I liked Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood quite a bit when it came out. It made my top ten of the year, clocking in at number eight. Yet despite this, I didn’t leave the cinema loving the movie. I thought it was on the lower end of Tarantino’s filmography. Yet there was something different with this movie than anything that Tarantino has done so far: I kept thinking about it. Days, weeks, years later. It’s the rare movie that I come back to, reflect on and debate in my mind. Now, just over two years later, how does all this reflection, debate and repeat viewings help Hollywood?
One of the joys of watching and writing about movies is seeing how your thoughts on a particular subject can change over time. Maybe you grow into something or grow out of it as time goes on and to say that such a thing doesn’t happen would be naive to say. It’s great to be allowed to grow with a film over time and that’s exactly what’s happened to me with Hollywood.
When I went to the theater to watch Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood when it first came out, I went into it thinking it was “the Tarantino movie about the Tate/LaBianca murders”. The trailers were intentionally vague and all the interviews and press surrounding the movie made it seem like the movie would focus on the Manson Family Cult, Sharon Tate and how two Hollywood actors got mixed up with all that. The movie, as you probably know by now, is very much, not that story. And I think once you know that, and know that the movie is a hangout movie, you begin to appreciate the story (or lack thereof) Tarantino was putting on display for us.
Upon rewatching Once Upon A Time twice now since that time on the big screen, I’ve grown to really love what Tarantino did with his movie. This isn’t so much a true crime story or a character driven commentary on Hollywood circa 1969, but a hangout flick between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a Hollywood has-been relegated to playing the villain on the week on episodic television, and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt-double/valet/bodyguard/gopher.
Knowing that this movie isn’t about much of anything makes you appreciate the finer details in subsequent viewings. This movie is made for those who like movies. A scene between Rick and Cliff, where they kickback over a beer and watch an episode of FBI on a Sunday evening is gold. It adds absolutely nothing to the movie, but at the same time it does for those who consume media the way these two do. Likewise, Cliff’s scene at Spahn Ranch is absolutely tense, even on repeat viewings where we know that George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is safe. The film makes a point of showing us how tough and cold Cliff can be and then tosses him into the lion’s den. We don’t know if he’s going to join up with Manson’s little family or if Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), the individual who tried to kill President Ford, will be his downfall. The wideshots give way to closer Dutch angles, which further add to the sense of unease.
The set design for the movie is also incredible. Tarantino brings us right back to 1969, showing us familiar landmarks and streets filled with billboards, cars and buildings from the era. Nothing feels staged and it’s a meticulous recreation of the period. He does all of this practically too, as Tarantino is not a fan of using CGI. In a chat with Joe Rogan, he stated that he shut down Hollywood Boulevard for a day simply to get the shots he needed, which naturally featured copious amounts of set dressing to bring it all to life. This could have easily been done on a lot with a set and a green screen, but Tarantino wanted to make it feel authentic. Likewise, the movie is brought to life with some wonderful cinematography, shot on film by Tarantino regular Robert Richardson, who aside from using 35mm for the movie, also uses 16mm and Super 8 for inserts like the clip from Rick’s show Bounty Law. To casual audiences, this may seem random, pretentious or bizarre, but it’s a real treat to watch this kind of love of cinema brought to life. This is a movie that feels like it was dragged out of the late 60s and given an HD coat of paint and a dose of ultra-violence.
If there’s anything that brings the movie down, it’s ironically the use of Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate in the movie. Not that she doesn’t honour the character, not at all, but Robbie isn’t given much to do with Tate in the movie. As such, her limited screen time, which in of itself is limited to her largely enjoying life, doesn’t contribute much to the movie. Tate going to watch her own movie is admittedly, a strong scene considering real-life events, but following her as she picks up a book for Roman Polanski doesn’t really feel like it contributes anything. Robbie gets third billing on the cast sheet, but I feel like Tarantino could have trimmed some of Tate’s scenes down and the fairy tale ending for the late actress would’ve been the same, as Tarantino once again changes history regardless of how much time we spend with Tate in the movie.
In the end though, I’m glad that I’ve given the movie another chance. Being prepared for a buddy Hollywood hangout movie allows me to sit back and bask in all the catnip Tarantino has put on screen. Hollywood is a wonderfully well acted, well executed movie that got better with time and for me personally, has jumped up very high on the all-time ranking of Tarantino movies.