Much has been made of Quentin Tarantino’s plans to retire after ten films. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood being his ninth, it seems there’s still plenty of life in him – yet it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate film than this for one of cinema’s most polarizing figures to bow out with. Though not exactly someone who’s outstayed his welcome having only been directing since the early ‘90s, Tarantino’s filmography is evidently put together like patchwork, different points of influence mined from his oft self-publicised encyclopedic knowledge of movie history to create hyper-relevant and ultra-violent works. In finally setting a movie of his in the lots of classic Hollywood, following Leonardo DiCaprio as a near-washed-up western actor, could this be where hangs his hat?
Before a trailer was released, all that was known of this sprawling epic – other than the fact it would be Tarantino’s first movie without Weinstein involvement – was that it would, loosely, tell the tale of the Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by the Manson ‘family’ and how those despicable actions went on to spread fear across Hollywood in the late ‘60s. Well, that’s the premise we were sold. True to form, Tarantino delivers a film replete with revisionist history that plays fast and loose with poetic license, the labyrinthine story both extremely dense, though light blazing through its 150-minute running time.
As two of the defining movie stars of our time, it beggars belief that this, despite nearly crossing paths on US TV show Growing Pains, is the first time Leo and Brad Pitt appear in a film together and as it turns out the wait, all 30+ years of it, was worth it. Appearing as ageing movie star, Rick Dalton, grappling with his shelf life and his trusty stuntman/security/valet/handyman Cliff Booth respectively, the pair each turn in one of their finest ever roles as their chemistry is profoundly electric. In a script that jumps through a myriad of characters and locations, the tenderness and genuine friendship at the centre of this tale is what will be remembered for years to come.
At a run-in with the Family at their Spahn Ranch home, while in possession of Rick’s car, Cliff becomes embroiled in a fight but one that only truly irks him when his pal’s vehicle is damaged. This is Booth to a tee, loyal as they come and someone Dalton can depend on to have his back, especially come the film’s truly exhilarating and bloody final act that ends with a failed murder plot, a flamethrower and the most aggressive dog in film history. It’s as Booth is being carted off to the hospital that he finally sees Dalton’s adoration and appreciation for the bond the two have, a moment that leaves us hoping we don’t have to wait another 30 years to see them together again.
Courting controversy during its lead-in press cycle and festival appearances, something that has become tradition with any new work from Tarantino, the film was derided for its misuse of Margot Robbie, supposedly relegating one of the decade’s leading actors to a bit part, leading moviegoers to perhaps approach the film, and her portrayal of Sharon Tate, with cautiousness. Thankfully her role is a joy; for someone known to many as a footnote in a nefarious crime, it’s something of a beautifully melancholic tribute showing the wide-eyed wonder of an actor on the precipice of stardom – in one vignette we see Tate arrive at a theatre advertising her debut feature, before watching herself on the big screen for the first time, with childlike glee and popcorn in hand. As the film’s climax transpires, and things are not as we expected, her role exists as a fairly exquisite MacGuffin.
Throughout the film, the cast is one of 2019’s best, with legendary names like Al Pacino, Kurt Russell and the late Luke Perry – but despite the star power of the supporting cast, it’s Julia Butters, who plays the child actor Trudi alongside Rick Dalton in a new TV western, who steals the limelight from actors seven times her age. To mirror what she says to Rick upon finishing a scene, for an actor her age this writer feels compelled to say, with perhaps maybe a hint of hyperbole, “that was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
It may have a way to go before being held in the same high esteem as his earlier masterworks, but Hollywood somehow feels like the quintessential Tarantino film, one that’s the culmination of three decades’ work. It’s still the filmmaker at his most crass, gory and downright ridiculous, but it’s the lesser-seen heart that somehow wins out in this, with its central pairing, easily one of his best of his oeuvre. Much talk seems to orbit a possible third Kill Bill installment, reuniting him with Uma Thurman, but if this were to be the end it feels like the perfect swansong.