Quentin Tarantino, to put it mildly, is a unique talent. His nine films share the same characteristic love of banter, the slow rachet of tension, and the sheen of Tinseltown past. He loves old celluloid so much that he encourages filmgoers to find theaters showing his productions in 35mm, on a film camera, the way movies used to be shown.
I was lucky enough to see Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, QT’s penultimate picture, in that glorious old format, screen crackling and vibrating, the occasional spot on the film, authentic and real.
Tarantino’s crafted this time a love letter to old Hollywood, the era that influenced his sensibilities. But it speaks to modern LA as well. And LA ought to listen.
The star is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a moderately decent actor. Some Hollywood producer suggests to Rick that he should go star in spaghetti Westerns. Rick, who has a high opinion of who he should be, is a tad bit offended. He then spends most of the film hilariously working through his insecurity over the fact that he might not be the supposedly incredible actor he once thought was.
Rick isn’t the hero, though. He’s just the star, stumbling incoherently and haltingly through the story. The hero is one Cliff Booth, Rick’s long suffering stunt double, played laconically by Brad Pitt. Pitt is a straight-shooter and a hard worker, honest and courageous, a man of habit and humility with a very good dog. He drives Rick everywhere, strokes his ego, and faithfully remains by his side – even when Rick treats him less like a friend and more like a manservant.
The long (and I mean LONG) tale Tarantino weaves takes us onto film sets with Rick and Cliff, down neon streets with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, who is perfect), and onto the famed Spahn Movie Ranch – home of a curious set of young girls who all talk breathlessly about “Charlie.”
I will spoil nothing, but given that last paragraph, you might know what happens by the end. Or maybe you just think you do. Tarantino loves to gleefully disregard history’s goings-on and blindside his audience with something awesome instead. It’s the correct way to subvert expectations.
This is probably Tarantino’s most private movie, in the sense that it’s a celebrated filmmaker turning his gaze to his own industry. He lays bare some important truths, seen through the eyes of his performers, that Hollywood should hear and we should know.
First, actors? Don’t take yourselves so seriously. Your job is to entertain, but too much naval-gazing and you’ll turn into the eight-year-old girl Rick meets guest starring on a Western TV show, spouting paeans to the craft of acting rather than acting your age. You have one of the most fun jobs in the world. You get to bring joy to millions of people by pretending to be someone you’re not. The expression of delight on Sharon Tate’s face when she goes to theater showing one of her films and the audience laughs as she pratfalls onscreen is so pure and heartwarming. She acts to delight them, not to live up to an imagined standard of excellence.
Second, all of Hollywood? There’s lots of folks just adjacent to the silver screen, hardscrabble dutiful guys like Cliff, who don’t get their due. It’s a crime that stunt performers don’t receive Oscars when many of the most death-defying moments in the movies are theirs. Even in this film’s version of “real life,” Cliff’s the one who takes the bumps while Rick occasionally contributes.
But lastly, this movie’s lengthy look at Hollywood serves both to display its insularity from the rest of America – and indeed the world – and (unfortunately) bore its audience. I glanced at my watch a bunch. I never did that in Pulp Fiction or either Kill Bill movie. I love Tarantino, but the inside-jokey nature of this flick places it out of reach for application to most of our lives, like a story from a foreign land. Maybe that’s the point, but it’s a tedious way to make it.