Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is a glorious mastery of cinema worthy of the highest honors that the entertainment industry is capable of handing out. His two-hour and 40-minute story of the final days of Hollywood’s golden era prove that now, even 50 years later, movies can still be magical.
Tarantino has made a name for himself since the early nineties as a writer-director who is more than capable of making cult classics and seriously good films. But with his latest, the director found a new gear that cast off his usual tendency to lean on nearly cartoonish violence and caricatures of good guys and bad guys. Perhaps it is through his own love of this story, but Tarantino found a way to make a serious story funny, a tragic story inspiring, and turned a story of loss into one of victory.
Frankly, a Best Picture Oscar seems beneath a treasure so great as “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,” considering the award has also recognized such recent head-scratchers as “The Shape of Water,” “Crash,” and “Shakespeare in Love.” But Hollywood doesn’t have a higher honor to give and until Congress starts bequeathing medals to dorky gangster directors for perfect movies, the Oscar will have to do.
While many elements of the film could be singled out for their extraordinary addition to the story, it is truly the summation of its parts that make “Once Upon a Time” such an unforgettable movie. But to make my case for the movie to win the top honor and break down its enchantment into key achievements, here are some of the most spectacular elements of the film that should solidify its place on every list of 21st-century classics.
Set in the late 1960s, as Hollywood’s “Golden Era” is drawing to a close, a failing, insecure TV actor and his best friend and former stuntman are the perfect conduits for a tale of insecurity, Hollywood splendor, and ruthless, bloody revenge. Tarantino shows that he is capable of much more than violence for the sake of violence in this alternative telling of the grizzly history of Cielo Drive.
The foibles and victories of each character carefully and subtly unlock more of the tale while never showing more cards than necessary. Tarantino, the quintessential film-fan director, shows just how valuable his years of being a true Hollywood geek are as he transports viewers to the ideal of Los Angeles so many years ago through wit, style, and innovation.
In his most relatable film to date, Tarantino does more than just place interesting characters in a period film about Hollywood. He created a historical account of Hollywood that had fans scrambling to find out what was real and what was fabricated because it was masterfully invented with no detail overlooked.
As the fictional protagonists deal with their various demons and setbacks, the story is exquisitely laid over top of a very real tragedy. This makes the film, even in its most whimsical and comical moments, extremely tense. The story’s conclusion would have been nearly impossible to predict as fiction converges with reality in the most satisfying way ever committed to film.
The one-two punch of Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth explode with chemistry on screen to create, among other things, the greatest buddy comedy of all time. Cahill as a narcissistic TV cowboy with a taste for whiskey sours and desperation for relevancy is perfectly foiled by failed stuntman Booth, firmly content with his low station in life.
The genuine friendship between the two very different men takes the story from interesting to silly to soul-stirring as both are faced with circumstances that expose their vulnerability and strengths. While the plot focuses primarily on the fictional lives of Rick and Cliff, the very real story of young actress Sharon Tate and her director-husband Roman Polanski progresses just as it did in real life—with some rather notable (and extreme) exceptions.
As one of the most famous murder victims of all time, Tate’s time in the movie is a darling tribute to her storied vibrancy and good nature, portraying her not as a victim, but as a fun-loving newlywed, enjoying her early career success with child-like glee, and celebrating her young life with friends. A scene in which Tate, played by Margot Robbie, goes to see her new film “The Wrecking Crew” turns remarkably emotional as Tarantino opted to use actual footage from the 1968 film to give the real Tate one more moment in the spotlight, 50 years after her death.
Sets and Locations
The opening scene sets the tone for the authenticity and mood of the film as a highly emotional Rick is comforted by Cliff under the iconic “Musso and Frank’s” sign in Hollywood. They slowly roll out onto Hollywood Blvd moments later while a widening camera angle reveals the Tinseltown of another time.
Even for non-Angelinos and non-cinephiles, the vintage scenery of Hollywood Blvd. peppered with hopeful advertisements, swaying palm trees, and flickering neon signs against a setting west coast sun is breathtaking.
Set design throughout the film is continuously so astounding that it can’t be ignored, beginning with Cliff’s tragically disgusting trailer apartment where he and his beloved pit bull Brandi spend many happy hours. Rick’s guest appearance on “Lancer” shares the paper-thin façade of a western TV show set as the perfect partner to Rick’s own fragile ego, and Cielo Drive itself never lets viewers forget what is supposed to be coming.
A Thrilling Ride
Yes, Tarantino’s tribute to mid-century Hollywood has loads of goodies for movie fans, but it also happens to be an exciting, hilarious, and very stylish ride to an exhilarating conclusion that can be appreciated by all. Whether it’s Polanski and Tate speeding through LA in their 1950s MG TD to Deep Purple’s “Hush,” or Dalton drunkenly screaming at a carful of hippies in his bathrobe while drinking margaritas directly out of a blender, the film never lets up.
It is never bogged down by too much story or lack of direction. It effortlessly flows from one incredible scene to the next and offers the ultimate moviegoer prize in its explosive ending
Winning the Best Picture Oscar will not change the fact that “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is a film without peer. Losing the award to “Joker,” or “1917,” or “Marriage Story,” which it very well might, will never take away from everything this film was able to do. But let’s face it: the movie deserves that Oscar, old buddy.