Tout Los Angeles was abuzz about this movie last winter, for several reasons. First, it was the ninth (perhaps last?) Quentin Tarantino film. Second, it was a period piece, set in the city in 1969. Third, it actually was shot in LA, which is rare now that other cities and states compete to subsidize film and television production.
The film certainly will earn out because it’s different from the usual summer fare of superhero movies, horror films, R-rated comedies and animated kid-bait. The art-house theater in my town sold out most of its screenings, perhaps because local cineastes wanted to see the thing in 35 millimeter projection, Tarantino’s favored format.
Tarantino’s directing career began with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992, which was a breakout independent film and was followed by “Pulp Fiction” and all the others. He is known for original stories and violent ones. He also manages to recruit excellent actors.
“Once Upon” is set in 1969 and mixes themes of that moment with two stories, one fictional and the other based on real events.
There are two lead characters. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio,) is the self-pitying former star of “Bounty Law,” a now-canceled TV western who has been reduced to taking guest-star gigs on other shows. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt,) Dalton’s stunt double, also has lost his less-remunerative job, but he carries himself with the kind of cool confidence that might be expected of a traditional western lawman. The two maintain a friendship based on experience and Cliff’s willingness to chauffeur Rick’s car because Rick has collected a number of drunk-driving citations.
One evening when Cliff is dropping Rick at his house, the two spot and recognize Rick’s new neighbors, actress Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, who have rented the house next to Rick’s on Hollywood’s Cielo Drive. (Tate played by Margot Robbie, is not a full character but a sort of confection, a beautiful cinematic object of desire.) As we know, the real Sharon Tate was murdered with several friends in her home by followers of Charlie Manson in August, 1969.
Between the setup and Tarantino’s re-imagining of the Tate murders the movie goes off in many directions.
Cliff meets a hippie Manson follower and visits her group at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which was an actual setting for western films and where the Manson Family were living in the summer of 1969. Then, always ready for a fight, Cliff trades blows with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh.)
For his part, Rick goes to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns, based on the advice of agent Marvin Schwarz — “not Schwartz!” (Al Pacino.) Later Rick makes a fool of himself as a guest actor on a television show and is alternately outclassed and praised by an eight-year-old actress.
There are recurring themes of barefooted women and Rick incinerating Nazis with a flamethrower from a movie early in his career (possibly also a Tarantino comment on critiques of his later films’ violence.) Recognizable actors portray actual personalities of 1969. Pop music and television of the day provide constant background noise, and well-maintained cars from the period lend authenticity to street scenes.
It is hard to describe the film further because, like all this writer-director’s movies, its plot doesn’t pretend to be something that actually might have happened. Instead it is a real-looking story hatched in the brain of Quentin Tarantino and intended to be interesting and/or entertaining. In addition, with a run time of two hours and 39 minutes, it can be described honestly as “sprawling.” Probably no other director would be able to get it released at such length; people go back and forth on whether or how much should have been edited out.
This may not be Tarantino’s best film — I haven’t seen all of them and cannot say — but it certainly justifies itself on its own terms.
It seems fair to guess that the auteur had more in mind than the Manson Family murders when he set this film in 1969. Remember that the main characters’ careers in television shows about law enforcement in the old west were ending at the same time.
That year’s most popular movie was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a new kind of western featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a buddy team of irreverent outlaw scamps. It was the same year that John Wayne played (yet another) horse-riding U.S. Marshall in “True Grit,” which sold less than a third as many tickets.