I haven't been excited about a new movie in years – that is, until a year or two ago, when I first heard about the making of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I wouldn't call myself a big Quentin Tarantino fan, but the thought of the writer/director taking on the Manson Family murders – while painstakingly restoring Hollywood to its smoggy 1969 glory – was irresistible. I couldn't wait to see the film. I even shelled out the extra bucks to watch it in 70mm at the Cinerama Dome.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given all the hype that surrounded its making, but when Hollywood's end credits rolled, I felt a bit underwhelmed by what I had just seen. Frankly, the film is so surprisingly intimate that, given its maker, its A-list cast, and its incendiary subject matter, one might feel a little let down by its lack of consequence. Yet a week later, it's haunting me in a way that no Tarantino film, save perhaps Inglourious Basterds (still his best work), has done before.
The depth of Tarantino's soul remains a mystery – part of me still suspects he simply wanted to take on the Manson Family like he took on the Nazis in Basterds and Southern slave owners in Django Unchained because he thought it would be neat – so I'm hesitant to read too much into Hollywood. Yet there is definitely something affecting about the film, even if it takes a week to hit you.
The story chronicles 2-3 days in the lives of three showbiz characters: fictitious TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), worried that the vogues of "New Hollywood" have doomed his old-fashioned performance style; Rick's stuntman/buddy/valet Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), pondering the end of his own career; and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), in real life the Manson Family's most famous victim, depicted here as a bubbly young star and mother-to-be with nothing but promise in her life.
As these three main characters are mostly just shown going through their daily routines, with barely any scenes together, Hollywood is a weirdly lonely film, at times profoundly so. Tate may be on top of the world, but her famous husband Roman Polanski barely registers; Tate's biggest scene is with the staff of a movie theater showing The Wrecking Crew, a forgettable Dean Martin vehicle with Tate in a small role. Cliff, meanwhile, seems content with being a lone wolf – his dog is his only friend besides Rick – but, like Tate, he drifts through this world, untethered. As for Rick, although he interacts with other showbiz folk throughout the film, his self-doubt isolates him. (Even when he gets himself a wife, halfway through the film, she seems inconsequential.) How intentional this pervasive loneliness is, only Quentin Tarantino knows for sure. But he clearly prefers these loners over his film's only loyal, tight-knit group: the Manson Family.
While anyone who's seen a Tarantino picture can predict the ending, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does mark a departure from the revenge-driven plots of his last few films. In fact it suggests that the story of showbiz is one of chance encounters, and the fortunes that change as a result. In the real world, the horrifying end of Sharon Tate and her friends was essentially a random occurrence. In Tarantino's world, this appalling event could have gone any other way at any other moment, just like everything else in Hollywood. But the film doesn't ask us to forget that it didn't – if anything, by bathing Robbie's Tate in sunshine and happiness, it serves as a gift to the slain actress, allowing her to live forever in the joy that history took away from her.