Some have said that Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film is best watched without any understanding of the real story behind it. I was one of those who followed this advice and went I came out of the cinema, I got no clue on what happened. 10 months later, I gave this Palme d’Or nominee another shot and this time round, I appreciated the film better.
Although the film ends off with a happier version of the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders where Sharon Tate and her friends were left unharmed, the bulk of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not exactly about the murders. It is a jigsaw puzzle comprising of multiple storylines on life in the entertainment hub of the world.
LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD
We get to see how Hollywood operates behind closed doors in this 2.5 hours long film. The entertainment industry is a competitive one. To make it big there, it takes a good mix of luck, talents and connections. This was the case of Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a renowned actor who finds himself in need of a resurgence in his career. Later on, we witnessed how his eight-year-old co-star motivates Rick on an Spaghetti Italian film.
We also witnessed the seemingly normal life of Sharon Tate as she chills in the Bruin theatres while watching The Wrecking Crew. We also saw the seemingly normal life of Sharon Tate as she chills in the Bruin theatres while watching The Wrecking Crew. As the audience in the cinema hall laughed along, Sharon smiles shyly to herself and Margot Robbie’s acting here melts my heart!
While Sharon entertains herself with an afternoon matinee, our cowboy Rick Dalton receives praises from director Samuel Wanamaker and his young co-star. All’s well in Hollywood, well at least for this side.
THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD
Strictly speaking, Hollywood is a neighbourhood in Los Angeles and the film industry does not define it entirely. Brad Pitt stars as Cliff Booth – the stunt double of Rick Dalton – and we see him driving recklessly back home. Unlike Rick, Cliff’s house is just a tiny trailer in an empty backyard beside a drive-in theatre. We see a gym weight and a motorcycle outside his place and from here, we get the clue that Cliff is a tough guy. And that was indeed the case when we see him brawl with Bruce Lee. It was evident that Cliff had a passion for automobiles or a carefree lifestyle as seen by the posters of Grand Prix and automobiles in his trailer. And this was a giant contrast to his best friend and buddy Rick Dalton’s fancy mansion in Hollywood.
And let’s not forget the Playboy Mansion scene, the gathering of the celebrities all under one roof. I gotta say, I didn’t know Damien Lewis (who played Steve McQueen here) was in it when I watched it in Aug 2019 and after I watched him in Homeland, man was I blown away by his impression of Steve McQueen here. It is an interesting observation here as we see Steve McQueen spoke of how he “never stood a chance” with Sharon Tate, and later while prepping for his shoot Rick Dalton remarked how “never had a chance” when he lost to McQueen for the part in The Great Escape. Steve chases after Sharon who resides beside Rick who previously wanted McQueen’s part. And because life is just so unpredictable, Rick and Steve got the opposite of what each other wanted: Steve got what Rick wanted in The Great Escape and Rick caught Sharon’s attention at the aftermath of the story.
THE TATE-LABIANCA MURDERS
It may seem at first glance that the murders will be the focus of this story but it is not. Quentin dropped his first hint to us only at the 50th minute of the movie when we first see Charles Manson. Ever since we have been lured into the trap of predicting when exactly will the uneventful moment in history happen. A big portion of the movie concentrated on the happenings at Spahn Ranch. The Dutch angle shots there built up the tensions between the hippies and Cliff Booth. The hilarious part was that Tex and his gang only broke into their house to kill Rick Dalton, unaware that Rick and Cliff are buddies. Yeah, people run in circles all the time and wells, that is just how small Hollywood is.
Their break-in was met with an odd look on Cliff’s calm face. That man really just wanted to have a good time with his dog, Brandy, and his night was disturbed by the fellas he crossed with months ago in Spahn Ranch. They say a dog is man’s best friend. True enough, Brandy saved the day and attacked Tex and gang, leaving them screaming hysterically and bleeding profusely.
In the meantime, our male lead Rick Dalton is casually chilling and listening to the radio in his pool. And his well-deserved break was interrupted by the intrusion of Tex’s friend. Rick Dalton, for some reason has a flamethrower in his house decides to be the hero of the day and chose to burn the burglar to death.
A FAIRY TALE
History has been written entirely in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The gruesome murders which took place between 8-10 August 1969 are altered to a comedic scene. The portrayal of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee received mixed reviews with some considered it offensive and inaccurate. Nonetheless, this is a piece of art and Tarantino can exercise creativity to an extent. The phrase “once upon a time” suggests that this was Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age. At the same time, it communicates of Quentin’s fantasy of an idealised Hollywood. After all, one can reminisce and dream right?