Despite the fighting, bloodshed and, often, gore that populates a Quentin Tarantino film, there almost always a key emotional thrust to the storyline. Whether it’s Django’s search for his wife Broomhilda or Jackie Brown’s unrequited love for her bail bondsman or The Bride seeking revenge for her unborn daughter, it’s been there. Tarantino, however, has never made a film that ends up as sweet and nostalgic as his latest, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Debuting at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival 25 years after Pulp Fiction took the Palm d’ Or, Once Upon begins its tale on Saturday, February 8, 1969 in the heart of tinseltown. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once popular TV actor who starred in the ‘50s TV series Bounty Law, now finds himself relegated to guest spots to pay the bills. His almost constant companion is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his one-time stunt double that now mostly acts as his chauffer and house sitter (it appears Rick earned a few too many DUI’s to keep driving that fancy car of his).
While having drinks at Musso and Frank’s Grill one evening, producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), tries to convince Rick to move to Rome to star in Spaghetti Westerns. According to Marvin, once you start playing the villain in too many guest appearances the television viewing audience will no longer see you as the hero. And the way things are going his chances of getting another leading role in a TV program are slim. Why not go to Italy and make some money? Rick walks away horrified at the prospect telling Cliff that this must mean his acting career is on its last legs.
When they arrive at Rick’s home in the Hollywood Hills, Tarantino makes sure the street sign comes into full view for the audience. Rick lives on Ceilo Drive, a road notorious in the history of Los Angeles. That’s also the street where Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) lived. Tate and three others were killed in her home by members of the Manson family in a crime that rocked Hollywood and the nation. But we are months from that massacre. In Once Upon, Rick is Tate’s neighbor and simply can’t believe the Rosemary Baby director has moved in next door.
A few days later Rick is working on another TV Western, Lancer. This time he’s guest starring in the unexpectedly juicy part as, yes, you guessed it, a villain in the Old West, but this part is actually pretty good. DiCaprio plays the emotional insecurity of an actor here to pitch perfect effect as Rick’s insecurity over his own talent is so low it takes the adulation of his 8-year-old co-star to make him think he still might have it. Rick knocks it out of the park though. The talent is legit.
Cliff, meanwhile, has been flirting with Kitty Kat (Margaret Qualley), a “hippie” he keeps seeing around town that is always looking to hitchhike. Free for the day, he offers her a ride only to discover she’s living on the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth with a bunch of her “friends.” That’s a property quite far from the center of the city where Cliff had shot a few Westerns years before (historical note: it was the primary exterior for Bonanza). When they arrive, Cliff immediately realizes things are a little off. There are a ton of young “hippie” women about and just a few men staying on the property. The audience likely knows these are members of Charles Manson’s cult, but Cliff surely doesn’t. He eventually gets by the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) to check up on the owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), but the old man is blind and dementia may have gotten the best of him.