Without any doubt, this has got to be seen as Tarantino’s masterpiece (aided and abetted by a barnstorming performance by Leonardo Di Caprio). It’s his loving homage to the Hollywood when TV hits such as Rawhide evolved into the Spaghetti Westerns, when Bruce Lee was Kato in the Green Hornet, and Steve McQueen mesmerised the world in The Great Escape.
Tarantino decorates his story with every neon-flashing icon of that past era to give the film an almost documentary feel. These are the touches of reality, there to coax our suspension of disbelief; to suggest that what we’re seeing is a bio pic of a famous – and real- star, while at the same time reminding us that it’s just a story; just a piece of fiction that all happened ”once upon a time…”
The story – a buddy movie at its heart – centres around the symbiotic relationship between Rick Dalton (Di Caprio as a famous TV star on the verge of a nervous breakdown) and his stunt double and alter ego, Cliff (a laconic Brad Pitt), a man who, as he admits, carries Dalton’s “[emotional] load”. It’s a juxtaposition of calm reserve (Pitt) and burning emotion (Di Caprio).
It’s a relationship that, on its most obvious level, allows Tarantino the freedom to explore the tension between pretence (Di Caprio is pretending to be Rick Dalton who pretends to be the typical Hollywood tough guy) and reality (Chris is an actual tough guy; tough enough to beat Bruce Lee).
The reality that is facing Rick is that his star is dimming, his confidence rapidly ebbing away and he’s drinking too much. As is pointed out to him by a sleazy producer (Al Pacino), Rick Dalton, the hero, is being replaced by Rick Dalton the bad guy; not the guy who wins the fights, but the one who loses them. Soon, he’s told, the good guy Rick turned bad guy Rick will become the has been Rick. Just who then is the real Rick Dalton?
The movie’s emotional high point comes as Rick, tutored about authenticity in performance by an innocent child actor (a wonderful Julia Butters, of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing more), suffers a breakdown and confronts himself in his trailer. The confrontation yields the movie’s central truth: in the same way that art shapes its own reality, Rick must shape his. The actor needs to define himself and be defined by the integrity of his performance and not by the characters he’s pretending to be.
This, in Tarantino’s telling, is the real tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here seen as an almost unreal person. She’s a glassy-eyed, ever happy, ditsy blonde who exists, even in her own eyes, only as a projection of a character in a B movie. “Stand next to the poster of your movie” she’s requested by a fan with a camera, “That way people will know who you are”
And the Rick Dalton people will come to remember blossoms in the typical bloody Tarantino catharsis at the end, when Dalton the man channels his tough guy performances in an exorcism of flaming savagery.
Pretence, reality, truth, fiction…Tarantino knits them all together cleverly, delightfully. The themes are serious and ‘heavy’ but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, fun movie. There is genuine chemistry between Pitt and Di Caprio; there are moments of real tension and menace and the director clearly had great fun ‘gossiping’ about the Hollywood of his invention. Cool guy Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) is seen as a bitchy, spurned (by Tate) lover. Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is positioned as just another self obsessed, faux tough guy. Dalton’s break out moment comes in a movie being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), the director whose drive gave London its Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. And the story niftily splices in Di Caprio as McQueen into The Great Escape and Robbie into a scene with Dean Martin (in The Wrecking Ball).
It could have been shorter. Some of the scenes of Rick Dalton’s movies drag on unnecessarily long; and the first fifteen minutes seem to drift.
But if anyone has earned to right to a bit of movie magic self indulgence, its Quentin Tarantino. So, for this masterpiece, he certainly deserves to be indulged.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Dir/Writer: Quentin Tarantino. With: Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley (Novitiate) Julia Butters (Transparent) Mike Moh (Inhumans). Cinematographer: Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight, World War Z, Django Unchanged), Production designer: Barbara Ling (Batman and Robin)