Film Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is pretty much text-book Tarantino – but with a historical context.

At two and a half hours, this film is pretty long. Normally I would not have the attention span for it and would struggle with 90 minutes, but I was in the mood for it. And it doesn’t feel that long; there’s enough going on to make it interesting. It was the first time in a very long time that I managed to get through a film without looking at my phone or the clock once.

Set in 1969 Hollywood, it follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a past-it former Western actor, typecast into being the ‘heavy’ who always loses. There is a memorable scene near the beginning, where Al Pacino takes an age explaining just what ‘typecast’ means. He has one chance to get his career back, a TV show called ‘Lancer’. However, his alcohol dependency, and his struggles to come to terms that he isn’t as well known stand in the way of him making a success of it.

The on-scene, meta parts of the film are some of the best. One of my favourite moments is where Dalton forgets his lines, and the film moves from having been showing 10 minutes of an actor acting as another actor (try saying that quickly) to the actor being a real person, who struggles with his lines and everything else that has been going on behind the scenes. This slightly satirical view prevents these scenes from being dull – it shows how plastic the world of acting really is, even for the big stars. This happens again, in a scene where Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) watches herself in the film ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (containing real footage). It intertwines a fight scene she has with how it actually would have looked like in reality, with her fighting on the grass outside as opposed to with CGI.

Oh yes, Sharon Tate, in 1969? Everyone knows how her story ends, and there is no coincidence that Tarantino chose to set the film at this time. Her, along with Roman Polanski, become Dalton’s neighbours, and, in all truth, Margot Robbie is underused. She gets very little character development throughout – although certain aspects, such as buying a copy of ‘Tess of the D’ubervilles’ for Polanski are true to reality. However, as you watch the film, you get a sense of ‘Titanic’ about it: the iceberg is heading your way, and you know it’s going to take a couple of hours to get to it. And when that fateful night comes around, Tarantino goes full-on Tarantino: and it is the most entertaining part of the movie. No more spoilers about that bit, though.

What I’m not too impressed about, as previously alluded to, is the treatment of the female characters. While this is trying to be a 1960s film, completely set then, etc., and it is somewhat satirical as a whole, it means that the whole sexist element of the time is prominent. I would say that this is a clear choice- Tarantino has certainly had no issues in creating strong female leads (Kill Bill, anyone?). However, Margot Robbie in particular, is especially wasted here; Tate is presented as a wishy-washy, boring housewife, who, while the men in the film go to work and confront old friends, sits in a cinema watching herself, and has zero development throughout the film. The part of the film where Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) arrives at a ranch, the characters are predominantly female. But they are shown to be brainwashed, under a spell (indeed, Charles Manson’s). The only female character which is shown to have anything about them to make them equal to the men is Linda Kasabian – indeed, this is possibly in homage to her testifying against Manson and trying to prevent the real-life murders from happening.

What is also uncomfortable is how the film almost glamorises the murder of Booth’s wife – it paints her as being annoying, and deserving of being thrown off of her boat – and not only dismissing it as something irrelevant and promoting the legend surrounding him, but then proceeds to try and make the viewer sympathise with Booth. It almost works, and indeed, maybe that’s a commentary on how the entertainment industry manages to make truly evil people (as has been apparent with the #MeToo revelations) especially white males, into icons who are squeaky-clean. Things are said, but nothing is ever done. It’s either subtle commentary, or it is Tarantino managing to completely miss the mark in 2019.

Overall though, the film is brilliantly directed, and the dialogue is enthralling. There’s not a dull moment in this film and not a wasted scene. Everything has a part to play in developing the stories of the characters, building the suspense or furthering the plot. It’s rare to say about a 150 minute film, but it couldn’t have been done in any less time. Quite frankly, it doesn’t deserve all of the ‘#1 film of 2019’ praise it received – I think some people looked at the cast and the promo, and even the topic and director, and their knees went weak – but it is a good watch, and Tarantino certainly hasn’t damaged his own reputation with it.

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