REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the fading Golden Age of Hollywood of the late 1960’s


Tarantino’s 9th film is an ephemeral glimpse of a Hollywood that might have been; one grounded in the last gasps of the changing world of 1960’s Hollywood.

I’ve often said that the 1970s were the last true golden age of Hollywood filmmaking. The era of the auteur filmmaker that told personal stories that studios got behind because they respected the personal vision of the filmmaker and the relationship they built with the audience. From filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, to Michael Cimino and Martin Scorsese, audiences found a filmmaker’s voice and followed them from genre to genre and film to film because their point of view was compelling and promised a unique voice that was entertaining and captured the zeitgeist of that time. But as is often the case, that voice could and, in many cases, did become less vibrant over time. One can only have their finger on the pulse for so long before they second-guess themselves or feel that they’re becoming obsolete or less relevant. I would argue Quentin Tarantino is one of the last pure auteurs left in the modern Hollywood machine; a voice that jumps genres and reinvigorates them while using them to make solid stories that no one else does. Tarantino has created worthy entries in the film noir, kung fu, war epic, and western genres and made them relevant by telling compelling human stories with flair and dialogue that speaks of their moment in history while showing while they were important to modern eyes. In his 9th film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Tarantino creates both an elegy for a time and place that both existed and never was, but also a contemplation on the life of a creative. Is it better to go out on one’s own terms, rather than let yourself be lessened by continuing on a path just because you can do so.

One Upon A Time in Hollywood essentially has two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, the star of a popular 1950’s western television show called Bounty Law who now bounces from guest star role to guest star role on television due to the film career he left Bounty Law for not panning out. The other lead is Brad Pitt as Rick’s former stunt double turned gopher, Cliff Booth. Booth lives for the chance to try and make a go of a stunt career but has a personal cloud over him that makes stunt people reticent to hire him despite his relationship with Rick. When we meet Booth and Dalton over February 28th and 29th of 1969, Dalton has been approached by film producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) about the possibility of Rick going to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns, which Dalton sees as the death of his Hollywood career. Booth tries to spur him on, as this would provide him an opportunity he doesn’t have in Hollywood, as he’s essentially been blacklisted having blown his last opportunity after an on-set incident with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet in 1966. Booth spends most of his days running errands for Rick; he also carries on a playful flirtation with a disaffected hippie girl named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who lives at a commune at the dilapidated Spahn Movie Ranch centered around a charismatic leader named Charlie (Damon Herriman). As we follow Booth and Dalton on their way down, we also follow his neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a fresh-faced actress just married to director Roman Polanski, as she explores West L.A. for the day, coming across a screening of her latest film, The Wrecking Crew, at the Mann Bruin and happy to see her film with a crowd.

Without spoiling much more, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is the only one of his films besides Jackie Brown to not use chapter breaks between scenes. It’s very inspired by verite, as we essentially just follow the film’s two leads without too much of a driving storyline behind them. Dalton struggles with his relevancy as an actor, while Booth essentially tries to be a good person and go about his day, though there’s enough darkness in his actions that the audience can see there’s a dark subtext to him regardless of how he presents himself. Robbie’s Tate seems to be more of a symbolic character. The camera loves Robbie and she embodies a spirit of her age, but she seems a charismatic and kind invocation of the real Tate, who we see in the film as Tarantino doesn’t edit Tate out of the scenes of her films he shows in the film or stage recreations. The invocation of Hollywood past is something that rings very true throughout the film. It’s a meditation on a Hollywood that never was but that Tarantino brings to life through set dressing, inspired location scouting, as well as brilliant cinematography and lighting. The world Tarantino creates seems shockingly real, especially as a native Angeleno. Seeing the lit-up windmill of Van De Kamp’s Coffee Shop, something I saw every day as a kid until it was torn down and replaced by a Carl’s Jr., elicited an audible gasp from me. There’s been much made about Tarantino asking people not to spoil the film’s final act. Overall, the less you know the better, but the film’s denouement really makes the film’s title come into crystal clarity. This is one of Tarantino’s best crafted and best-acted films, one that crafts a fully realized world and characters that you’re happy to have spent two hours and forty-six minutes with and would like more time with to get to know them a bit more. Make sure you stay until the very end.