Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is quite the comeback for Quentin Tarantino. After the stillborn Hateful Eight and the loss of his mentor Harvey Weinstein into the maw of #MeToo, the writer-director is all on his own with his ninth film; he’s off-the-leash, flush with 90 million of Sony’s dollars, and what did he deliver…?
A straight-up masterpiece.
If this isn’t the movie Tarantino was born to direct (that was probably Pulp Fiction) OUATIH is unquestionably the movie his 27-year career has been chugging towards, the one where it all comes together: a passion for forgotten B-movies, for correcting history, for all things pop culture (including commercials), for a time and place before the disease of chain restaurants and big box stores infected every other time and place, for obscure pop songs the now-corporatized Oldies Stations refuse to play, for cooler than cool men who are all men, for womenly women who are all woman, and for a deliberate pace that slowly raises a middle finger to the MTV-afflicted.
OUTIH is not just a movie, it’s an experience — a hypnotic, captivating, immersive tour. Over one weekend in early February 1969, Tarantino dedicates himself to taking us back to a Hollywood that probably never existed — a magic place, where it’s still safe to pick up hitchhikers and leave your doors unlocked. A fabled place, where the hippies are still everything they say they are: all about peace, love, and easy sexuality. A mythical place, where the studios and their clean cut, square-jawed heroes have not yet been replaced by Easy Riders and Raging Bulls.
Oh, no… in Tarantino’s Hollywood, George Peppard, Steve McQueen, Dean Martin, Maximilian Schell, Mike Connors, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. still rule. Dennis Hopper exists only as a (literal) pejorative. Easy Rider is four months away, the Manson murders six, Altamont nine…
Cocaine is nowhere to be seen. People trip but they don’t fall.
And this is just the way Tarantino likes it, this is where he would freeze the world forever — a world filled with cool cars, drive-in movies, diners, and blue skies… A world where one amazing radio station is so omni-present it acts as the soundtrack of an entire city, so much so that you don’t miss a beat when you get out of your car because all the passing cars — Detroit steel with their windows wide open to this perfect L.A. weather — are listening to the same station.
But in a place called Chatsworth, just outside of Tarantino’s Magic Place, a cancer is growing. In fact, a malevolent force has already blackened a piece of that magic, a Holy Land where Tarantino’s heroes once came to life. Of all things, the Spahn Ranch, a mystical movie lot where TV Westerns and Western heroes and movie stars like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds once walked, is now home to the Manson family, of Charlie and his concubine of malevolent hippies, those greasy, goddamned hippies who ruined everything.
Also looming on the horizon are the horrors of Woke. Because she’s a stand-in for Woke Cancer, because she’s a self-serious method actor who will only answer to her stage name, we’re never told her real name, but the eight-year-old actress (beautifully played by Julia Butters) who demands to be called an “actor” and has no tolerance for regressive nicknames like “pumpkin” or “shortcake,” will not be precocious forever. In about fifty years — right around, say, 2019 — after all the adorableness that comes with being eight burns out of her, it will only be her imperious, strident bossiness that remains and it will take all the fun out of everything — especially the movies.
So thank God we still have a director like Tarantino with the moral courage to let his camera linger on a young woman’s ass.
It was a half-hour, black and white Western series called Wanted: Dead or Alive that made Steve McQueen a star. And after he had some success in movies, McQueen deliberately sabotaged his own show, and it was canceled after just three seasons.
Rick Dalton did the same, only his half-hour Western TV series is called Bounty Law.
It was Rawhide that made Clint Eastwood a household name, and after it was over and he faced the reality of being an aging TV actor with no future, he made a movie where he killed a bunch of Nazis (Where Eagles Dare) and a handful of Italian Westerns in the hope it would give him a second life as a movie star.
Rick Dalton is staring dead in the eyes of 40 and obscurity, so he just made a movie where he killed a bunch of Nazis, but the only rope ladder being thrown his way is an Italian Western.
Everyone knew Burt Reynolds from his three seasons on Gunsmoke, but all he ever wanted was to be a movie star — and as he watched Eastwood and McQueen succeed where he couldn’t, as he guest-starred on every TV show that would have him — he grew more insecure and despondent.
Same with Rick Dalton.
Burt Reynolds also lived with his best friend, Hal Needham, a famous stuntman.
Rick Dalton’s inseparable sidekick (“more than a brother and a little less than a wife”) is stuntman Cliff Booth.
Yes, Rick Dalton is Tarantino’s creation, and undoubtedly based on a half-dozen other actual people — but I missed those references — and Leonardo DiCaprio inhabits him beautifully. His desperation, his insecurity, his determination, and his talent.
You won’t see many better movie moments than the one where Rick Dalton discovers he truly can act.
OUATIH is, though, Brad Pitt’s movie. As Cliff, Pitt embodies the Movie Star Supreme. He’s as cool as McQueen, as laid back as Dean Martin, and as tough as The Mighty Bruce Lee. Effortlessly masculine, never caught off guard, comfortable in his own skin, and able to embrace the simple pleasures of life because he’s not poisoned by Rick’s ambition, Cliff glides through life and the never-jammed freeways of the Magic Los Angeles just happy he’s not in prison for killing his harpy of a wife — which may or may not have been an accident.
And then there’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the Ethereal Beauty, the Innocent in The White Boots, the Unaffected Angel still enthralled by the idea of being a star, the Guileless and Radiant Dream Girl who just has to tell the ticket lady she’s in the movie playing there and who practically squeals with delight as she watches a matinee audience enjoy her silly performance as a sexy klutz in The Wrecking Crew.
There’s a lot of Jackie Brown in OUATIH, which is still my favorite Tarantino movie. You see, this is a story that takes its sweet time to develop, a story more interested in character and ambience than anything else. You’re either going to give yourself over to a director summoning his awe-inspiring skills to transport you somewhere else for a weekend, or you’re going to wish you were at home so you could lose yourself in your stupid iPhone.
The last twenty minutes…?
I’m not giving even a moment away. But, man, they’re perfect.
And that final moment, that exquisite culmination of all that came before, the opening of those gates…
I cannot wait to see this movie again … and again … and again … and again.