Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Rating:

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

Main Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Daenerys by Vathanna
The resemblance is uncanny, really.

We finished the Valkyrie section of our fabulous live on location production of the Ring Cycle with only a little scorching of the hill side when the flames surrounding my rocky crag went a little higher than they had in rehearsal and singed some nearby fir trees.  Fortunately, the Rudesheim fire department was on hand and was able keep the flames from spreading to the gondola station and the nearby vineyards.  Tomorrow morning we shoot Siegfried’s confrontation with the dragon, Fafner a bit further upriver on the banks of the Main near Wurzburg.  I’ve decided to make it a bit more hip so we’re interpolating Ramin Djawadi’s title theme for Game of Thrones and I’m going to do an aerial ballet dressed as Daenerys Storm Born as Fafner makes his entrance.  One has to do something to keep the kids engaged.

On the following day, we move on to the Gotterdammerung section which we’re filming in the old Nazi rally grounds in Nuremburg.  The pyrotechnic crews are working overtime and we have a whole other group of technicians working on the locks so we can raise the river and flood the grounds at the appropriate moment.  It’s going to require split second timing, a gaggle of stunt men to play drowning and burning Teutonic deities, and some special order waterproof tap shoes for me to be able to execute a series of twenty seven buck and wings to the final chords before I am lifted to safety by an Asgard search and rescue chopper.  I’m not supposed to reveal this but I like to give my readers a peak behind the scenes.  We have a few outtakes from the drowning of Isengard at the end of The Two Towers which we’re going to edit in to cover some of the rougher spots.

I have to get some beauty sleep this evening, but we finished early enough for me to head for the Wurzburg Odeon where the film of the evening was the new opus from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  I’m not a huge Tarantino fan but I try to see everything that portrays the tinsel town that I call home.  I dearly recall the summer of 69; I was working at Paramount filming my musical about the origins of the Thugee cult, Hello, Kali! opposite Rock Hudson, Diane Baker, and Ray Walston. It had the misfortune to open the same week as some Barbra Streisand musical and there was some confusion by the critics.  There are some of you thinking ‘But Vicki, you’re an eternally youthful 39.  How could you have been working so many years ago?’ and to them I say, it’s all fake news.  Who are you going to trust, mainstream media sources or me who has never lied to you – never ever.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fantasia of a vanished time, using some real, some fantastical, and some alternate reality elements to create a Hollywood of yore that never really was.  We meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fifties heart throb who achieved leading man status with a television Western called Bounty Law (vaguely based on Wanted Dead or Alive).  The show was canceled after his bad behavior and DUIs and now he’s older and reduced to playing heavies on episodic TV like The FBI and Mannix.  His best bro and wing man is Cliff Booth, his longtime stunt double (Brad Pitt) who acts as his driver, gal Friday, and confessor.  Rick lives in a trophy home high in the Hollywood Hills, on Cielo drive, next door to  a house rented out to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and her ex and best friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).  Anyone who was around in the 60s knows exactly what happened at that house in August of 1969 so a feeling of inexorable dread begins to permeate the picture.  Rick has been hired to be the heavy on an episode of the western Lancer starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) (a real series and actor) but is having huge insecurities in his abilities as an actor.  Meanwhile, Cliff is rodding around LA without much to do due to his bad reputation on set (including a run in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and conflict with a stunt supervisor (Kurt Russell)).  He falls in with a teen sex pot named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who lives with a bunch of other flower children out at an abandoned movie ranch owned by George Spahn (Bruce Dern), old and blind and demented.  The threads all come together on a hot August night on Cielo drive and lead to an eruption of Tarantinoesque violence, but not of the type the audience is expecting given history.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is interesting.  On the one hand, it’s a fable of the cruelty of Hollywood along the lines of The Day of the Locust or A Star is Born.  On the other, it’s a buddy comedy but the comedy is a thin veneer over a layer of explosive anger which keeps the tension high.  Anger seems to be the operative word for the film.  Rick is angry that his career has stalled.  Cliff, who seems to have some PTSD from prior military service, is angry that life hasn’t given him more than an old airstream trailer behind a drive-in in the San Fernando Valley.  The Manson girls are angry at society, especially Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning in an unnerving performance).  The only major character who isn’t angry is Sharon Tate, who is looking forward to welcoming her first child and we expect her to be doomed.  This anger is held at bay by a veneer of success and forced gaiety, just as Hollywood is portrayed as a bright sunny place with roiling dark currents underneath.

Tarantino the writer has lots of interesting ideas, but is in bad need of an editor to keep him in check.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood runs over two and a half hours and feels very long in stretches.  There are brilliant sequences such as the menace dripping over every frame when Cliff visits the Manson family camped out at the Spahn movie ranch.  There are sequences that go on for far too long such as Rick’s filming of his Lancer episode (leavened only by a fun turn by Julia Butters as a precocious eight year old actress).  Tarantino is having fun sending up the world of the television western but we don’t need to wallow in it quite so much.  The whole sequence could have been disposed of in a five minute montage. Tarantino the director is self-assured.  He does his usual homages to the more obscure parts of pop culture of the sixties including a few interesting cameos such as Clu Gulager and Nicholas Hammond from The Sound of Music, scores the whole thing to a killer sound track of late sixties hits, and leads us on a tour from the Hollywood Hills to the Sunset Strip to the Playboy Mansion in its heyday.  He fills the screen with neon and billboards and marquees suggesting that Hollywood is always on and it’s always about the product.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his films, admiring them more than liking them but he does bring a mature sensibility to this one that had been missing at times from some of his earlier efforts that often seemed to be mired in adolescent sophistry.  He even sends himself up with some references to his prior oeuvre.

Brad Pitt walks away with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  Leonardo may have the showier role, but Brad’s charisma and ability so convey the levels of anger and pain under the surface make him mesmerizing on screen.  It doesn’t hurt that even at the age of 55, he’s still smoking hot as proved by a couple of gratuitous shirtless scenes.  Leonardo is at his best when he’s at his most anguished and he even gives a certain amount of élan to his scenes where he’s doing very good bad acting for film within film.  This reaches its apogee with a clip from The Great Escape in which he has been digitally inserted.  Steve McQueen shows up as a character (Damian Lewis who does a credible impersonation) but the introduction of him and a few other 60s celebrities is muffed in both the writing and staging such that they have to be subtitled so we will know who they are. Margot Robbie glows as the lovely Sharon and has a great moment where she watches herself on screen and takes simple pleasure as the others in the theater, unaware of her presence, laugh and react to her celluloid self.

Perhaps the true stars of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are the many many people employed by the art department, wardrobe department, and special effects department who lovingly recreate Hollywood and Los Angeles of a very specific moment.  The clothes, the cars, the shop windows.  Everything is spot on for 1969.  The only thing they got wrong is the air is too clear.  LA in that period was horribly smoggy (Earth Day and the EPA were still a couple of years away) in ways that we have all but forgotten.

The film is good, it’s worth seeing.  People will be arguing about the last fifteen minutes for years (and I’m not going to divulge why).  It falls short of being great due to its excessive length and some major dead spots in the second act.  If Tarantino can fall in with an editor to whom he’ll listen, he may still be capable of creating a cinematic masterpiece.

Spaghetti Westerns.  Brandy, she’s a fine dog, fine.  Gratuitous Al Pacino. Mama Cass running. Trail rides. Jar of pickles. Implied spear gun homicide. Disgusting dog food. Acid laced cigarette. Noisy muffler. Stabbed tire.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

image by Vathanna (CC3.0)

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