There are any number of stars from the late 1950s who saw their careers fade by the middle of the 1960s;
Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue are but two who come to mind. Quentin Tarantino’s romanticized, endlessly entertaining cinematic bon-bon/buddy film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood isn’t about them, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictional protagonist Rick Dalton could be a blood brother. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a former television western star, is feeling displaced and underused in the Hollywood of August 1969, reduced to playing the guest star villains on shows like The FBI and Bonanza to maintain his Hollywood lifestyle—which includes owning a house that is right next door to director Roman Polanski and his wife, the lovely Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Dalton’s best friend/ man Friday is his former stunt man Cliff (Brad Pitt), and they remain loyal to each other in a town where friendships can turn on a dime. In fact, the best thing (among many attributes) about the film is the easy camaraderie between DiCaprio’s Dalton and Pitt’s Cliff, as they both try to figure where their place is in a town which seems to be slowly overrun by hippies (did I mention Charlie Manson and his followers are in town…?)
This being a Tarantino film, there is room for clever banter and occasionally insightful dialogue; there are also the plot digressions which pull you out of the action but result in a greater understanding of character (I specifically cite the interlude where Cliff gets into an amusing altercation with Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee—it reinforces Cliff’s strength and skill and also suggests why he is currently a former stuntman.). Time and again, Tarantino impresses: the sequence where Robbie’s Tate goes to a Hollywood theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, impressing the theater workers and soaking in audience reaction; Cliff’s pick up of a Manson acolyte (Margaret Qualley), followed by a trip to the Spahn Ranch, where Manson’s followers claim the ranch owner is fine. Cliff can’t help but investigate, and the tension of the scene is masterfully handled by writer/director Tarantino. There is also a beautifully crafted section where DiCaprio is shooting his guest villain role for Lancer (featuring the late Luke Perry). Included among the scenes of shooting (and sometimes blowing) his scene is DiCaprio’s tender interaction with a child actress on the set. He’s reading a book about a bronco buster past his prime…which resonates with Dalton and his current insecurity; the relatively innocent but wise actress (calling herself act-or) expresses interest and the ensuing scene contains some of the most understated, moving work in Tarantino’s career.
I could go on about this film, and if you have any memories Hollywood in the late 1960s, complete with the iconic television shows, movies, stars, the cars, the hairstyles, Sunset Boulevard, it should come as no surprise that Tarantino effortlessly recreates not only the glamour but the seedy side. It should also surprise no one that though fiction and fact intersect here, that Tarantino does not rely on history for his denouement. What seems to polarize viewers (and reviewers) is the last twenty minutes. I won’t tell you what happens—all I can say is that in the context of Once Upon a Time…(and the title) it really works, complete with what might be a perfect coda.