Advertised as a film about the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is also the dividing line between the technicolor optimism of the American Dream and the harsh, black flipside of a violent, undercurrent reality in our society. The Manson Family scared the hell out of America; the murders were viscous and unimaginable. While not portrayed in the film, by the end of the 1960s, the horror of Vietnam was played out on television during the dinner hour every night. The fun and hopefulness of Camelot of the early decade was skewing toward drugs, violence and a lost generation of American youth.
I was prepared to dislike this film, I skipped it when it premiered and made no effort to see it later. For reasons unknown, I grabbed it at the library to watch on a weekend. The graphic violence in Tarantino films has always bothered me. I prepared myself for more of the same.
Quentin Tarantino has made only nine films, but each of them is an event, and he commands such provisions as future film negative ownership, final cut and creative control, and 25 percent of first dollar film gross. Major player rights.
Tarantino films often bring multiple storylines and nonlinear storytelling from various points of view. One has to pay attention or be lost in the story progression. Tarantino, like Martin Scorsese, threads his narrative carefully into a cinematic quilt that is greater than the sum of the episodes.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is basically three interrelated stories. It takes place in 1969, on the eve of the Tate-Lo Bianca murders by the Manson Family. The film fictionalizes the life of real life actress Sharon Tate, mixing it with the fiction characters Rick Dalton, her neighbor, and Dalton’s stuntman double Cliff Booth. Tarantino goes to great effort to recreate the period, certainly from the visual look, to the color tones, fashions and hair, the soundtrack music, television and radio commercials, and the cultural vibe of the times.
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is portrayed trying to grow her career from eye-candy and bit parts into significant acting roles. She was almost too beautiful to be real, hence her challenge in being taken seriously. Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski, lived in the house where Manson had looked for music producer Terry Melcher, who along with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, had momentarily taken an interest in Manson’s music.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to hold onto his sinking acting career, once starring in films, then a television show, now doing television series guest roles. He gets an offer to go to Italy to star in a spaghetti Western, which would lead to more films, but not a long-term solution to his sagging Hollywood career.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) lives on the cusp of the dark side of Los Angeles. He was cleared in an accidental death of his wife, and now struggles to find work in an industry that has little use for him. Booth crosses path with the Manson Family at Spahn Movie Ranch, a freakish and ugly scene, that puts Booth in the cross-hairs of the Manson Family. Bruce Dern plays George Spahn, owner of the ranch, where films and television shows were filmed.
The Manson Family has taken over the Spahn ranch for their commune. The part of Spahn was originally to be played by Burt Reynolds, who died before filming. The Booth character was said to be patterned on stuntman/director Hal Needham, a close friend and collaborator of Reynolds.
There is a lot to like in this film, the attention to detail by Tarantino in recreating the era and blending fact and fiction together into a compelling story. The film leads up to the Tate murders, by members of Manson Family, a point of epic darkness in American history. Those murders, along with the LoBianco murders, forever changed America. In the film, the Manson Family, out to murder everyone in the old Melcher house, are confronted by Dalton outside of his house. They recognize Dalton, and after some discussion, decide to kill him in a bit of irony, as he and others featured killing in their television shows. In this bit of alternate reality, it is the Manson Family who come out on the short end in this revisionist story.
I ended up appreciating this film much more than I originally thought. Do not judge this film on past Tarantino films, which I had. I found more subtlety in his storytelling, which made for a stronger experience. Instead of beating you over the head with flash, repetition and graphic imagery, Tarantino pulls back, and the effect is powerfully effective. There is also subtlety in his use of 1960s culture, instead of being too showy and announcing how brilliant it is, Tarantino keeps a lot of it at the edge of the background. There is depth and reward in how rich the texture of his use of 1960s is in this film.
Any treatment of Manson and his cult is risky business in my mind. If you lived through that era and struggled to understand it, the impact hangs heavy, more than 50 years later. Manson, Vietnam and the riots of 1968 changed the entire vibe of what the 1960s started out to represent. Even the Beatles did not survive the decade. See the film if you have not.