Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, and it follows a formula familiar to audiences who have seen some of his other works. It takes a specific time and place and subject from the past and explores this setting through a story following some of Tarantino’s original characters. Also, like some of his earlier films, it does not feel constrained by fact to tell its story. The setting for this film is Hollywood and Los Angeles, California, in the Summer of 1969, and the subject it explores is the generational change from the classic Hollywood studio system, here representing tradition, order, and rationality, towards the newer world, full of hippies and new ways of doing things.
The film primarily follows three characters: Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a former star who’s aging out of popularity and out of the spotlight, Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt), his former stuntman who’s being blacklisted due to allegations that he murdered his wife, and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the real life actress and wife of Roman Polanski who was murdered by the Manson family in 1969. Her presence in conjunction with the summer of 1969 setting immediately tips the viewer off that the Manson family will be involved in some way, although they show up later in the film and perhaps not in the expected ways.
Instead, the film’s plot primarily follows Rick Dalton’s struggles with aging and desire to return to how things were. Dalton is an alcoholic former star who now primarily appears as the weekly villain in various TV shows and is widely forgotten, and at the start of the film, he’s beginning work on a new show and attempting to get Cliff signed on as his stuntman, an idea that not everybody appreciates. Dalton is often contrasted with the much younger Tate- he often watches the shows he appears in on his TV, in isolation and with a slightly somber mood, while Tate is seen watching one of her new movies in a cinema, surrounded by people and filled with joy. There are many other scenes of contrast between the old and new as well.
When Cliff Booth gets on the set of the show, he runs into Bruce Lee and they get into a fight after Cliff harasses him. Cliff wins the fight, much to Bruce’s chagrin, but is promptly kicked off the set for the display of aggression he showed. There is a strong feeling that the audience is meant to feel sorry for him, but he does not come across as entirely sympathetic in the scene as well, coaxing Bruce into fighting and acting generally brutish towards him. In another scene, Dalton talks to an eight-year-old method actor who helps him realize that he’ll never be the same star that he once was, but instead has to do the best he can with where he is now. Although Tate and Dalton never meet until the end of the film, many scenes of her help show the viewer the life of the up-and-coming star, contrasting Dalton immensely.
In addition, Dalton and Booth have a complicated relationship to one major aspect of the new generation- hippies. Both claim to hate hippies, although Booth shows joviality to a hippie hitchhiker he drives by throughout the day several times, eventually picking her up to take her home to the former-movie-studio communal living group that she’s in. This begins to take the film to its tense, controversial, and shocking ending. To go any further, some context is needed.
On August 9th, 1969, early in the morning three individuals drove to the home of Sharon Tate, where she was staying with four friends. These three people proceeded to break into the home and brutally murder everybody inside, writing messages in blood on the walls before departing. They were later found out to have been committed under the order of Charles Manson, a cult leader who was attempting to bring “race war” to the America. The cult, known as the “family”, had been living at Spahn Ranch, a former movie studio.
In this film, the place Booth drives his hitchhiker to is, indeed, Spahn Ranch, and it becomes quickly apparent that things are not right. In the film’s single most tense stretch, Booth looks around and is introduced to some members of the family, who appear suspicious and nervous. He explains that Spahn Ranch had been owned by a former friend of his and wants to see him, provoking anxiety in members of the family who claim that the friend is there but “can’t talk to him.” A suspicious Booth eventually works his way to the friend’s room and sees him, alive and unharmed, but the mood of the family has changed; they become incredibly hostile towards Booth and demand he leave. One of their members slashes the tire on Booth’s car, as well, causing Booth to become violent and attack him until he changes the tire. Booth leaves unharmed, but there is a distinct feeling of danger throughout the whole scene that does not go away once he is gone.
At the end of the film, several months have passed and the film opens back up on the evening of August 8th. Booth and Dalton are saying goodbye to one another after several positive changes in their lives have happened during the time skip. While Booth decides to finally smoke an acid-laced cigarette he’s been saving, the three members of the Manson family pull up in the neighborhood but last minute decide to go after Dalton and Booth before they go for Tate. To make a long story short, they fail, and in the film’s only real violent moment, they are brutally killed by Booth and Dalton in self-defense. The film then closes with Tate going down into the neighborhood to see what happened, meeting Dalton, and inviting him and Booth to her home as police deal with the crime scene.
This ending inspires two possible meanings, one perhaps better than the other. Tarantino is known for having fictionalized deaths of violent or evil people at the end of stories focused on the revenge of the group said people were targeting. In Inglorious Bastards, for example, Tarantino has the titular group of Jewish Nazi-Hunters kill Hitler and all of his top-level-officials at a propaganda film screening. While this appears to be what he does in this film, having the Tate murderers annihilated with extreme violence, the question of what the revenge is for hangs in the air. As said earlier, there are two possible answers. The first and most comfortable is that they, as characters in a film, are enacting a form of vengeance for the murders of Tate, her friends, and the several other people the Manson family killed. However, given as in the story the three had not murdered anyone yet, the level of violence Booth and Dalton are willing to suddenly respond with is shocking. Given their hatred of hippies and fear of the new generation, and their connection with Tate at the end of the film, another message being sent could be a message of vengeance in favor of the old ways of Hollywood, attacking the family as a symbol of the new generation changing things. This, of course, presents the Manson family as the main driver and representative of change in Hollywood and ignores all of the other causes of change, and it also reveres the old form of Hollywood as a good that is under attack and must defend itself. This presents the attempted murder of Tate as just an example of the harm of the new, and the defense of her by Dalton and Booth as an example of the purity of the old. While this is a valid message to send, it appears to contradict some of the early themes in the film about accepting change, and it’s uncomfortable to see the old generation revered as perfect and the new one shown as cruel and dangerous, while the reality was that all generations had their own forms of each. However, this is the story that Tarantino has chosen to tell.
Ultimately, this is a very well-made film, although perhaps not as strong as some of Tarantino’s other works. The camerawork, location, soundtrack, acting, and lighting are all incredible and represent the late 60s Hollywood energy incredibly well. The film and its setting pops so vibrantly that it feels like a real place the viewer could disappear into. While the film appears mainly focused on the messages of the central story, it also serves as a beautifully done tribute to the Hollywood of the time. It takes every opportunity to show off the beauty, richness, and diversity of forms that Hollywood took, while also keeping the sense of future menace strong throughout the film. While the main messages of the film are certainly interesting, and the story is a story worth experiencing, perhaps the film works best when it lets itself be a tribute to Hollywood itself. No messages need to be sent for the viewer to be able to experience the world of the film, a world that both was and never was. 4/5 stars.