SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this until after you see the film if you are one of those people who likes to go in with a blank slate. The following is the full monty.
BY DAN TABOR AND JONATHAN VALANIA Once Upon A Time In Hollywood , Quentin Tarantino’s Manson-adjacent Hollywood hippie fantasia, is a fuckin’ hoot — let’s just make that clear up front. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, who is kind of an amalgam of Tab Hunter, Fabian, Ty Harden and James Garner. You know, basically your typical ‘50s handsome leading he-man with a big pompadour and an even bigger gun. The year is 1969 and old school Hollywood dawgs like Rick are finally starting to feel the culture shifting tectonically beneath their feet. Echoing Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Rick’s claim to fame is a shoot-’em-up Western TV series called Bounty Law that ran from 1958 to 1963. Rick even has a funny story about his near miss attempt to land the role in The Great Escape that elevated McQueen to Hollywood A-list status. We learn that Rick burned his TV bridges when he walked away from Bounty Law in search of greener pastures in feature films that never materialized. When we catch up with Rick six years later, he’s a bloated, broken-down alcoholic who has been relegated to playing the heavy in guest spots on American television shows and starring in B-movie spaghetti westerns overseas. DiCaprio does a surprisingly vulnerable and utterly convincing take as a cracked actor who senses his days in Hollywood are numbered if he doesn’t snag a hit. Rick Dalton is peak Leo.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood pairs Dalton with his former stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) whose been reduced to earning his keep as Rick’s gopher/drinking buddy after a career-ending incident on the set of The Green Hornet TV series co-starring Bruce Lee. Cliff is that breed of unflappable, lantern-jawed, tough-as-nails stunt man that helped pioneer the craft with their human cannonball fearlessness — he’s a honey-haired Hal Needham in a Hawaiian shirt. Pitt is grizzled to perfection here, which lends a certain verite to his performance given that most stuntmen were 10 years senior to the actor they were doubling, and his cool-as-a-cucumber swagger rivals Tyler Durden. Cliff Booth is peak Pitt.
The final piece of this trifecta of leads is ‘60s It Girl Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Rick’s Cielo Drive neighbor. Just coming off The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin as a boozy Bond send-up, Tate is newly married to director Roman Polanski who is basking in the reflected glory of his 1968 masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby. Like Cliff, Tate also has a connection to Bruce Lee, who choreographed her martial arts scenes in The Wrecking Crew. Completing the circle is the fact that Tate introduced Lee to hip-hairstylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring (the basis for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo, and the man who gave Jim Morrison the Alexander The Great coiff he rocks in the iconic Young Lion photos), who then recommended Lee for his career-making role as Kato in The Green Hornet. Effortlessly channeling that dewey mascara-and-gogo-boots ‘60s Hollywood starlet vibe, Robbie is nothing short of breathtaking on screen.
At the very top of his game, Tarantino masterfully weaves together Dalton’s off-screen life and his fictional filmography with the real world events and celebrities of the era. Take for example a fictional film Dalton did on hiatus called The 14 Fists of McCluskey, which was cribbed from Roger Corman’s Secret Invasion. Tarantino even goes so far as to borrow a behind the scenes story from Corman’s production, switching out Edd Byrnes for Rick Dalton. In Once Upon A Time… we learn that Fabian was slated to play the Rick Dalton part until he broke his shoulder on The Virginian and Rick got the call to replace him. In real life, Edd Byrnes got his gig on the Secret Invasion when Bobby Darin ran off with a Czech girl. It’s the kind of deep cut old Hollywood meta that only a devout scholar of mid-20th Century La La Land like Tarantino would even think to pull off.
Tarantino has been saying recently this might be his last film and the script for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood contains multiple thinly-veiled parallels to his own career. Rick and Cliff are two men that come from a very different time who made their name playing tough guys in the ‘50s. Tarantino pioneered tough guy nouveau cinema in the ‘90s, bringing to life some of the greatest badasses ever committed to celluloid. Like the boozy white male privilege of Rick and Cliff, Tarantino’s penchant for high body count ultra-violence and un-PC tough guys dropping F-bombs and racial epithets at an astonishing rate has been retroactively flagged as “problematic” by millennial re-appraisers. These new school Hollywood millennials nipping at Tarantino’s heels IRL are represented in the film by the Manson cult which includes Lena Dunham as a high-ranking Manson chick who runs Cliff off the Barker Ranch for snooping around.
Instructed by Manson to slaughter Tate and make it “witchy,” Charlie’s angels of death call an audible at the last minute when they arrive at Cielo Drive and realize Rick Dalton lives next door. As children of television who witnessed the pitiless frontier justice meted out by Dalton’s Wild West terminator on Bounty Law every week, Manson’s hippie assassins muse on the wicked irony of using violence “to kill those they learned violence from” and decide to off Tate’s next door neighbor instead. And so, Tarantino goes out guns a-blazing as the film ends in a literally scorching blood bath wherein the Manson creeps get their brutal comeuppance, just like Hitler and the Nazi creeps got theirs at the end of Inglorious Basterds. Message to all you cocky whippersnappers: do not fuck with these tough old motherfuckers, because they will end you.
And Sharon Tate lives happily ever after.