Rick Dalton is a fictional actor who played the lead in a late ’50s and early ’60s television western, “Bounty Law.” He was at the top of his career during the early days of TV – when things simply made sense to Dalton and those of his generation. The good guy always won, and television characters (as well as the shows themselves) were painted in black and white.
But now it’s 1969, and “Bounty Law” hasn’t aired in six years – an eternity in the entertainment industry. Rick Dalton is now consigned to playing bad guys in shows like “Mannix” and “The FBI.” His former stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth is relegated to acting as Rick’s driver, handyman and errand boy. It’s a tough life for any actor fast approaching “has-been” status, but particularly in 1969 – when the world is changing faster than Hollywood careers.
This is the set up for Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – a beautiful, almost wistful ode to a bygone era that he practically ruins by a scene of violence so egregious it belongs in a mad slasher B-movie. Tarantino regulars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brat Pitt play the actor and stunt double respectively, and each is at the very top of his game.
DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is all too aware of his rapidly fading star, and he’s still enough of a perfectionist to serve as his own harshest critic when he flubs a line during rehearsal. By the same token, his elation soars through the roof when he nails a scene. Pitt’s Cliff Booth is far more relaxed, even to the point of coming off as shy during an early interview. But Cliff has a mean streak that has caused him to allegedly kill his wife, and – in an audience-pleasing scene – win a fight against martial arts guru and actor Bruce Lee.
As Rick desperately searches for that big mid-life break – the one that always seems just out of reach – he and Cliff tool about the streets of 1969 Hollywood in a retro-cool banana yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville that’s about as long as a city block. As they traverse the sunny streets, they are witness to an ever-changing world – one featuring at least one hippie on every street corner.
In a poignant early scene, a teenage hippychick played by Margaret Qualley walks in front of the yellow behemoth at a stoplight. When Cliff makes eyes at the youngster, she flashes him the peace sign. Cliff, in his late 30s, appears to fantasize about the girl – just as the car radio begins to play Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” In typical Tarantino style, the radio often inadvertently matches its selections with the action at hand in our story.
Unlike Tarantino’s more plot-driven action films, “Once Upon a Time” is comparatively laid back. We follow Rick during a long day of filming a guest spot on the new TV series “Lancer” (starring Wayne Maunder, played by Luke Perry in his final screen role). Interspersed with Rick’s day at the studio, we follow Cliff as he picks up the same hippychick with the peace sign, and drives her to her home at the Spahn Ranch – site of a former movie studio and now of Charles Manson’s cult. A third story line follows actress Sharon Tate (a radiant Margot Robbie) as she goes to a local matinee showing of “The Wrecking Crew” – a film in which Tate actually starred – to watch herself and soak in the audience’s positive reactions to her scenes.
While the Tate story is amusing and cute, and the Rick story is interesting, the Cliff story is the one that doesn’t seem as though it belongs. Cliff is put off by the abundance of hippies at the Spahn Ranch, and – not knowing their plans – wonders why they appear so suspicious of an outsider kind enough to provide a ride for one of their own. In Pitt’s best performance in years, Cliff lashes out at the hippies. He’ll do so again in the aforementioned bloodbath to come.
And this is where I believe Tarantino goes remarkably wrong in yet another historical rewrite. His villains this time out would appear to be hippies. But hippies are not an easy target. Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds?” Sure! Cruel slave-owners in the pre Civil War South in “Django Unchained?” Have at it! But hippies? Most were peace-loving pacifists who simply wanted to express their displeasure with the war in Viet Nam. Ironically, the hippies would have been portrayed as the good guys had “Once Upon a Time” been made in 1969.
Now the Manson cult hippies? That’s a different story. They were brutal murderers. But Tarantino seems to want to paint the entire counterculture with the same broad stroke. Rick and Cliff might not have understood the hippie movement, but what makes their old-fashioned “good guys vs. bad guys” shtick more righteous than that of the flower children?
What Tarantino does nail is the look and feel of 1969. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” so perfectly represents an exact moment in time that it couldn’t even take place in 1967. That was the year of the so-called Summer of Love – when hippies and flower children first appeared on the West Coast. By ’69, the counterculture was less about love and more about protest. The intervening years had dashed the hopes and dreams of an entire generation, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago and rapid escalation of the Viet Nam War.
The hippies of 1969 (including Qualley’s character) had no qualms about screaming unflattering epithets at police officers – or disrupting traffic simply because they could. The positive energy of the Woodstock concert was about to come crashing down with the violence and destruction of the Altamont concert. The look and feel of 1969 has never been more accurately portrayed on the big screen (in any film NOT made in 1969) than in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And to think that Tarantino was only six years old in ’69!
Since his original screenplay does include many real-life individuals – including Sharon Tate and the members of the cult who killed her in August of ’69 – we are led to believe that our story will end with her murder. But nothing is ever quite as it seems with Tarantino, and he does offer an alternative version of events, at least those leading up to the inevitable.
Unfortunately, the bloodshed and utter brutality of the ending is so over-the-top it practically renders the first two hours of its run time worthless. Had Tarantino simply cut the final scene, he would have created a masterpiece. Instead, only the final bloodbath will stick with us when we think about his finished product years from now. And that’s a damn shame.
Watching “Once Upon a Time” made me nostalgic for Tarantino’s early work. While 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” was certainly intense, it was innocuous by comparison. Remember, in “Pulp Fiction” John Travolta’s character accidentally discharges his gun and kills the man sitting in the back seat of the car. Not only do we not see the poor man’s head blown off, we never even see the man! Young Tarantino left the victim’s physical appearance to our imagination.
But something has happened to the great director during the ensuing years. With each of his films, he now believes he must ramp up the violence meter higher than in his previous offering. I thought it was a little over the top that Django burned down the entire plantation house at the end of “Django Unchained.” Such a scene was unnecessary, and worked against my overall enjoyment of that picture. But the ending of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is inexcusable. In an otherwise fantastic movie, Tarantino again proves he can be his own worst enemy.