By Joe Scott
The most noteworthy scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” occurs near the halfway point. During a casual outing, Sharon Tate (brought to life with effortless grace by Margot Robbie) visits a theater that is playing her latest film “The Wrecking Crew.” Incognito, she joins the audience and quietly observes them as they appreciate her performance, laughing along to the moments of physical comedy. Then, at a later point in the film, she can do nothing but smile when they cheer at her display of martial arts bravado.
Many critics have latched onto this scene, and for good reason. A celebration of a life devoted to the arts, the power movies and cinema culture in general, it basically sums up what the entire film is about.
When “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was first announced, Tarantino fans (myself included) were expecting yet another wall-to-wall action yarn chock full of the writer-director’s trademark rat-a-tat dialogue. True crime fans were expecting a grisly exploration into the Manson family murders. That the film delivers neither of these things and wholly succeeds makes for one of the most pleasurable surprises that I’ve had in a movie theater in a very long time.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might be set in the late 1960s, but it’s as much of a comment on the American culture of today. A takedown of our nation’s ever-burgeoning obsession with true crime, which frequently seeks to understand, and occasionally exalt violent murderers while simultaneously erasing the lives and identities of their victims. This is exactly what happened to Sharon Tate, a talented bright flame in our world who was extinguished way before her prime by the murderous, deluded Manson family. Compounding this tragedy, over the last fifty years, she has been subsequently reduced to a footnote in the many books, TV films, movies and podcasts that have been more interested in the lives and aspirations of her killers.
Indeed, Tarantino himself once had a similar obsession with mass murderers. At the very beginning of his own career, he was the writer of the Oliver Stone film “Natural Born Killers,” a gleefully violent story of two killers set during the tabloid TV news boom of the ‘90s. That film was highly controversial during the time it was made, however, I’d argue that it’s nearly unwatchable today.
To see the young, aspiring filmmaker who wrote “Natural Born Killers” mature into the accomplished, award-winning filmmaker who created “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a mark of personal growth we do not get to witness very often among artists. A younger Tarantino might have delivered a film that was equally, if not more obsessed with Charles Manson than any of his victims, but with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he has been reduced to a mere blip. A cameo appearance portrayed by actor Damon Herriman in one fleeting moment only to never been seen or heard from again.
As for the Manson ‘Family,’ they are the objects of ridicule, portrayed as idealistic nerdowells. Do nothings who devote their lives to dumpster diving, fucking and watching TV all day only to have the gall to become vilently offended with the world for not being what they think they deserve.
But the entitled, highly-deluded members of the Manson family are not the only people who feel the world has given them short shrift. Leonardo DiCaprio leads the film’s ensemble cast as Rick Dalton, a TV cowboy and wannabe film star who operates at three speeds: 1) At his best, memorizing his lines, overcoming a bit of a stammer and working to master his craft as an actor. 2) At his most benign, hanging out and enjoying drinks with his best buddy/stunt man Cliff (Brad Pitt). 3) And at his worst, getting completely wasted and hating himself for an overall career trajectory that did not soar as high as he might have hoped.
Rick’s disappointment is frequently contrasted with Cliff’s perpetual gratitude. Suspected of murdering his own wife and getting away with it scott free, Frank’s gigs as a stuntman might be drying up, but he seems happy to eke out a living as his friend’s makeshift driver and handyman. Living in a ramshackle trailer behind a drive-in movie theater with a pitbull who is nearly half the size of his kitchen, Frank’s life could be a motivational video for finding contentment in even the most meagre of existences if he wasn’t, well, dogged by such a horrible allegation.
Having both Di Caprio and Pitt acting so many scenes together in a movie for the very first time, one might expect their scenes to be peppered with grand verbosity that has perhaps distinguished Tarantino’s career more than anything else -- but that’s not the case. Many of the scenes Di Caprio and Pitt share together are mostly silent depictions of two old friends riding in cars, doing their perspective jobs and watching Rick’s guest appearances as bad guys on crappy TV shows.
This defiance of expectations might lead many Tarantino devotees to feel disappointed by this film. Indeed that was almost true of even myself until the film won me over at the halfway point and then converted me into a full blown believer with its pitch-perfect, stellar final act.
Speaking of the final act, the ending is so deliriously bombastic and yet tender at the same time that when I actually watched the film again one day after I first saw it, all the qualms I had felt during my initial viewing had been erased. What was left was an appreciation of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” for what it was -- a meditation by a master storyteller about his obsessions, his regrets, his creativity and even some of his mistakes -- all smoothly distilled into visual cognac that belongs high on the shelf among his very best achievements to date.