Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino. 2019.

with Leonardo diCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie.

An alternative history of the Sharon Tate murders on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles in August 1969 is only part of the story.  The movie features Tate, Jay Sebring, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, who were real victims and criminals involved in a senseless massacre.  Violence is forestalled for a long time except for the cartoonish clips of TV cowboy Rick Landon, the main fictional character–  in his show, Bounty Hunter and action movies where he is required for instance to torch Nazis with a flamethrower.   When it does come, wham, bang! just as Pacino as Schwarzs, Landon’s agent, acts out a Batman scene– look out.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Al Pacino

The first violence erupts with a stand off between Cliff (Pitt), Rick’s stunt man, and Bruce Lee.  Lee makes the mistake of boasting that he could beat Muhammed Ali.   Lee’s daughter has complained about her father’s portrayal in the movie and you can see why, since he is a bit of an idiot, making a boast like that.  He also makes strange sounds that don’t seem authentic to the martial art he is practicing.

The story focuses on Landon’s career, his depression, alcoholism and feelings as a nearly washed up actor specializing in westerns.  Cowboy TV shows are waning, and his efforts to enter the movie business mean going from leading parts to heavies in bad movies.  Will he be doomed to play villains in B movies?  Should he move to Italy and make spaghetti westerns?

These two guys depend on each other.  DiCaprio’s  cowboy actor with his boyishly round face makes it hard to believe that he would be cast in Clint Eastwood type shows and movies.  But he does his best to act the part of a has been who is groping for the next stage of his career.  Whenever Brad Pitt shows up things get a little better.   A raised eyebrow from Pitt stands in for a whole lot of shouting and carrying on from any other actor.  DiCaprio shows his self disgust as he messes up a take in a movie by breaking windows, chastising himself, vowing to quit drinking, and yet somehow all I can think is, when do I get to see Brad Pitt again?

There are problems with pacing, especially when Margot Robbie as Tate sits through her silly movie, the camera aimed at her dirty bare feet, finally freed from her white go go boots.  Her dancing at a groovy party must stand in for her whole personality and character.  Couldn’t she have been given something to say besides that she wanted to see the movie she was in with Dean Martin?

Even with the mildly sexist treatment of her character, the best scenes do feature women. When Rick faces down his juvenile co-star, Julia Butters, while they are reading, during a break from shooting, the movie suddenly comes alive as Rick relates the book he is reading about an injured bronco buster to his own life.

Whenever Cliff passes the sexy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and then finally picks her up and checks out the Spahn Ranch to make sure that George Spahn is all right, the scenes between Pitt and Qualley have chemistry.

When he sees the place where he used to shoot westerns overrun by hippies,   he smells a rat.  Even though Charles Manson is not there physically, his presence is felt.  Cliff seeks out George Spahn, the owner of the ranch, and in a series of suspenseful scenes, he finds him, but not before we fear the worst.

The movie’s story telling at its best shows Tarantino has not lost his mojo the same way Dalton has not lost his ability to act.  The movie is about movies.   Sharon Tate was the essence of it in 1969: happy, senseless, pretty.  When she was murdered by a bunch of hippies, the business began to change, and whether Tarantino can accept that remains to be seen.  Weren’t the seventies supposed to be when movies became better by showing us a bit of darkness, and perhaps even the truth?



About Patricia Markert

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