While “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood” has been in release for less than a month, many film lovers already are calling it Quentin Tarantino’s finest film.
It’s a rich evocation of the lost Hollywood world of Tarantino’s past, the 1969 of 6-year-old Quentin, reimagined through adult eyes while still retaining that sense of neon wonder he felt as a boy.
One of the reasons this movie is being talked about so much is the extravagantly vivid visual world Tarantino has fashioned, a kind of cinematic garden of earthly delights, while it’s narrative style mimics countless Western movies and television serials.
This will not surprise anyone familiar with the film, as it deals with a washed-up television Western star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who by the late 60s has lost his series, “Bounty Law,” and is struggling to find regular work in the TV or movie business.
Once a celluloid hero, Rick has been reduced to playing sordid villains in whatever show will hire him. A hard drinker fallen on hard times, he leans on his stunt double and best friend and sardonic sort of comic sidekick, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), for moral support.
Cliff tries, and it isn’t easy. But Cliff, a possible wife killer who hasn’t a dime to his name and lives with his pit bull Brandy in a shabby trailer behind a seedy drive-in movie, eventually emerges as the movie’s unlikely hero, who not only rescues his friend but saves the life of beautiful actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), wife of director Roman Polanski, rescuing her and her friends and her unborn baby from the malign Manson “family,” on Aug. 8-9 1969.
In the end, “Once Upon a Time…” is a work of startling imagination, a “What if?” revisionist history in which the historical Sharon Tate is saved from her horrific fate in real life at the same time Rick Dalton’s dying movie career seems to be coming back to life.
A clue as to how this all comes about turns on an old black and white TV interview from the “Bounty Law” days. The TV reporter asks Rick to explain what Cliff, his stunt double, actually does on a set. “Actors are required to do a lot of dangerous stuff,” says Rick. “Cliff here, is meant to carry the load.” The reporter asks, is that “how you’d describe yourself, Cliff?” And Cliff responds, “What, carry his load? Yeah, that’s about right.” And we find ourselves laughing with Rick and reflecting with Cliff because as we come to know, Cliff doesn’t just carry Rick’s “load,” but he carries the life of Sharon Tate, and the “load” of history, and a new future for a gravely stricken Hollywood, on his back, and in his wounded body.
What an unlikely hero the sidekick Cliff is. He’s often an invisible presence on the screen, both there and not there, the hidden side of Hollywood’s history. In that sense, Cliff is like the off-screen protagonist of what may be John Ford’s greatest Western movie, the deeply affecting “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). In that movie, the John Wayne figure Tom Doniphon makes possible the creation of the New West, and in the act of doing so dooms himself and the old romantic outlaw West he so embodies, and the woman he loves but never can be reconciled to.
Similarly, film lover Tarentino has Cliff Booth rescue Rick, and then Sharon Tate, from the Manson cult, sacrificing himself in the process. For he, like Tom Doniphon, possesses mythic powers, evocative of the heroes of Greek mythology, like Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks (Brad Pitt coincidentally played him in the 2004 film “Troy”).
Tarantino also creates an idealized, mythic Sharon Tate (she was beautiful and loving and kind), but also shows her in her everyday world. Just one of the girls. For Tarantino, the tragedy of Sharon’s death was made even more unbearable by his depiction of her in her happy everyday life. That is why she has such a profound impact on those around her and on Tarantino’s film. Viewers are left with a sense of what might have been.
I could go on writing about this complex, remarkable film. I do know from the many articles and blog posts and chat rooms and podcasts that have sprung like mushrooms only weeks after this film was released, that it is not going to go away. Even as it concerns traumatic historical events, symbolized by the Manson murders, it is a film full of comedy, of joy, and of heart. It is, and without sentimentality, the sweetest thing this side of Hollywood Heaven.
Oh and yes, if you love bloody marys with celery stalks, you will love this movie!
Simons is professor emeritus of the English Department at Colorado College.