Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.
Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here, instead only wanting to use the Manson family to rag on hippies, is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.
The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.
Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.