CANNES, France—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s first post-Harvey Weinstein film which premiered in competition on Tuesday at Cannes, is bathed in ironic nostalgia for an idealized version of the Entertainment Capital as it entered a period of transition in the late 1960s. Set in 1969, the year of New Hollywood landmarks such as Easy Rider, as well as the Manson murders, the film takes a rather jaundiced look at the countercultural trends that were enveloping Los Angeles at the end of a tumultuous decade.
Never one to embrace peace and love, Tarantino clearly prefers his protagonists, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a B-list actor specializing in Western roles, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double who is purported to have gotten away with killing his wife, to a bunch of dirty hippies. Rick and Cliff’s macho sensibilities are stuck in the ‘50s, whereas the hippie subculture is only reflected in the film through the distorting lens of the homicidal Manson clan. Hedonistic he-men, Rick and Cliff (based loosely on Burt Reynolds and stuntman Hal Needham) clearly identify with the Western heroes and villains that provide them with their livelihood as they toil away on a series of corny TV oaters.
The ingenious conceit of Once Upon a Time involves intermingling the Dalton-Booth saga with two other echt-‘60s L.A. narrative strands: the appearance on the scene of director Roman Polanski and his beautiful wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the creepy emergence of the Manson cult on George Spahn’s ranch, where Cliff once worked during a seemingly simpler era. (Spahn, played movingly by Bruce Dern, figures in one key scene.)
It turns out to be no coincidence that Rick lives next door to Polanski and Tate. Without being overly reductive, it’s possible to surmise that Rick, who strikes it rich making Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, represents rugged individualism while the Polanskis are stand-ins for all of the enjoyable late-‘60s decadence that would eventually go terribly awry. (In 1966, Burt Reynolds actually starred in Corbucci’s Navajo Joe, which is lightly parodied here.)
For reasons of either tact or narrative concision, Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) is only glimpsed briefly in the film. Tarantino is considerably more fascinated with Tate, the golden girl who even Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) failed to ensnare, a fact the star bemoans during a lengthy scene set at the Playboy Mansion. The film views Tate with studied ambiguity. Although Robbie has said publicly that she felt an “enormous responsibility” in portraying Tate onscreen, she still comes off as rather ditzy in this rendition of events.
It’s difficult, moreover, to know what to what to think of a scene in which Tate goes to see herself onscreen in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew at an L.A. movie theater. On the one hand, the scene gives Tarantino an opportunity to indulge his love for this schlocky movie, which has screened in a 35mm print at the New Beverly Cinema, a repertory theatre he owns in Los Angeles. On the other hand, this vignette makes Tate seem remarkably narcissistic—a stance this self-involved movie doesn’t appear to object to with particular vehemence. In any case, Robbie does her best to tastefully embody the martyred screen goddess.
The true pleasures of Once Upon a Time reside in several set pieces that are gloriously unconnected to the central narrative. Perhaps the most entertaining—although also the most ludicrous—of these sequences involves an intricately choreographed fight between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet. When Cliff objects to Lee’s arrogant claim that he could whip “Cassius Clay’s hide,” a frantic scuffle that could have appeared in one of Lee’s own films ensues.
In a more poignant vein, at a point when Rick is despondent about his career as he reads a pulp novel on the set of a TV Western called Lancer, he is consoled by a highly precocious child actress played by Julia Butters. (It’s a little cryptic why Tarantino makes the blacklisted actor Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), who spent the ‘60s in London supervising opera and Shakespeare productions, Lancer’s director; perhaps it’s just another gratuitous pop-culture homage.)
Not surprisingly, sex and drugs provide the link to unite Old Hollywood and the Manson Family. After Cliff picks up a Manson acolyte in his boss’s Cadillac, she proceeds to offer him LSD, which he’ll keep for a rainy day, and oral sex, which he declines. Unlike the quasi-feminist vision of the Manson women in Mary Harron’s recent Charlie Says, the nubile sorority in Once Upon a Time just seem like psychotic variations on the hippie girls once personified in the movies by Barbara Hershey.
Even though Tarantino is not particularly known as an actor’s director, he coaxes a number of highly-distinctive performances from the large cast. DiCaprio combines vulnerability and masculine bravura with great finesse; Pitt, in one of his best roles, is alternately cocky and aware of encroaching middle age; and Al Pacino’s admittedly hammy performance as Marvin Schwarz, Rick’s agent, is completely in keeping with Tarantino’s aesthetic of excess.
The film also functions as a cinematic time capsule. Given Tarantino’s status as America’s most famous movie nerd, it’s entirely fitting that fleeting allusions to films such as Lady in Cement and The Night They Raided Minsky’s are peppered throughout the film. The source music on the soundtrack is equally eclectic. To cite a characteristic example, it’s suitably perverse that Tarantino includes José Feliciano’s cover version of “California Dreamin,’ not the original version by The Mamas & the Papas, on the soundtrack.
In a movie prone to chewing its own cinematic tail, the diversions from the plot are often more diverting than the central narrative. Rick’s hit ‘50s TV Western, Bounty Law, is lovingly evoked early in the movie and Tarantino seems more invested in this sort of pastiche than in a serious historical gloss on the late-‘60s in California.
Both Tarantino and Cannes took pains in urging critics not to reveal crucial “spoilers,” particularly the inevitably gory ending. It should suffice to say that the conclusion is as much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy as the denouement of Inglorious Basterds. And it goes without saying that this sort of plea is a great marketing strategy. Tarantino doubtless remembers the ad campaign for Hitchcock’s Psycho: “After you see Psycho, don’t give away the ending.”
Tarantino’s more acerbic critics, particularly Jonathan Rosenbaum, have long chided the obsessively cinephilic director for constructing historical reality from (as well as reducing it to) movie conventions.
Of course, at least Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes the movies as its primary departure point. Still, at the risk of sounding churlish, it’s slightly discomfiting that 1969, the year of the My Lai massacre, is summed up by the exploits of a few codgers who stumble upon Manson disciples as they pummel their way to glory.