The murders of Sharon Tate along with Steve Parent, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger (followed the next night by the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca) are among the most gruesome and monstrous acts committed in that glitzy world known as Hollywood. It is a very sensitive subject, one that does not open itself up to humor. Quentin Tarantino, however, did not make a film about this evil work but instead a film that makes an alternate history and paints a portrait of an industry and world in flux. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not only a shrewd portrait of careers in crisis but probably the most respectful cinematic portrait ever made of Tate, one of the most tragic figures in entertainment history.
Television star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is finding himself at the tail end of his career after his Western show Bounty Law is cancelled. His more casual stuntman/gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) pretty much takes things as they come, but Dalton is forever anxious about his career. Surviving on guest spots as 'the heavy', Dalton resists making Spaghetti Westerns in Italy and keeps plugging away at a television comeback. Booth for his part seems pretty happy-go-lucky, curious considering most people in the entertainment industry are convinced he murdered his wife.
Next door to Dalton is hot Polish director Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). She lives life and loves life: going out with her friends such as her former flame Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsh) and watching herself in the spy spoof The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin.
Cliff begins a flirtation with a pretty young thing named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a hippie who lives out on a former Western movie ranch with others. Cliff, who like Dalton has no patience for hippies, is concerned for the ranch's owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whom he somewhat knows from his time on Bounty Law. As Dalton attempts his comeback on Lancer, a pilot where he'll play the antagonist, Cliff gives the hippies a once-over.
Moving six months later, Rick Dalton has finally agreed to make a Spaghetti Western, ending up making two and a spy spoof and also marrying an Italian starlet. Despite his newly found resurgence, he cannot afford Cliff's services, so they opt to leave as friends and celebrate with a night out. Coincidentally, Tate, now eight months pregnant, also goes out with her friends, while members of Charles Manson's "family" begin heading out to kill whoever lives at a certain address, unaware that it is now Tate and Polanski who live there.
Here is the twist: due to odd circumstances the killers opt to kill Rick Dalton after an irate and intoxicated Dalton orders them off the private street, rationalizing the murders for 'teaching them to kill' via shows like Bounty Law. Cliff has taken his dog on a walk and is not only drunk but high from an acid-laced cigarette he bought from Pussycat earlier but which he is trying out now. As the three killers storm the Dalton home, a high and slightly out-of-it Booth recognizes them and manages to kill two of them despite being injured himself. The third killer, herself heavily injured and crazed, bursts out onto the pool area, startling an oblivious Dalton. He dispatches this killer in a surprising way.
The commotion and police finally attract the attention of his neighbors, who have been having a private party. An alarmed Tate, hearing Dalton's experience via intercom, invites the still shaken Dalton inside her home, surviving to live another day.
As I think on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I find that this is something I did not expect: a Quentin Tarantino film with a genuine heart and compassion for the characters, in particular Sharon Tate. The Tate seen here is a wonderful woman: vivacious, sweet and caring.
I understand many people have been critical of Tarantino due to Margot Robbie having few lines or being secondary in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. To my mind, I think they wildly misjudge both the film and its portrait of Tate.
As played by Robbie and written by Tarantino, Sharon Tate is about the only good person in the film industry: not neurotic as Dalton or casual as Booth or poisoned like the Manson cult. I found both the performance and interpretation of Tate to be highly respectful and loving. Take her longest sequence, when she almost impulsively stops at a theater playing The Wrecking Crew.
When she sweet-talks her way into going inside without paying the seventy-five cent ticket cost she isn't doing it as an act of a diva. Instead, both here and when she sees herself on screen, it's an act of amazement more than arrogance. We see in Tarantino's directing and Robbie's performance that Sharon Tate is amazed to find herself up on the screen, as if it is a wonderful dream. She delights in audiences finding her funny in the comedy. In Robbie's performance, we see Sharon Tate as someone thoroughly enraptured by the joy she brings others, delighted, perhaps shocked that people would respond that way to her.
It is a beautiful performance so deftly directed, and I genuinely don't understand why there are people who think it's in any way disrespectful of Tate's memory or Robbie's talent.
Brad Pitt, looking quite good at 56, has a nice breezy, almost laid-back manner to his Cliff. This is a man who takes things as they come, satisfied with what he has despite having little. He does not suffer fools gladly, but his inner confidence allows him to take the succeeding generation on and come out on top.
In a certain way, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is almost intentional or not a rebuke to both the glorification of hippie culture and repudiation of "toxic masculinity". Granted, the Manson cult is the most extreme example of hippies, but hippies as a whole came across as vapid and bullying. When they are storming into Dalton's home to "do the Devil's business", they have a strange sense of entitlement, particularly as they justify their acts because of what they've seen on television.
Is Tarantino making a dig at those who blame acts of violence on violent films, television and video games?
Moreover, Dalton and Booth, our heroes, are not men prone to be in touch with their feelings. They drink, they smoke, they have contempt for hippies and make no apologies for hitting them hard and violently. I figure as men who fought or at least knew of war (Booth, it is mentioned, is a veteran), they would have little to no patience with the peace-and-love ethos of those taking over. While Booth may be casual, even he won't sleep with someone underage and certainly won't allow a younger man to talk back to him.
My only real gripe would be in how Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) came across: as an arrogant, pompous blowhard. It's no slam on Moh or Tarantino, but something about this version of Lee was present didn't sit right with me. Then again, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not meant to be taken seriously and is openly revisionist history. Then there's Tarantino's foot fetish, which is there at least twice where feet were prominently displayed.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to Hollywood, one where actors bond with their stuntmen and young hopefuls come with stars in their eyes. It's a fantasy about a fantasy world, one that may never have genuinely existed. With top-notch performances, a well-crafted screenplay and excellent production design even if a bit long, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an excellent film. It also gives Sharon Tate a second chance while respecting her memory.
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