It seems inevitable, in retrospect, that Quentin Tarantino would make a movie set in Hollywood. His cinematic hyper-literacy is a hallmark of his pop-culture pastiche films, which are packed tight with cinema references both overt and subtle.
Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of film and TV becomes a living, breathing thing in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. Here Hollywood history is the subject, the setting, the characters, the theme, the modus operandi, and the raison d’etre. Finally the director for whom movies are everything has made a movie where movies are everything.
In Once Upon a Time... fantasy and reality melt together as they do for anyone who’s fallen asleep too many times with a VHS tape playing. The plot traces parallel stories, one presumably true, one presumably fictive. The “real” storyline follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends circa 1969, an ominous timeframe that puts her on a historical collision course with the spooky band of hippie cultists led by the briefly glimpsed Charles Manson. The familiar tragedy of Tate and her coterie is interwoven with the “fictional” story of her next-door neighbor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the former star of the made-up TV Western Bounty Law. Drunk, desperate Rick is in the process of washing up while his steely-cool stuntman sidekick Cliff (Brad Pitt) tries to help him hold it together.
Bounty Law isn’t a real show, but it could be. Later in the film, Rick shoots a guest role on an episode of Lancer, which seems like a fake Western but is in fact real. Timothy Olyphant, who in real life played a TV cowboy in Deadwood, portrays the real-life James Stacy, and here Stacy is playing series lead Johnny Lancer.
The whole movie goes on like this. Tarantino splices Rick into actual footage from The Great Escape, replacing Steve McQueen, to tell a story about how Rick almost got the McQueen role. Meanwhile, McQueen himself (played by actor Damian Lewis) provides a pivotal bit of exposition while he smokes a joint in a scene set at the Playboy mansion. Tarantino does not, however, splice Robbie into the real footage of The Wrecking Crew when Tate goes to watch her own movie in a theater in one sublime sequence; he lets us watch Robbie, his pretend Sharon Tate, watch the real one.
The entire fantasmagoria is a push and pull between fantasy and reality. The ending is a Rorschach test for the viewer and a pretty clear statement from Tarantino about his preference.
Some of Tarantino’s audacity has stultified into a series of tics, but damned if there aren’t several moments of perfection sewn throughout the film. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood rockets through two and a half hours without ever once seeming in a hurry. It’s Tarantino’s best hangout movie in decades; you want to just keep spending time with Cliff, Sharon—and even Rick—forever.
That you cannot is the very tragedy Tarantino is quixotically battling against. Thank god it’s the movies, so when it’s over, you can be kind and rewind.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Theater: Area theaters, now playing