Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film and his best. It’s that good. And stay through the credits for a pleasant surprise.
Pre-credits begin with a fictitious 1950s TV personality, Allen Kincaid (Spencer Garrett), doing an on camera interview with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), with Dalton explaining why he needs a stunt double. “I could ride and fall off a horse,” he explains, “but if I got hurt that would delay production for a couple of weeks.” Dalton is star of Bounty Law, a black and white copycat western of Steve McQueen’s 1950s Wanted: Dead or Alive, replete with Wanted posters and Dalton as a bounty hunter. At the end of the interview the audience is even reminded to tune in to Bounty Law, Thursdays at 8:30pm on NBC. Ironically, McQueen is featured in Once Upon A Time… and is played by Damian Lewis.
The song Treat Her Right, by Roy Head, plays over the opening credits.
Flash forward a few years and it’s revealed that Dalton is a failed, alcoholic movie star, (with flops such as The 14 Fists of McClusky). He’s decided to leave the very successful TV show to try his luck on the big screen simply because he “wanted a rinky dink movie career.” The reason Booth is even in Dalton’s life (he’s no longer his stuntman) is that after one too many drunk driving arrests, he needs Booth to be his driver. They are described as more than friends and just one step below husband and wife. It is alleged in one scene that Booth has killed his wife and got away with it, and is never mentioned again, other than a flashback scene of Booth and his wife on a boat, with Booth holding a gun.
Once Upon A Time… is filled with a plethora of glorified cameos, including Oscar winning actor Al Pacino (who is Italian in real life), as Jewish producer/agent Marvin Schwarzs, “It’s Schwarzs, not Schwartz,” he tells Dalton in deadpan fashion, but with a straight face, when meeting him at a restaurant to brainstorm ideas about how to revive his spiraling acting career.
Other bold face names that make appearances that you would miss if you got up to use the restroom include Kurt Russell (Randy, a stunt coordinator), the late Luke Perry, Samuel Jackson (sitting at a poker table, not even uttering a word), Brenda Vaccaro (the wife of Marvin Schwarzs), Rumer Willis (Joanna Pettet), Nicholas Hammond (director Sam Wannmaker, but appeared as Friedrich, the oldest of the Von Trapp children, in the Oscar winning musical The Sound of Music), Rebecca Gayheart (Cliff Booth’s wife, in a flashback scene), Dakota Fanning (as Squeaky Fromme), Martin Kove (a villian on Bounty Law), Michael Madsen (the sheriff on Bounty Law) and one of the last remaining stars of TV westerns of yore, Clu Gulager (who plays a book store owner that sells Sharon Tate a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the movie that her husband, Roman Polanski, goes on to direct 10 years later). Zoe Bell, a Tarantino favorite, also makes an appearance as Kurt Russell’s character’s wife. The late Burt Reynolds was originally cast in the film but died before his scenes were filmed. (According to Tarantino, the character of Rick Dalton was loosely based on Burt Reynolds.)
Ten year old Julia Butters, who appears on the TV show American Housewife in real life and on the fictitious TV show Lancer in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, steals every scene she is with. Every one being with Leonardo DiCaprio. She is bound to win an Oscar or three in her future if she gets the right agent, manager and publicist. If there is any justice, she will earn a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for this film.
The first two thirds of the brilliantly directed and written film, which clocks in at 2 hours and forty-one minutes, takes place over 2 days, February 8 and 9, 1969. With three stories being told simultaneously – the stories of Rick and Cliff, Sharon Tate, and the freaky hippie followers of Charles Manson – they weave together seamlessly, with most of the action revolving around DiCaprio and Pitt’s career best, understated performances, followed by the reincarnation of Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie, in her best role to date. She plays the role to perfection. We see the insecurity of Tate, especially in a scene where she ends up at a movie theater, sheepishly asking before buying a ticket, “How much is it if you’re in the movie?” to watch her own movie, The Wrecking Crew. The movie that we see on screen is actually the real The Wrecking Crew, replete with the real Tate on-screen.
Conversely, scenes from the movie The Great Escape and TV show FBI are used with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton superimposed into them. With a $90 million budget, anything is possible.
While the film really isn’t a black comedy, per se, it is hilarious. Booth lives in a trailer next to a drive-in and oil field with his dog, Brandy. While he is eating a Macaroni and Cheese dinner (yes, the brand name, replete with 1960s packaging), he opens his kitchen cabinets and ponders over whether to give his dog Bird flavor, Rat flavor or Racoon flavor Wolf’s Tooth dog food.
The only scene where all of the Manson followers are together is when Booth drops off one of the girls who is a Manson groupie. Their house, on an old western movie set, is directly out of Grey Gardens, even worse, with rats dying and screaming on glue traps. Bruce Dern plays George Spahn, the blind, dementia ridden owner of the ranch that the Manson clan squat on, also in a blink and you’ll miss it role.
Curiously, the film jettisons a traditional musical score, instead relying on a panoply of 1960s classic hit songs. Tarantino’s previous film, The Hateful Eight (2015), won the Best Original Score Oscar for its composer, Ennio Morricone (The Untouchables, La Cage aux Folles and Cinema Paradiso to name only a few).
Flash forward 6 months. It is August 8, 1969. Booth and Dalton are on a Pan Am flight back from Italy, where Dalton has just made four spaghetti westerns, found a bride and has gained 15lbs.
Before their flight back to the U.S., Dalton tells Booth he can no longer afford to keep him in his employ, as his new wife will require most of his money and attention. They plan on going out to get wasted that night one last time. They end up at Mexican restaurant Casa Vega in the Valley, while an 8 month pregnant Tate and company, (Roman Polanski is in England filming), end up Mexican restaurant El Coyote in Hollywood, not before commenting about the “dirty movie” premiering next door.
The three stories all come together at about midnight that night, with a high as a kite Booth (who is tripping on an acid laced cigarette he bought from a hippie girl) and taking the film to a place you will never expect.
Surprisingly, this is the least gratuitously violent Tarantino movie. The violence is saved for the last 10 minutes of the film, and even that is tame compared to every other Tarantino film.
This is the first Tarantino picture to get a release by one of the major movie studios. All of his previous endeavors were released by either Miramax or The Weinstein Co. Columbia Pictures released this film. It is also the widest release ever for a Tarantino picture; over 3650 theaters. Inglorious Basterds opened in 3100 theaters in 2009 and took in $38 million its first weekend in theaters.
Oh, about that after end credits scene? Dalton does a television commercial on the Bounty Law set for the Red Apple unfiltered cigarette brand. Any devotees of Tarantino know that the fictitious Red Apple cigarettes feature prominently in many of his films. What makes this scene hilarious and worth staying for is the reaction Dalton has to a cardboard cutout of his character and his reaction to the actual cigarette.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood Review by Tim Nasson
Quentin Tarantino’s Films Ranked in Order, Best to Last
1. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Grade A+
2. Inglorious Basterds Grade A
tie Jackie Brown Grade A
4. Reservoir Dogs Grade A-
tie Pulp Fiction Grade A-
6. Django Unchained Grade B+
7. Deathproof Grade B
8. The Hateful Eight Grade B-
9. Kill Bill Volume 1 and Kill Bill Volume 2 Grade C (These are technically two separate movies, even though Quentin Tarantino considers them one film).
Sidenote: Curiously, Maya Hawke (the daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman), and Austin Butler, both who appear in the film very briefly, as of the date this review was published, have top credits on IMDB, above Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, (arguably the three biggest movie stars in the world), showing that the IMDB star ranking function is a complete joke. However, Maya Hawke is in the third season of Stranger Things, as Robin and Butler has been cast as Elvis Presley for a new biopic that arrives in theaters in 2020, directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby 2013).