible. The sequence riffs exploitation films, as the Manson family murders decide to go kill Rick Dalton before Tate, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin), as he is a TV star, and taught murder on the TV show Bounty Law, so he needs a lesson. While Cliff is tripping on Acid, he orders his dog to bite-off Watson’s balls, severely injures Atkins by throwing, viciously, a can of dog food on her skull and then Rick’s wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), decides to fight off Krenwrinkel. You feel every single hit and cheer for Booth, Dalton and Francesca to fight off the Manson murderers who committed these sickening and vile acts of murder. It’s revisionist history to the finest order, and feels oddly satisfying — especially when Booth pulls a flamethrower and burns “to a crisp” Susan Atkins. The film is Tarantino’s least violent, until the ending, which then becomes his most violent. The violence is raw, and not exagerated — the sequence is absolutely tension-filled and completely nuts, best experienced on an IMAX screen. The whole movie is best experienced on an IMAX screen, as you get completely submberged in the film’s tribute to 1960s cinema and Bare Feet — as Tarantino takes his foot fetish to a whole other level.

It’s a wonderful movie, filled with amazing cinematography, a terrific soundtrack (car rides that reminded me of free-roaming in Grand Theft Auto V with the radio on), career-highlight performances from a star-studded cast and an ending that will completely blow you away. The only thing that I didn’t really like was that the movie doesn’t really have any sort of direction or plot. Yes, there are many dialogue-heavy sequences, but they lead nowhere, because the movie doesn’t really have a plot. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes (out of 2h41) before the movie actually gets going and you meet the Manson family, but it doesn’t really have a story to tell. But I didn’t really mind it, as I was having lots of fun with the movie’s celebration of Cinema à la Tarantino. If you like Cinema, Tarantino and Feet (Eshrak Alam), you will love it for sure. See it on the biggest screen possible [IMAX] with a big crowd!

✯✯✯✯½

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Maxance Vincent

I currently study film and rant, from time to time, on provincial politics.