Worlds Collide in Quentin Tarantino’s Wild Ride Thru the Summer of ’69
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
An aging movie actor and his faithful stuntman find themselves on a collision course with fate in Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling, deliciously detailed ode to Hollywood’s faded glories.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director’s 10th film, is set in the sweltering summer of 1969—a major moment in time in which the world was churning and turning, if not burning, in several ways. The Beatles were breaking up in England, men were walking on the moon, the war in Vietnam was raging, Woodstock was grooving in upstate New York.
In Hollywood, there’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose box-office star once shone bright in action-packed movies, and as the lead of his own Western TV series. But now Rick is relegated to guest roles, often as a villain, on other people’s prime-time hits—like The F.B.I, Mannix and The Green Hornet—and he soaks his faltering acting career in booze.
Since Rick lost his license to the bottle, he’s driven around by his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Cliff lives in a dingy trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In, with his rust-colored pit bull, Brandy. On Rick’s cul-de-sac at the end of Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, just north of Beverly Hills, he’s jazzed to discover that his new next-door neighbors are Polish director Roman Polanski and his wife, aspiring actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
On one of their jaunts around town, Rick and Cliff see a bunch of young hippie chicks, dumpster diving in shorty-short cut-off jeans and halter tops. Rick is disgusted, but Cliff is intrigued. Later, he’ll give one of them a ride. Turns out she lives in a commune with a guy named Charlie—as in Charlie Manson.
You probably already know, or can guess, where all this is headed—to a fateful intersection with the horrific events of Aug. 8, 1969, when Manson’s followers went on a killing spree and slaughtered Sharon Tate and four others in her home. But Tarantino’s never felt strictly beholden to facts. Remember, this is the director who blew up Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Don’t hold him to historical record.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a title that begins like a fairy tale, a fable or a children’s bedtime story, is an ode to a golden, gilded age of Hollywood that Tarantino clearly cherishes—a time and a place that shaped his sensibilities as a filmmaker and a savant of pop culture. Meticulously crafted, masterfully curated and obsessively detailed, it’s like a cinematic sandbox of Tarantino touchstones. Hamlet coexists on the same pop-cultural plane with I Love Lucy, and the soundtrack blares tunes from Deep Purple, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, cheesy commercials and snippets of the era’s movie tunes. There are Nazis, cowboys, jocks, jive talk, G.I.s, and a bloody reckoning.
And what a cast. DiCaprio—making his first film in four years, since The Revenant—and Pitt are both Tarantino veterans. They’re both great here once again, leathery leading men who have no trouble at all hitting a confident stride through the movie’s inventive interplay of reality, fiction, fantasy, revisionist history and buddy comedy. Al Pacino plays a Hollywood producer who tries to convince Rick that his future lies in making spaghetti Westerns in Italy. There’s Damian Lewis as actor Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion; Bruce Dern appears in a scene as George Spahn, the elderly man who allowed Manson and his followers to use his ranch.
Watch closely and you’ll also see Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Clifton Collins Jr., Scoot McNairy, Lena Dunham and Rumer Willis.
But the centerpiece, and the heart, of the whole thing is Robbie, the Australian actress who previously appeared with DiCaprio The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). As Sharon Tate, she has barely a dozen lines in the whole film, but she’s one of the first characters to appear, she’s threaded into it throughout, and she’s vitally important to its overall theme. She floats and glides, all sunshine and smiles, the embodiment of the innocence and beauty and paradise “lost” as the peace and love of the 1960s busted up and came crashing down in a tumultuous end.
Not all stories that begin “Once upon a time…” end happily after ever, as we know. Sometimes they end…well, like Quentin Tarantino wishes they had, especially when he’s in charge of the storytelling.
In theaters July 26, 2019