Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019)
Full to the brim and out of focus.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and supposedly penultimate film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH) was primed for my personal enjoyment. I am a buff of vintage Hollywood, and know more about the Tate-LaBianca murders than the average moviegoer. I am familiar with Tarantino’s previous works and understand why he is considered a genius of film-making, notably: gripping dialogue, a story that rolls like a marble, complex characters, and perfectly crafted frames. None of this was present in OUATIH. I find my criticisms to be in direct conflict with praises from critics whom I highly respect. Many of them were dazzled by the film’s authenticity as a time capsule of the transitional Hollywood of the late 1960s, a clear representation of Tarantino’s love and familiarity with film history. It is perhaps this unconditional love that is the film’s biggest flaw.
To say that a film has “too many characters” seems like a oversimplification. However, this issue is the reason for several great TV’s shows slump in later seasons. The problem is, in fact, simple: with a finite amount of time, too many characters means that no one story has enough room to breath, leading to a lack of character development and audience investment. This occurred in spades with OUATIH. The film is filled to the brim with cameos from modern day household names (e.g. Luke Perry, Kurt Russel, Lena Dunham, Dakota Fanning, etc.) and appearances of historical stars from the film’s setting (Mama Cass, Michelle Phillips, Bruce Lee). Occasionally, a current star played a former legend (e.g. Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen) for an amplified star-studded effect. Since most of these actors/characters have little to no effect on the plot and less than a minute of screen-time, their appearances are tools to allow in-the-know audience members to give each other nudges and winks. I hesitate to call such a move “stunt casting”, as I believe Tarantino’s use of every actor and character attempts to be a genuine confession of his admiration, but with every additional cameo these characters became nothing more than wax-figures.
Though the the two leads, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, were given the most of the film’s 161 minutes of screen-time, their respective stories were so bisected that I was unable to truly get to know or care about either of them. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is the archetypal self-obsessed actor who’s in the middle of a career-based crisis. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth does not contain multitudes but cut off branches. He has several subplots that start to go somewhere to give his character motivations and purpose, but end abruptly without full exploration or justification for their existence. The thread that proposes that Cliff may or may not have killed his wife is presented to the audience and then left outside in the cold. The audience easily figures out that Cliff is an unsuspectingly violent person from his defeat of Bruce Lee in hand-to-hand combat and his pummelling of a member of the Manson family. The fact that he knows George Spahn, the proprietor of the Spahn ranch, is an attempt to display that Cliff has some degree of compassion, though his unconditional love for Rick Dalton and fondness for his pet dog provides this information sufficiently. This scene ultimately serves as a platter for Bruce Dern and Dakota Fanning's cameos. While reported to be as suspenseful as the opening and tavern scenes of Inglorious Basterds, it only further contributes to the film’s lacklustre portrayal of this historical setting. The fact that this review deals so little with Dalton and Booth is indicative of the minimal interest I have in either of these characters.
The film’s greatest offender of presenting us with late 1960’s LA iconography without substance was its use, or misuse, of Charles Manson, his followers, and Sharon Tate. Manson appears for maybe thirty seconds of screen time, portraying a real-life event in which he arrived at the Tate house on Cielo Drive several months before the massacre, trying to locate the house's previous owner, Terry Melcher. I know this because I have done research on the topic, those less familiar may be confused as to why 10050 Cielo Drive was so important to Manson. Manson's minimal presence could have been a clever indicator of the power he had over several young women and men that allowed him to kill seven people without so much as lifting a finger. However, the brevity of his appearance ultimately feels like one of the previously mentioned stunt cameos. We don’t see his face until the end of his scene, obviously done for shock value as the actor who portrays him bears a striking resemblance. He could have been absent from the film altogether and had a much more effective presence. The scariest part of a horror movie is always before you see the big bad monster.
For the worst reasons, Charles Manson is a fascinating figure. One that both embodied and arguably led to the demise of free love culture in the 1960’s. He wanted to be as famous as the celebrities that appear in this film. His depiction is empty and engaged with on a surface level. Life on Spahn ranch, Manson's ideologies and methods of manipulation, the mindsets of these young women and girls that made them perfect targets for a charismatic leader, Manson's made-up race war, and his obsession with several musicians of the 1960s, including the Beatles and the Beach Boys, would be a captivating setting for a film. His followers are given slightly more screen-time than him, though he is never shown interacting with them. An audience member could easily forget that (most of) these young women are victims of psychological and sexual abuse and instead believe them to be unambitious slackers without individual personalities.
Tarantino has been criticized for not giving Margot Robbie enough lines or screen-time as Sharon Tate. As previously stated about the Manson family, the life and death of Sharon Tate, including her relationship with Roman Polanski, is fascinating, tragic, and a perfect setting for a film. The fact that her death was mostly the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ultimately made her more famous than any of her films, is a theme worth exploring. Either she should have been the film’s main character, which could still feature notable historical cameos from a changing Hollywood, or she shouldn’t have appeared until the very end, revealing that she had been Rick’s neighbour the whole time. Her minimal screen time, dialogue, and motionless development reduced her to one of the film's countless cameos. Peppering her in periodically with no weight attempted to work audiences up to anticipate the inevitably bloody ending…an ending that never came.
I’ve been contemplating why this film's ending that manipulated history to fit
a fantastical narrative does not sit with me as well as that of Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds. Practically, it leads to many reasonable questions: Did Polanski ever direct MacBeth or Chinatown if he didn’t lose his wife and unborn child in a horrific attack? Does he ever get exiled to France after sexually assaulting a 13 year old? Which celebrities die instead when Manson inevitably sends another group of followers to another house in the Hills? I digress. Because I don’t care about Cliff or Rick up to this point, I do not feel triumph at their success during the finale. It is much more satisfying to see a small group of Jews annihilate a theatre full of Nazi’s in a way that is cinematically well choreographed, than it is to see a fifty something year old man (and very obedient dog) pulverize three drugged out early-twenty-somethings, especially when this violence is the only kind that appears in the film. It isn’t Manson who the audience gets to cheerfully see put in his place, but his anonymous followers. It is as graphic as anything Tarantino has put on screen. If changing history was Tarantino's attempt to say that Tate’s story was more than her tragic death, why didn’t we get to see any of it? At least we got to see her bare feet.
The vast majority of reviews I have read praise this film, and people I know in my personal life loved it. I understand why. There’s something instantly gratifying achieved by movies about movies. The film’s setting in the late 1960’s Southern California sun, excessive editing, uneven pace, and mixture of fiction and history allows for distraction and fantasy, therefore the film’s flaws fade into the background and Tarantino gets his wish.