Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his stunt double and closest friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) struggle to adapt to the fast-shifting and declining Golden Age of Hollywood. While the film initially presents their narrative as a vignette, as a kind of deliberate narcissism that separates their story to the realities and multiplicity of Hollywood, their lives become entangled with the historic and a fantastical imagining of Los Angeles, 1969. Audiences find themselves celebrity spotting and hunting for references of the period, and it becomes all too clear that Tarantino’s ninth film is an ode to the art and its industry, littering his fantasy with relics of the past and cultural iconography.
One notable icon is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who rather stylishly traverses the film with little to no tether to its reality. She drifts in amongst the narrative as seamlessly as she disappears again, to the detriment of her representation. That is, her character begs a knowledge of the infamous Tate murders of August 1969 wherein Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant, was brutally murdered by the Manson Family along with four others.
With Sharon’s character as a vehicle, history intervenes the fiction of the film and the Manson Family become a part of the fabric; Cliff finds himself seduced by one of the Manson Family hitchhikers while Rick happens to live right next door to the Polanski-Tate household. As such, the film obscures historical fact and synthesises it for its own resources. It is history, if only by way of Tarantino’s imagination.
Although the film actually rejects the course of history in lieu of a much more cinematic alternative, it does not empower Sharon’s characterisation. She is not given the Mia Wallace (Pulp Fiction) treatment by way of an iconic and memorable subplot that competes with the larger narrative of the film. She is just there, a romantic apparition driving around with husband Roman Polanski in a 1962 MG TD, merely another relic in the museum that is Tarantino’s Hollywood.
Unfortunately, Sharon Tate’s characterisation, or lack thereof, is not the film’s only downfall. The first act of the film wherein Cliff and Rick meander between the Hollywood hills and film studios captures the worst and most abundant criticisms of Tarantino’s films, by way of painfully drawn-out, smug vignettes of actors acting, in the simplest and most limiting sense of the word. To earn the latter part of the film which is entirely self-assertive, the audience must first endure repetitions of amateur film reels mitigated by wistful moments of crises. In this sense, and to the dissatisfaction of the audience, the film portrays Hollywood at its most tiresome, in the process of decay as the light of the Golden Age wavers. As soon as the film preoccupies its narrative with criminality, Tarantino’s finest subject matter, it becomes elevated and akin to his most revered films. It harks back and laughs at the blood-spattered violence of Kill Bill, it oozes with the inebriating style and absurdism of Pulp Fiction.
When it works, it works exceptionally well. When it doesn’t, it is because the film itself loves Hollywood so much to the point that it forgets how to be a film. It frustratingly diverts the camera, strays from the plot and slips into sequences of distracted experimentalism and abstraction. It loses us as audience and has to work rather tirelessly to draw us back. Nevertheless, in piecing together certain moments of the film: stopping off at the Spahn Ranch film studio, Brad Pitt smoking an acid dipped cigarette, an enraged and intoxicated Leonardo Dicaprio sipping from a cocktail blender, it is clear that the film’s bad is outweighed by the brilliantly heady, glorious and unrelentingly audacious.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be perfect as Tarantino’s final film, a self-critical and hilarious revision of his filmography, add to that the zeitgeist of the Golden Age of Hollywood and a fusion of modern and classic cinematic technique. It is Tarantino at his goofiest, his least refined and perhaps, in this way, his most charming.