Like most of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, his new one, “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” is driven by cultural nostalgia. Yet, this time around, Tarantino’s nostalgia is his film’s guiding principle, its entire ideology—in particular, a nostalgia (catnip to critics) for the classic age of Hollywood movies and for the people who were responsible for it, both onscreen and behind the scenes. The movie draws a very clear line regarding the end of that classic age: it’s set in 1969, at a time when the studios were in financial crisis owing to their trouble keeping up with changing times, and its plot involves the event that’s widely cited as the end of an era, the Manson Family killings of Sharon Tate and four others at the house that she shared with her husband, Roman Polanski. The heroism of his Hollywood characters is an idea that Tarantino works out gradually until it bursts forth, in a final-act twist, with a shocking clarity. “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” has been called Tarantino’s most personal film, and that may well be true—it’s far more revealing about Tarantino than about Hollywood itself, and his vision of the times in question turns out to be obscenely regressive.
The movie is centered on a declining Western-style actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, factotum, and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick has had big roles in a handful of action movies (including a Second World War film in which he uses a flamethrower to incinerate a bunch of Nazis), but he’s most famous as the star of a TV Western series, “Bounty Law.” At the start of the film, Rick is mainly doing roles as a guest star in other action series—but, as a veteran agent named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) warns him, he is always cast as the villain, and audiences are being conditioned to find him unsympathetic, and therefore un-star-like.
Rick owns a house, where he and Cliff hang out and watch TV (and watch Rick on TV); right next door to Rick live a newlywed couple, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose presence sparks Rick’s dream of a role in one of the famous director’s movies. Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre, is described as a real-life war hero, though it’s never made clear which war he was a hero of; for that matter, almost nothing is known about his past, except that he’s trailed by nasty rumors that he killed his wife and got away with it. (Tellingly, a flashback to the deadly incident leaves it unclear whether her death was an accident or murder—lest showing the murder turn Tarantino’s hero into an anti-hero.) The movie’s action is constructed, with an audacious sense of composition, as three-days-in-the-lives-of; almost the entire two-hour-and-forty-minute span consists of a series of set pieces (adorned with brief flashbacks and visual asides) that are dated February 8 and 9, 1969, and then leap ahead six months to August 8th and 9th—the night of the Tate murders.
“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is a star vehicle; Tarantino provides DiCaprio and Pitt with a showcase that allows them to deliver, separately and together, a series of iconic moments that leap out of the film, ready-made to be excerpted in trailers and impressed in viewers’ memory. They’re the kind of moments that DiCaprio delivers, for instance, when he lends Rick a cheesy megawatt grin during an interview, or that Pitt delivers when Cliff, preparing to smoke an LSD-laced cigarette that he has been saving for a special occasion, freezes in place and, lighting it, purrs, “And away we go.” The coolest such moment is one that Tarantino himself, with deft directorial technique, delivers thanks to a stunt or a special effect: when Cliff, preparing to repair Rick’s TV antenna, strips to the waist, straps on a tool belt, and, dispensing with a ladder, leaps from the driveway to the roof in a few easy bounds.
Tarantino does not only create such moments—his movie is a loving dramatization of the power of certain kinds of actors, in conjunction with writers-directors and, above all, an entire system of production, to deliver them. “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is a paean to the recently lost age of the loudly lamented midrange drama for adults which is just such a movie itself. (Here, Tarantino’s obsessions intersect with modern critical sensibility—and vulnerability.) Tarantino is delivering what he considers to be a cinematic gift horse, a popular film with real artistic ambitions—and his movie’s very theme is the fruitless, counterproductive, and even misguided energy that would be wasted looking in the horse’s mouth. If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place—if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place. There’s no slur delivered more bitterly by Cliff and Rick than “hippie,” and their narrow but intense experiences in the course of the film are set up to bear out the absolute aptness of their hostility.
Tarantino’s love letter to a lost cinematic age is one that, seemingly without awareness, celebrates white-male stardom (and behind-the-scenes command) at the expense of everyone else. Tarantino has a history of seeming to enjoy planting racial slurs in the mouths of his characters, and “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is no different. In one set piece, backstage at the studio, Rick finds himself seated alongside an ultra-ambitious, ultra-professional child actor (Julia Butters), a girl who makes Rick feel somewhat ashamed of his lackadaisical approach to his craft. Rick derives inspiration from his earnest young co-star, which results in his improvising a line that the show’s director (Nicholas Hammond) greatly admires—and that features a slur against Mexicans, “beaner.” (At another moment, early in the film, in a parking lot, when Rick recognizes that his career is in decline, he begins to shed tears, and Cliff lends him a pair of sunglasses: “Don’t let the Mexicans see you crying.”) “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is the second movie within a year to feature that slur prominently; the other, Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” also displays the devastating real-world oppressions that Mexicans endure as a result of white Americans’ racist attitudes. By contrast, Tarantino delivers a ridiculously white movie, complete with a nasty dose of white resentment; the only substantial character of color, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), is played, in another set piece, as a haughty parody, and gets dramatically humiliated in a fight with Cliff.
Cliff, a real-life battle-hardened hero, finds little application for his talents in civilian life. Though he is Rick’s stunt double—someone who appears onscreen in the guise of Rick—it’s actually Rick, a faux hero, who appears onscreen as Cliff’s double, someone who pretends to do the physically courageous things that Cliff really does. “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is a tribute to the people behind the scenes and below the line, the ones who secretly infuse movies with their practical knowledge, life experience, and athletic feats. In that regard, it’s a movie that John Ford already made: “The Wings of Eagles” (1957), the drama of Frank (Spig) Wead, a hero of naval aviation who, after being disabled in an accident, becomes a novelist and a screenwriter (including for Ford, who dramatizes himself in the movie as a director named John Dodge). Wead is played by Ford’s favorite tragic hero, John Wayne—and Ford doesn’t stint on the tragedy, the physical agony and the wreckage of family life that are central to the hero’s experience.
There’s no physical agony for the heroes in ‘Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” even if a scene of Cliff shirtless reveals an impressive array of scars.Tarantino’s depiction of marital domesticity is as bitter and burdensome as any macho adolescent might envision it. Cliff’s unhappy marriage isn’t depicted as a site of conflict but as his endurance of the shrill and belittling rage of a shrew. As for Rick, he eventually marries, and it’s emblematic of Tarantino’s vision of marriage that Rick’s foreign wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), is another object of parody; with her fancy clothing and her truckload of luggage, her sole function in the film is to provide Rick with the burden of a dependent.
The movie’s most prominent female character, Sharon Tate (Robbie), is given even less substance; she is depicted as an ingenuous Barbie doll who ditzily admires herself onscreen. In “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” Tarantino reserves the glory moments of actorly allure, swagger, and charisma for male actors: when Tate blithely admires herself, it’s for the role of the “klutz” who falls on her ass for Dean Martin’s amusement and titillation. There’s a peculiar sidebar, when Cliff picks up a teen-age hitchhiker who calls herself Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who’s actually a member of the Manson Family, and drives her to the Spahn Movie Ranch (unbeknownst to him, of course, the Family’s hideout). But the emblematic moment of that sequence takes place en route, when she offers Cliff a blow job—and Cliff distinguishes himself from Hollywood predators by asking her age, demanding to see proof of it on her driver’s license, and gallantly declaring that he doesn’t intend to go to prison for “poontang.”
For all its imaginative verve—and grace notes of snappy performance, gestures, and inflections—“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is a strangely inert movie. Tarantino has become a nudnik filmmaker, who grabs a viewer by the lapel and says—and says and says—what’s on his mind. If his central point is that he loves Hollywood, then there aren’t any facts or images that can pass through to suggest that there might be something not to love. Tarantino’s images are busy, at times even showy, yet relentlessly functional, merely decorating his doctrinal delivery, as in some bravura crane shots (such as one that carries over the screen of the drive-in to follow Cliff to his trailer) and some long-running tracking shots (such as the one in which Rick meets the child actor on a studio backlot) that display the power of the Hollywood system without its expressive energy or symbolic resonance. His movie is filled with the pop-culture iconography of the time—a soundtrack of Top Forty needle-drops, vintage radio commercials for such products as Tanya tanning oil and Heaven Sent perfume; movie marquees and posters for films of the day; and some fashions of the times. But Tarantino voids those artifacts of substance—of political protest, social conflict, any sense of changing mores.
Tarantino never suggests the existence of a world outside of Hollywood fantasy, one with ideas, desires, demands, and crises that roil the viewers of movies, if not their makers. He rigorously and systematically keeps the outside world outside of the movie’s purview until, in the final twist, his fiction intersects with history in a way that only hammers his doctrine home. “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is about a world in which the characters, with Tarantino’s help, fabricate the sublime illusions that embody their virtues and redeem their failings—and then perform acts of real-life heroism to justify them again. Its star moments have a nearly sacred aura, in their revelation of the heroes that, he suggests, really do walk among us; his closed system of cinematic faith bears the blinkered fanaticism of a cult.