ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD

Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood is a fairy tale of two houses. Inside one lives Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, magnificent), a TV star cut from the Steve McQueen fold. Simultaneously in his prime and all washed up, Dalton spends most of days around Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s one-time stunt double, now driver/gopher/drinking buddy; a close friend who is “more than a brother, less than a wife,” according to the movie’s narrator.

In the other house live actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an actress on her way up but not yet a household name, and husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). The address: 10050 Cielo Drive, one of the most notorious addresses of Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles — a city bursting with notoriety.

The affairs of the first house concern the majority of Once Upon a Time, the latest film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, but it’s what happened — or will happen — in the second house that makes the tale worth telling. As the name suggests, Once Upon a Time is a fairy tale, a work of historical fiction that fits nicely alongside Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. But while those movies are kinetic and explosive, Once Upon a Time is a slow build to a brutal crescendo. The world has changed since Dalton’s one good TV show, “Bounty Law,” in the late 1950s, and he sees that change on every street corner Booth drives him past, at every audition, and every trip to the make-up chair. The new is creeping in on Dalton’s world and his position in it. But it’s only February 1969; in six months, Dalton won’t believe how close that change will creep.

Dalton and Booth are fictitious creations, but the world they inhabit is not. Tate, Polanski, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), and that hippie commune out in Spahn Ranch are as real as the dread you feel when a shaggy Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) shows up on the Polanski/Tate driveway. As real as the chill in your bones when three of Manson’s most loyal devils arrive at 10050 Cielo Drive in the early hours of August 9, 1969, their hulking, smoke-spewing jalopy polluting this idyllic cul-de-sac. Next-door is Dalton, all used up and broke, just another aging actor who drinks too much and works too little. Booth is here too, high on an acid trip with his beloved pit bull, Brandy. Tonight, the 1960s come to an unceremonious, and climactic end.

The specter of death haunts the events of Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood, but Tarantino finds a way to enjoy the last gasp of the swinging 60s. From TV shows to blaring radios: each one seemingly stuck on an endless array of advertisements, deejay bumpers, and station identifications. Somehow he manages to make the intrusions and interruptions seem joyous. If John Lennon truly believed that life happens while you’re busy making other plans than Quentin Tarantino loves life.

Tarantino also loves Hollywood and Los Angeles and the dichotomy between them. They are two sides of the same coin, one trafficking in fantasy, the other in reality. As anyone who has spent so much as a day there will attest, Hollywood is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. True; and so is the product it produces and exports all over the world, each one more real than the last. But only because we picture it that way, arranging the components to suit the narrative we need. And want. Sometimes the fantasy turns out better than reality.

Happily ever after exists only in stories, after all, and in Hollywood, fairy tales aren’t just commodities, they’re a way of life. Even as the purple dusk of twilight time fades, a new story steals across the southland canyons and valleys. Try hard enough, and you’ll make out the sounds of an orchestra tuning over the roar of the Hollywood Freeway. The neon lights of Sunset Boulevard flicker on, the curtain rises, our eyes fix upon the stage: Once upon a time…

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood.” Image courtesy Sony Pictures.

Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Produced by David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Rafal Zawierucha, Costa Ronin, Samantha Robinson, Damon Herriman
Columbia Pictures, Running time 161 minutes, Rated R, Opens July 26, 2019

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