“When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, no, I went to films.”
Spoken by Quentin Tarantino during a 2004 BBC News interview, conducted by Andrew Walker.
When I sat down to watch the film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” written and directed by two time Oscar winner Quentin Tarantino, I had several questions on my mind, all regarding the same subject: How was he going to film the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends? Would there be graphic violence or would he imply what was taking place through other means? As great as Tarantino is, could he bring a fresh approach to material that had been covered numerous times before? During the entire film, I knew that whatever was taking place, would eventually culminate with the horrific events of August 9, 1969. (As an aside: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Tarantino’s ninth film; the reason I bring that fact up, is that he has hinted that he will leave directing after he has completed ten films).
The film takes place in 1969, Los Angeles. Rick Dalton, a veteran actor, portrayed by versatile, Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), is facing the realization that his career as a leading man is coming to an unceremonious end. The work he has received, since starring as a cowboy, bounty hunter, in the television show “Bounty Law,” for NBC, is that of the heavy, on various shows, such as “F.B.I.” One glimmer of hope, offered to Rick, which can possibly get him out of playing the roles of bad guys, is producer, Marvin Schwarz, played by Oscar winner Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman). Schwarz has recently watched some of Rick’s films, and thinks he would be a great fit for Italian spaghetti westerns. Rick is grateful to Schwarz in person, but disconsolate when he is outside of his presence, nearly breaking down in tears at the thought of his career having succumbed to starring, in what he feels, are subpar films.
Rick relies heavily on the services of his stunt double, employee and friend, Cliff Booth, portrayed by Oscar winner Brad Pitt (12 Years a Slave). Cliff drives Rick, who after receiving too many DUI’s has had his drivers license revoked. Furthermore, he also runs errands for Rick, acts as a springboard – listening and offering advice – and he fixes things around Rick’s house. Cliff, admits that he’s happy to spend time with Rick and do things for him, which is not a surprise, given, that he hasn’t been getting much work, since rumors began spreading that he killed his wife. DiCaprio and Pitt have fantastic on-screen chemistry; there wasn’t a false note to either of their performances, throughout the film.
The house where Rick lives happens to be on Cielo Drive, right next door to where, a pregnant, Sharon Tate, a role acted by three time BAFTA nominee Margot Robbie (Mary Queen of Scots), and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) are renting. The house on 10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, located north of Beverly Hills, California, would become an infamous location. Abigail Folger, the heiress to the Folger coffee fortune; her boyfriend, Wojciech Frykowski; Steven Parent, a teenager, who was visiting his friend; the property’s caretaker, William Garretson; celebrity, hair stylist, Jay Sebring; and actress, Sharon Tate were all brutally murdered there. They were killed by Susan Atkins, A.K.A Sadie; Patricia Krenwinkel, A.K.A. Katie; and Charles Watson, A.K.A Tex. The three were members of Charles Manson’s delusional clan. (As an aside: In the film, the following actors and actresses portrayed the aforementioned: Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson); Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin); Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch); Charles “Tex” Watson (Austin Butler); Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison); and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty).
The story as a whole is not about the killings or Manson’s followers. Instead, it is about the journey taken by Rick, Cliff, and Sharon, that culminates in the climax of the film. The murderers and their warped leader, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), exist, for the most part, at the fringes of the film, only appearing on occasion. For example, on the way back from picking Rick up from a filming location, Cliff first spots a raven haired, hippie girl walking with other female hippies. They are singing a song about togetherness, after just having searched through the dumpster behind a grocery store in order to find discarded food to eat. Cliff spots Pussycat, as she will come to be known, played by Emmy nominee Margaret Qualley (Fosse/Verdon), several times, attempting to hitchhike, and, on one occasion, he finally has time to give her ride. His interest in her is raised, when she mentions that she is going to Spahn Ranch, where he used to work.
After arriving at the ranch with Pussycat, Cliff’s not pleased by what he sees. There are hippies everywhere. While at the ranch, he meets family members Gypsy, a small role acted by Golden Globe winner Lena Dunham (Girls) and Tex, who are friendly to him, informing him, based on the answers he gives to their questions, that Charlie is going to love him. Things, however, don’t sit right with Cliff, especially when he asks Manson family member Squeaky Fromme, played by Dakota Fanning (The Alienist), if he can say hello to the owner of the ranch, George Spahn. Squeaky makes excuses as to why it is not a good time for Cliff to see George, but Cliff’s not leaving until he does. He wants to make sure George is okay with the people who are residing on his ranch. Cliff’s actions anger the family. During this scene, Tarantino conveys enough eeriness, so that a viewer, who perhaps is unfamiliar with the history of the Manson family, gets the sense that these hippies, are not all about peace and love, but have a darker agenda. Will Cliff and the Manson family’s paths cross again? I’ll let those of you, who haven’t watched the film, find that out for yourselves.
Trivia buffs take note: There is a scene in the film where Robbie’s character goes to a theater, that is showing the 1968 film “The Wrecking Crew,” which starred Golden Globe winner Dean Martin (The Dean Martin Show). Sharon Tate, who was in the film, appears several times on screen. Tarantino opted to keep the footage of the real Sharon Tate, as opposed to filming Robbie acting the same scenes. Two time Golden Globe winner Burt Reynolds (Evening Shade), was originally cast in the film to play Spahn Ranch owner, George Spahn, but after Reynolds passed away, he was replaced by two time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern (Nebraska). Quentin Tarantino spent five years writing the screenplay for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood;” he had originally intended it to be a novel. The logo for Colombia Pictures, which appears at the beginning of the film, was the one that was in use in 1969. The title for the movie is an ode to Golden Globe nominee Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America). Tarantino has stated, that Leone is one of his favorite directors, and that his work has had a tremendous influence on his career.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France on May 21, 2019. Parts comedy and drama, it has a runtime of a 161 minutes. The original length of the film, before edited, was four hours and twenty minutes. In addition to the cast members, 1969 Los Angeles becomes a character in and of itself. The cinematography by three time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (Hugo) does an outstanding job of capturing the time period to make that happen. Tarantino’s keen eye for detail is on display; he populates the film with vintage cars, product placements, and the way signs on certain store fronts and restaurants looked at the time. In addition, there is the inclusion of celebrity personalities such as Steve McQueen, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Damian Lewis (Homeland) and Bruce Lee played by Mike Moh. The soundtrack, as per usual, with a Tarantino film, synchs up perfectly with what is transpiring on screen. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is truly Tarantino’s love letter to cinema; and while it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, it should impress and please his fans immensely.