There are very few things cooler than Brad Pitt driving a classic car. There are very few things more impressive than watching Leonardo DiCaprio play a character who is playing a character. And, there are very few things more satisfying than a fairytale ending. All and more are featured in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. From the mind of Quentin Tarantino, this story crafts a slow-boil narrative through the lives of three central characters in order to guide the audience to a bold and violent conclusion. This film allows DiCaprio and Pitt to shine through giving us character study performances while Margot Robbie is a jewel as Sharon Tate.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood concentrates the story on Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Pitt), an actor and a stuntman tag-team. Through their years of work together they have become best friends. Rick’s career has seen better days, so he hires Cliff for assistant-like tasks around his house and on-set. Rick is Sharon Tate’s next-door neighbor. The film takes place over three days, two in February of 1969 and then in August on the day of Sharon’s murder. The story meanders through Rick and Cliff’s days to showcase a day-in-the-life in 1969. Rick Dalton spends his time on the set of the Lancer pilot. Cliff performs household chores for Rick, but after picking up a hitchhiker, he finds himself at the Manson Family ranch. Sharon takes herself to the movies to watch herself on the big screen.
The characters of Sharon, Rick and Cliff represent the different levels in Hollywood. The “It Girl,” “The Has-Been” and the crew. Rick’s character struggles the most with his status. Sharon seems unmoved by her fame, while Cliff is content wherever he lands. Rick wants to be famous by trade, although he is an actor who needs to take his job a bit more seriously. Conversely, Sharon spends most of her day enjoying the fruits of her labor, watching her film in theaters. She enjoys the reactions of the crowd, but outside of getting a free ticket, she isn’t looking to prosper off her fame.
This film is a bit lacking in structure to contextualize these characters. Moving throughout their day makes sense if it is to an end. Rick’s day on-set did change his perspective. Cliff’s day at the ranch gave him insight into the Manson Family. While Sharon’s day at the movies seems tame but doesn’t change her life. These dates in February feel a bit randomly selected. Essentially we are dropping in six months prior to the date of Sharon’s murder. The audience needs to come in with some knowledge of the Manson Family story to connect all the dots, so you can track what is rewritten.
Rick Dalton Double Feature
The highlight of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the performances. The characters are driving the narrative with very little external influence. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Tarantino and DiCaprio discuss their conversations around Rick Dalton’s life and who this character was in relation to Hollywood. Tarantino could write a biography on Rick Dalton (and Cliff Booth), but DiCaprio asked for “something to act.” The duo decided Dalton has bipolar depression. This diagnosis gave DiCaprio a starting off point in understanding how Dalton would react and respond at various points in the story.
DiCaprio’s performance is quite different from his more domineering characters. Rick’s perception of his failures and constant teetering towards meltdowns indicates his mental struggle, but this is never explicitly mentioned in the film. With this, his performance and clear character arc as his career and mental health recovers from one very good day on-set drive the story forward.
Cliff Booth, Stuntman
Pitt’s performance of Cliff Booth is sharp and charming, but a little dark. Booth is very settled in who he is, so inevitably his character doesn’t see much of an arc. We learn about him most from other characters referring to him as a wife-killer having been on trial for his wife’s death. Because of the narrowed timeline, we don’t learn much what Booth wants now, mostly because he doesn’t know. Although Pitt’s performance is leading man material and his kindness towards Dalton is endearing, there isn’t much to say about how his character shapes the narrative.
If Rick and Cliff are two-sides of the same coin, then Cliff’s lack of narrative makes sense as Dalton changes so much in a short amount of time. Yet, if perceived as two individual characters, Booth feels too removed from the story. Cliff Booth’s place in this story doesn’t puzzle out until the end.
Sharon Tate, It Girl
For the majority of the movie, Sharon is watching a movie. Although Tarantino is working off of Sharon’s real life, it would have been nice to stop in and spend a more significant day with Sharon. Her story feels too light, but Margot Robbie’s kind-spirited version of Sharon is refreshing to watch. Sharon has no idea what danger she is in.
The story of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is rather nonchalant prior to ending. Considering this story was pitched to have a relationship with the Sharon Tate murder, it’s not surprising the ending is graphic. Nor, should a violent sequence be shocking when watching a Tarantino movie. The fairytale element of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood comes from the rewriting of the Manson Family story, along with a disembodied voice-over from Kurt Rusell that never quite fits in.
In this version, Rick’s house gets attacked by the Manson Family as they change plans to kill him instead of Sharon. Their drug trips have led them to want to murder those who taught them to murder, i.e. a TV Cowboy named Rick Dalton. A very high Cliff Booth and his well-trained attack dog, Brandy, viciously and aggressively take out two attackers. Rick finishes off the third when she falls through a glass sliding door then into the pool where Rick has been missing the action listening to headphones. To fight her off he takes out the flame thrower from his most famous film to torch the girl. A symbol of his past fights off the coming change in culture and wins.
The excessive violence is only in place to shock the audience, but the construction of the sequence makes it almost humorous. We don’t need to feel sympathetic towards the Manson Family, but a telephone to the face and a flame thrower are some dark ways to die. Cliff’s aggressive nature comes to be his biggest asset, where, even high, he knows how to fight. Still, the sequence overstays its welcome quickly.
When all is said and done, Rick and co. are fine. The Manson Family literally burned out, while Sharon safely only watched from a window. Rick wondered how he could connect with his next-door neighbor, this seems to be his ticket. Sharon invites him over to recover and mingle with her friends, all safe and sound. We now wonder what happens next. Does Rick join Sharon in her next film? Will Cliff get more work as a stuntman? Does Sharon go on to see the turn of the century?
Alls well that ends well, yes? If only this story were true.
Want more Brad and Leo? Check out our story on Martin Scorsese’s short film The Audition!