Cocktails on Film
Drinking & Partying like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio
A look at Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” and what it says about L.A.’s late 1960s party scene and drinking culture.
Note: This article contains spoilers for the ending of Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, is many things: a character study and a display of the filmmaker’s singular ear for dialogue, an alternate history fantasy (in the mold of Inglourious Basterds) that rewrites the tragic Manson-ordered murders, and, last but not least, a loving recreation of late-1960s Los Angeles.
Aging star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/best friend/driver Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) take the audience on a ride along the Sunset Strip and beyond, as the two (anti)heroes tour the city from diners to movie sets, with many drinks along the way.
The result is a movie feasting on nostalgia, reminding us what made the period one of the most fascinating times in Hollywood history—a brief time when the vestiges of the Golden Age cohabited with the new, more radical scene. And that strange overlapping of two worlds was never as visible as in L.A.’s vibrant party scene and its rich drinking culture.
The movie’s main character, Dalton, has never been quite the movie star he dreamt to be. He’s a moderately successful actor who specializes in westerns and, after starring on his own TV series, is on the verge of becoming irrelevant. In search of a new break, his agent (Al Pacino, in a delightful cameo) offers to send him off to Italy, to shoot spaghetti westerns. The strategy horrifies Dalton (even though at the time it had worked for the admittedly younger Clint Eastwood). Dalton also has a drinking problem, taking frequent sips from the hip flask he carries everywhere. The man enjoys cocktails, too. On set one day, he keeps flubbing his lines and blames it on the eight Whiskey Sours he had drunk that day. He is also seen, near the end of the film, gulping frozen Margaritas from a blender. As for Booth, his dog’s name Brandy might be a clue as to his drinking preferences.
Dalton’s glamorous neighbors on Cielo Drive–and the objects of all his professional desires–are it-couple Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski (played by Margot Robbie and Rafal Zawierucha). Tate’s zest for life is shown here as alcohol-free. She exemplifies the young generation of Hollywood stars for whom weed takes the place of cocktails.
This contrast–boozy older actors vs. weed-smoking younger movie stars–actually played out across Hollywood. Take for instance one of the star couples of the L.A. party scene: 53-year-old Frank Sinatra and 24-year-old Mia Farrow. The star of the Polanski-directed Rosemary’s Baby, Farrow was generally referred to in the press as a “flower child,” a fawn-like beauty with impeccable Hollywood pedigree (her father was the director John Farrow, her mother the actress Maureen O’Sullivan), whose likes and dislikes were typical for her post-war generation. She had married Sinatra in 1966, after an improbable romance, and soon found herself hanging out with his old pals—ex-wife Ava Gardner, the usual Rat Pack suspects—and their boozy ways.
Sinatra was never far from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, his way of nursing every hurt and celebrating every feat. As Farrow, whose sister Prudence inspired a famous Beatles song, acknowledges herself in her memoir What Falls Away, she favored marijuana (and the occasional LSD trip) over drinks. According to Sinatra’s biographer James Kaplan, when Ol’ Blue Eyes gave her a solid-gold cigarette case as a birthday gift, she used it for her joints.
Best epitomized by the Sinatra-Farrow marriage, Hollywood was at the time deeply divided between the old-schoolers–who ate chili at Chasen’s, sipped Old-Fashioneds and Martinis–and the rock ‘n’ roll-obsessed, weed-smoking younger actors and filmmakers. But what made the era fascinating was the frequent mixing of the two crowds. Take the Whisky a Go Go for instance, one of the biggest venues of the party scene at the time. For years, Hollywood royalty had partied on the Sunset Strip, under the glass ceiling of the Mocambo with its colorful birds flying around or among the giant trees of the Cocoanut Grove. But in the mid-’60s, most of these places closed, forcing their aging clientele to shake things up and give way to a new trend: discotheques.
New spots like Whiskey a Go Go, the Daisy and the Factory offered Angelenos a different, more exciting experience modeled on the European clubs. The idea was to dance like mad and invite everyone to do so by doing away with all the tables and chairs. Which meant the drinking took a back seat to the dancing.
The Whisky had so-called “go go dancers,” girls in fringed costumes dancing in cages suspended above the dance floor, a sight for the crowds and musicians alike. At the Whisky, in 1966, you could listen to the Doors live (they were the house band for a year until Jim Morrison improvised the “Fuck the mother” line in “The End” and got the band fired). But even more interesting was its dance floor where you could see 36-year-old Steve McQueen chatting with 62-year-old Cary Grant or encounter Grant’s contemporary James Mason, fresh out of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. When the Beatles came to town, the Whisky was the one place they requested to visit, partying until the wee hours with Jayne Mansfield. Stars with Golden Age connections like Warren Beatty (who dated Natalie Wood) or Jane Fonda (the daughter of Henry Fonda) brought in an intriguing mix of old and young stars.
Another regular at the discotheque was Charles “Tex” Watson, who, along with Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins and lookout Linda Kasabian, murdered five people, including Sharon Tate at Cielo Drive. Pretty soon, according to Whisky’s owner Elmer Valentine’s memories as told to Vanity Fair, more acid was being sold on the parking lot behind the joint than drinks inside. In the movie, Booth even smokes an acid-tinged cigarette.
At the end of Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Dalton and Booth go to their favorite drinking place, Casa Vega on Ventura Boulevard. In real life, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the restaurant’s owner has found the perfect way to thank the film’s cast and crew for the recent publicity by adding a new drink to the cocktail menu. It’s a riff on the Margarita, which is so beloved by the film’s director. Its name? Naturally, the Tarantino.