I once vowed I’d never watch another Quentin Tarantino movie because of the ugly violence. Then The Hateful Eight got good reviews so I relented and went to see it. I hated it – way too much violence and cruelty to innocent bystanders. I renewed my vow of Tarantino abstinence.
Now comes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Great reviews from the critics I respect – David Stratton and Jason Di Rosso, and no mention of excessive violence. ‘Smartest movie Tarantino’s ever made’, said David. Hmm. No time to absorb any more commentary before a couple of friends announced they were going and invited me along. That’ll help with the violence, I thought, although god knows why. Perhaps it’s because I can bury my head in a friendly shoulder to escape the worst of it.
The story is set in 1969. Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio are the lead characters. Di Caprio plays Rick Dalton, tough-guy lead in a TV western called Bounty Law, but the series has had its day and he’s been doing the rounds as a guest celebrity on chat and variety shows. He does get an offer (from Al Pacino in fine form) to go to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns, but he regards this as further proof that he’s a has-been and is full of insecurity and self-pity in a very thespian way.
Brad Pitt plays his stuntman and driver, Cliff. He’s more content with his lot, even though he lives in a crappy caravan somewhere on the outskirts of LA, with a devoted but evil-looking pit bull.
In his heyday Dalton has managed to buy a nice house in the Hollywood Hills. It’s on Cielo Drive, an address that should ring bells for anyone who knows anything about the Manson murders. One night as Cliff’s dropping him off at home, he sees his new next-door neighbour Roman Polanski for the first time, in the company of his beautiful wife Sharon Tate. Rosemary’s Baby has been a smash hit, Tate’s just wrapped a screwball comedy co-starring with Dean Martin and she’s the hottest young actress in Hollywood following her debut in Valley of the Dolls. Seeing them in their fancy car, exulting in their wealth and success, he takes comfort in the fact that he lives next door to such Hollywood royalty.
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, and proves once again what a talent she is. At this point you might be thinking, as I did, oh God – Tarantino meets the Manson murders? No good can come of this.
But it does! Tarantino, the ultimate Hollywood insider, has conjured up a Dream Factory fable out of a series of what-ifs that bring his real life characters – Tate, Polanski, Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, Charles Manson – into the kind of accidental contact with his two fictional leads – Rick and Cliff – that is entirely plausible.
It’s ingeniously told, frequently funny and immeasurably enriched by Tarantino’s intimate knowledge of Hollywood – its geography, its hotspots, its glitzy ephemera, its neon garishness, its high life and its low life.
Violence, yes – but, I have to say it didn’t worry me too much. Can’t say why without spoiling the story, but Tarantino has some surprises in store here and he does at least signal when you should bury your head in your neighbour’s shoulder.
Watch out for Damien Lewis of Homeland and Wolf Hall, and that newish version of The Forsyte Saga.…. you’ll never guess who he plays.
The music soundtrack’s great too.
I agree with David Stratton’s assessment.