WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film; it centers around actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in Hollywood in 1969. With a focus on the visual style of the film and sequences that pay homage or directly reference real shows and movies, Tarantino pays respect to the Golden Age of Hollywood and presents a mature depiction of a has-been Hollywood actor’s psyche and personal trajectory in an effort to dispel superficial assessments of the Hollywood elite as vacuous and vain.
The opening shot of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUTH) pans out from a close-up on a painting of Rick Dalton, always keeping his smile the focal point. From this opening alone, much can be inferred about Dalton’s character: he’s a Hollywood big shot that’s full of himself. Further, this painting sits in his driveway, right in front of his car, making it the thing he sees at the beginning and end of his work day. However, we soon learn from a meeting between Dalton and his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) that he is leading an unfulfilling life as a has-been actor, taking unflattering villain roles in episodic television. This facade of happiness and fulfillment represented by the painting of himself smiling couldn’t be any more different from Dalton’s true feelings. Within the first ten minutes of OUTH, the basis of Dalton’s growth and trajectory as a character has been established: he wants to reclaim the spotlight as an actor.
Soon after, Dalton is tapped to play the lead villain in another Western TV show. Initially, he hesitates to get into the role, as Dalton is worried his costume might make it difficult for the audience to recognize, which, after all, is his overall goal at this point: to be recognized for his work. Waiting for shooting to begin, Dalton takes a seat next to a little girl, who will be acting alongside him. With the girl and Dalton on opposite sides of the frame, there’s a clear dichotomy set up between the two. On the left is a little girl that represents innocence, youth, and a new beginning. She’s focusing on reading a hardcover biography of Walt Disney (with a nice bookmark, even), which may relate to her imagination as she contemplates her prospects as an emerging young actor. Further, when Dalton asks for her name, she insists that she be referred to by her character’s name, so as to remain in character. Alternatively, Dalton sits on the right of the frame with poor posture, snorting and spitting loudly due to the years of smoking, fairly representative of his many years as an actor, leaving him with these consequences of personal turmoil and a smoker’s cough. Dalton explains to the girl that he is reading a novel about a cowboy who has to give up his fame following an injury to his legs, clearly mirroring Dalton’s own circumstances as a has-been and exemplifying his looking back and lamenting, contrasted to her looking forward, starry-eyed. Additionally, the novel is an old, dirty paperback severely bent halfway through, symbolic of his midlife crisis. He breaks down crying after explaining it out loud, and the girl comforts him, saying she’s “practically crying on the inside” though she hasn’t even read it, to which Dalton responds: “In about fifteen years, you’ll be living it.” The little girl is used as a foil to Dalton to accentuate his cynicism and dissatisfaction, while also acting as a model of hope and professionalism for him.
Shooting begins for the show and Dalton forgets some of his lines and hams up his performance. He bursts into a tirade directed toward himself, lambasting his lack of professionalism and blaming it on alcohol. He then promises to himself that he’ll make the girl proud when he gets back on set. So far, Dalton has been established as vain and irresponsible, but also as a tragic character that laments about his passed prime. Here we can see an inflection point in his character where he realizes it’s not about his face being shown on the screen, but the content and quality of his performance as a professional. Not long after this, Dalton gets his chance again. He completes the scene, and the director runs up to him to congratulate his performance, commending his improvisation and changes to the script. The little girl also tells him that his performance is the best acting she had ever seen, and this brings him to tears. At the end of the day, Dalton meets back up with his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) at home to watch an episode of The F.B.I. in which Dalton stars. With this, Dalton’s character arc has more or less ran its course. He began as a cynical, vain, irresponsible, and depressed has-been actor and found happiness in putting his all into his performance, which brings him new prospects: acting in “spaghetti Westerns”, working in Italy, where he finds his soon-to-be wife.
What is also important to mention is the C plot of this move (with Dalton’s storyline being the A plot and Booth and the hippies’ being the B plot). Dalton’s next-door neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) has her own storyline that runs concurrently with Dalton and Booth’s. She goes to a library to pick up a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which is now considered to be the masterpiece of Victorian era writer Thomas Hardy. Personally, I’ve never heard of this novel, but, from what I’ve read, it is an important piece of literature due to its challenging of sexual norms for women in that era. With that it should be obvious that this book is no easy read, so the fact that Tate is reading it challenges the generalization that the Hollywood elite are vacuous and uncultured. Later, Tate walks into a theater to see her performance in a movie. She smiles to herself as she hears the audience enjoying her acting. Additionally, shots of Tate watching the film are spliced together with shots of her practicing for the movie with Bruce Lee. Similar to the reformed-Dalton, Tate gains fulfillment from people enjoying her performance and feels vindicated when the effort she put into it is recognized.
As you can see, OUTH is very character-driven, so much so that the development of the characters itself effectively acts as its plot. The whole purpose of all this characterization and development is to depict these movie stars as multi-dimensional people, as opposed to two-dimensional caricatures of them as uneducated, stupidly rich elites that care only about themselves. In addition to understanding the characters and seeing them develop, you grow close to and come to liking them. As the climax of the film approaches, it is imperative that the audience actually likes the characters. The reason for this is that, while Dalton was finding his place as an actor in his A plot, Cliff Booth was doing Dalton’s errands and dealing with hippies in his B plot. Cliff is led to a movie set he once worked on by a hippie hitchhiker he picked up. He finds the set overrun by hippie squatters and promptly leaves. Though not made explicitly apparent to the viewer, these hippies make up the infamous Manson family, who are responsible for the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in August of 1969. The film approaches the climax as those same hippies return months after their encounter with Cliff Booth. This is where that necessity for liking the characters comes in: Dalton is drunk and can’t hear his surroundings, Booth is drunk and high, Dalton’s wife is sleeping, and the Manson hippies are approaching the house with the intention of killing them. The suspense and repulsion to the possibility of these characters being senselessly murdered could not have worked without defining and developing them. In doing so, it sets us up as the audience to reject the hippies’ generalization that the Hollywood elite are stupid, vain purveyors of violence.
Eventually, the Mansons reach Dalton’s house and hold Booth at gunpoint. What follows is the culmination and payoff of the preceding events. Booth sics his pitbull on his assailants and throws a can of dog food into the face of another (both the pitbull’s obedience and the can of dog food were featured in previous scenes). This all leads into a feverish fight scene between Booth and the Mansons. Eventually, one of them crashes through the sliding glass door into the backyard to escape Booth. This is where Dalton has been, lounging in his pool listening to music and drinking. He quickly runs to the pool shed and pulls out a flamethrower, which he was shown using in a previous film. He of course uses this to roast the last Manson alive. All of this may seem like another signature instance of gratuitous Tarantino violence, but, much like in his Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the extreme gore and violence is used for the express purpose of providing to the viewer satisfying retribution. In Inglourious Basterds, it was retribution against the Nazis for the Holocaust and, in Django Unchained, it was retribution against slaveowners for slavery. In this film, it may seem less clear since the Mansons didn’t particularly do anything to Dalton or Booth to deserve retribution, but this retribution is against the Manson family for the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends that happened in reality.
In the very end, Dalton speaks to Sharon Tate and her friend about what just happened. The friend invites him in for a drink in a closing scene that is very reminiscent of a horror movie. The driveway gate opens creakily and the music that plays into the credits becomes somewhat discordant and creepy, until it eventually resolves as Dalton enters the house safely. I believe that these choices for a subliminally creepy mood were to remind the viewer that the people that just invited Dalton in for a drink died in reality, though the film lets us rest easy as the music resolves and goes to credits, allowing us to enjoy this alternate reality where the Mansons were senselessly killed and the murder of any innocent people was prevented. Look no further than the title of the movie: “Once Upon a Time”. From just the title, it is established that this story is a fairy tale that ends happily ever after.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is clearly seen through Tarantino’s continued use of 35mm film (instead of the current industry standard of shooting on digital cameras), numerous references and homages to film and television of that era, and sequences in the film itself that closely mimic the era’s style and cinematography. However, that Golden Era was left with the scar that is the Tate murders, which were perpetrated by a group that didn’t recognize that, through the glitz and glam, Sharon Tate and her friends were real people with real struggles, feelings, and personalities (as demonstrated to us by Tate and Rick Dalton through the entirety of the movie). This film is a rebuttal from Hollywood, responding to generalizations and the consequential murders committed against it; it attests that people in the film industry are more than the caricatures people spread about them.
I couldn’t make much of Cliff Booth’s storyline to include in my overall analysis of the movie. I thought it was interesting to see the parallels between himself and the Mansons. The scenes of him pulling into the lot where he lives and the lot where the Mansons live are very similar in the sense that the lots are seemingly deserted other than dilapidated, small dwellings, in which its inhabitants lead humble lives, eating little and solely finding entertainment in television. Further, Cliff and Dalton’s lifestyles are contrasted, though they might be best friends. One sequence in the film shows the two after a work day at home, where Cliff has a very meager dinner, whilst Dalton enjoys a drink in his pool, practicing lines with a cassette tape. The similarities between Cliff and the Mansons are meant to tie the two together, but also contrast their ideologies. One of the Mansons says that “Charlie” (Charles Manson, the leader of the family) would love Cliff. However, he knows firsthand from his friend Rick that the Hollywood elite are not as vacuous and toxic as they think. The inclusion of Cliff as a lower class individual that can be grouped with the Mansons socio-economically makes it so that the message isn’t conveyed from a bubble. If Cliff was also an elite, it may have dampened the effectiveness of the message.
Additionally, Cliff’s backstory of being suspected of killing his wife was difficult for me to fit in. If I had to take a guess, I’d say it’s supposed to reflect the Cancel Culture of today, where people in the industry are cancelled if allegations are levied at them. The ambiguity of Cliff’s innocence leaves it to the viewer to decide, which may be the comment the movie is trying to make: it is ultimately left up to the public to decide whether someone is guilty, when not provided with enough evidence. However, I personally feel that if this idea was featured more prominently it would have diluted the overall theme.