Reflections on "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie


A video presentation of this material is available here.


The first point to make about "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is that, absorbing though it is, it does not have much of a plot. Essentially it is a snapshot, a la Tarantino, of Hollywood and its multitude of influences on popular culture in 1969, though there is a nod toward a linking plotline by incorporating references to the real-life Manson Family and the infamous murders they committed at that time. However, even that unifying plotline based on historical figures is manipulated and altered to suit Mr Tarantino's vision for his film.

The film consists largely of a nostalgic revisiting of the atmosphere, fashions, music, films, television, transport, language and mores of what is frequently referred to as the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Virtually every scene recalls some element of the time in which it is set and that alone makes the film highly enjoyable for viewers of a certain age. We also encounter numerous actors and personalities of the time, adding to the sense of nostalgia and giving the audience some insight into their true natures, as perceived by Mr Tarantino.

All this is conveyed principally through the experiences of Rick Dalton, a former TV star whose career is on the wane, and Cliff Booth, Rick's loyal and down-to-earth stuntman and friend. These characters, their relationship and their dealings with others are quite brilliantly captured and conveyed. There can be no doubt whatsoever about Quentin Tarantino's talent as a writer. In this film, as in his others, he creates complex characters whose traits, strengths, weaknesses and quirks are all conveyed in exchanges with others without recourse to direct exposition. We have a clear idea of what makes these characters tick through their dialogue and their attitudes displayed in interaction with others.

Though recognisably derived from the careers of a couple of Hollywood icons, Rick is nonetheless his own character - he is sensitive but ambitious, talented but self-doubting and confident yet given to angst and stress. He stammers slightly when dealing with his own affairs yet speaks clearly and confidently when in character, suggesting he is at ease only in others' skins.

Cliff, on the other hand, seems entirely happy in his own skin. He is quietly confident, does not impose his views but is willing to express himself and act on his convictions as required, and is loyal, reasonable, realistic and unburdened by huge ambition or ego. He appears to be happy with his modest lot and is Rick's best friend.

They appear to balance, complement and enable one another, allowing each to be more successful than he would be without the other's input. Cliff offers a calm foundation to Rick's anxiety-laden but talented aspiration. In the end, Cliff deals with reality, values and action while actor Rick deals with ego, people and direction. Combined, they make an effective unit.

Brad Pitt is convincingly natural and thoroughly engaging as the solid, self-assured stuntman and friend who may serve as a source of security and authenticity for his friend and employer, Rick. Leonardo DiCaprio is equally impressive as the sensitive and angst-ridden Rick, capturing the insecurity, skill and drive of a dedicated and ambitious actor.

In contrast to Rick's tortured approach to acting and fame, we see Sharon Tate enjoying her stardom and gaining pleasure and satisfaction from the audience reaction to her scenes with Dean Martin in "The Wrecking Crew", a light and breezy James Bond pastiche. Quentin Tarantino may have intended us to draw comparisons between this airy and undemanding approach to film-making and acting, Rick's desperate and self-absorbed efforts to prepare and get into character and, of course, the calculating, intelligent and professional 8-year-old Trudi Fraser (who may represent the coolly analytical younger generation of actors).

However, all of them compare badly to Cliff who may be Quentin Tarantino's most admirable character to date as he behaves like a thoughtful and caring human being while the others act and indulge themselves. I wonder if Mr Tarantino is pointing out the difference between reality and facade.

Tarantino's characters are always clearly defined, quirky and memorable, even his minor characters, and thus the interaction between them is always entertaining and of interest even if their encounters don't always serve to immediately advance the storyline. He has the talent and confidence to spend time establishing and developing character rather than constantly drive forward the plot.

Of course, this can be a difficult balancing act to achieve. While the building of character may strengthen emotional and intellectual engagement with the figures in a film, if that film seems to be going nowhere or lack any clear or consistent direction, such engagement will tend to dissipate. Mr Tarantino does seem to invest heavily in characterisation, often at the expense of pace and plot development.

At various points in this film he injects, very effectively, unease and even foreboding with regard to the Manson Family. He creates a sense of danger and threat, though this is not really in keeping with the atmosphere of the rest of the film and it doesn't provide an effective story arc that might have drawn together the various component parts. Each element works very well, but they don't blend to make a harmonious and integrated whole.

The confrontation at the end of the film involves members of the Manson Family and although this is outrageously entertaining, it is certainly not in keeping with historical fact. It was only as the end titles appeared that it struck me Mr Tarantino was perhaps tilting at Hollywood's tendency to re-write history and has provided a satisfying ending in which the perpetrators of a hideous and savage crime get their comeuppance, while the positive and touching portrayal of Sharon Tate serves to underline the tragedy and brutality of her murder. That said, within the framework of the film, this ending does rather call in to question the need for her very presence in the film.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film as I was watching it - I found virtually every scene involving and entertaining. It was only on reflection that I began to question its narrative strength and overall direction. Mr Tarantino's great and undeniable strength is his writing of characters and their interplay, but they are not always supported by a lucid, engaging and consistent storyline. He has utter belief and confidence in his own judgment, imagination and constructed world. He exercises control over and teases his audience as he effortlessly and entertainingly dips into elements of different genres and explores character and relationships, but the danger is that substance and relevance may fall victim to his playful and often self-indulgent direction.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article - I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

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