QT’s films are commonly hurtling toward darkness, yet Once Upon feels like a repudiation, as much as a culmination, of his oeuvre. There’s a point in the experience where the tension of watching a Quentin Tarantino story dissipates, where you begin to understand the director has forged a different path, heading instead toward some semblance of warmth and light. All of which renders the third act’s problematic violence tonally out of step (another shocking conceit from the guy who appropriately and raucously torched Nazis, car-tired someone’s face off, and gimped Ving Rhames). As Cliff repeatedly bounces a character’s skull off whatever surface is adjacent during the climax, the sequence’s one grace note is that it isn’t so much Pitt’s character as the perpetrator as it is 50 years of pent-up cultural melancholy and anger focused on the nightmare that cut short the hope and joy of an era.
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A thousand years ago, just after the hullabaloo of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) slammed broadside into our vast, cultural zeitgeist-berg – and having lived in Los Angeles just long enough where friends and family members back on the East Coast began to embark on wide-eyed tourist trips west to see what life under the sun had thus far offered – it fell upon my longtime pal Bubba (his real nickname) and me to chauffeur our newly In-N-Out-gorged visitors about the parameters of Hollywood to see what we could see. One of the two out-of-towners made her manifesto simple: she wanted to see Leonardo DiCaprio and why the hell shouldn’t she. While smugly explaining it didn’t exactly work that way, that’s exactly how it worked. We instantly, as if by a summoning, passed Leonardo Fucking DiCaprio and a gaggle of his buddies kicking it in front of Santa Monica Boulevard’s fabled Formosa Cafe.1 Bub, a nifty driver perfectly suited for the halt-and-catch-fire, can’t-really-get-lost ethos of southern California’s gridded streets, almost put the car on two wheels flipping a turn to the curb, dodging hyperventilated screams like so many stray bullets. I was elected to walk back along the sidewalk to the Formosa with our visitor to where Leo stood, poised in a way his pixelated friends were not, calmly blowing bubbles from one of those little plastic Day-Glo containers. It was the arrested-development image incarnate of a movie star on the way, way up, youth steeling itself against an inevitable wave of adulation and fame in a manner befitting only the most confident or clueless. That is to say, blissful.
I can’t help but think of that now as a memory also belonging to Rick Dalton, the character DiCaprio portrays in Quentin Tarantino’s tone saga, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, of his younger self. Dalton is in danger of becoming that old movie trope, the past-his-prime professional actor, and although it doesn’t seem likely that DiCaprio will be facing that dilemma anytime soon, as Dalton his eyes constantly flicker inward, surveying the dust of his life for past nova bursts of vitality. It wouldn’t be outrageous to imagine him recalling those bubbles floating out into the hot night of LA, the last moments before success began its necrosis.
DiCaprio, for his part, brilliantly alternates currents as Dalton. He channels a jittery Jack Lemmon, suffused with the coiled, self-lacerating anger of Robert Ryan and the pithy, thick-necked meta-crisis of ego that defined the persona of Jack Carson, who sometimes played characters named Jack Carson onscreen.2 Yet it all serves, in DiCaprio’s – and Tarantino’s – most sincere filmmaking to date, to underscore a gaping vulnerability (I know, world’s smallest violin playing just for the poor, deposed movie star, but it’s why you’re here). In a feat of simultaneously heightened/tampened charisma, DiCaprio plays Rick as cool not cool, frequently unsure of what to say to anyone who isn’t his best friend, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, and more frequently on the edge of tears. At times, he even seems shaky on how he’d like to walk, especially when ambling awkwardly around a production set.
Tics and mannerisms have always been a part of Leo’s (and Brad’s) respective tool kits, but – justifiable debates about representation aside – DiCaprio has largely been respectful of and technically committed to accurate depictions of physical, mental, and intellectual disabilities in his performances. Reportedly, the actor and director felt Rick Dalton likely had undiagnosed bipolar disorder; rather than overtly insert it into the narrative, DiCaprio subtly uses its vacillatory nature as an unseen spine housing so many of the character’s frayed nerves.3 Dalton stutters, almost imperceptibly, but it never seems fitted to elicit empathy. Just before the day’s filming starts on a serial TV show he’s bad-guying in, he recounts the plot points of a pulpy western novel he’s reading to a genuinely interested eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters, nailing it); in doing so, the character of the washed-up, broken-down cowboy, kicked off one too many horse and short a step, projects itself onto Dalton’s psyche, the cruel symbolism of his own encroaching fate reducing him to tears again. That shaky, uncool, self-conscious gait of his? Of course: it’s a lingering limp from being kicked off one too many horses poorly disguised as a semi-strut, one Dalton probably tried to hone to hipness before just giving up. It echoes the damaged-spine motif, and it’s an elegiac touch.
In life, as in the movies, if Lawrence Tierney gets on the other end of the line, one way or the other, sister – you’re in for it. Bubba was unwittingly on one end of it while we were at the home of a mutual friend one evening; what proceeded to play out over the telephone was the dawning realization that, apparently, there was exactly one degree of separation between Tarantino’s OG crime patriarch in Reservoir Dogs (and notorious on- and off-screen tough who toughed his way directly into low-rent villain roles for the breadth of his career) and us. Bub got it, all right, a right earful: Tierney ripped into him for not being the guy he was trying to reach, while Bub – bless his heart – misunderstood the actor’s gravelly rumble and volleyed back and forth for ten thousand uncomfortable minutes until Tierney’s intended target returned from the facilities.4
It was a grand Hollywood show, to say nothing of the fact that Bub was getting reamed by Joe Cabot from Reservoir Dogs. And unless you count the Manson folks (and you shouldn’t), Once Upon is absent of the quasi-noble, gutter-skimming crooks of the kind Tierney and others have conjured to angry life in previous QT films. In fact, Once Upon is undeniably sweet, moving even. It’s the decade’s best romantic comedy, without the clichéd trappings: in place of awakening heterosexual magnetism, we get Rick and Cliff’s deep, soulful friendship. Instead of the, say, unscrupulous, frequently corporate-like rival archetype presented in the usual rom-com fare, we get the ironically supplanted Manson Gang. Ironic because, of course, the murderously anti-capitalist Manson (played by Damon Herriman) would hate that, which is the point. Charlie’s vaporous presence here is nominally incidental, and he wafts in and out of the film so briefly as to be an afterthought. Which is the point. If, however, the lovable, scene-stealing best animal pal of the lead is an admitted trope of those kinds of breezy meet-cutes, then QT picks the correct genre hijack here – Sayuri the pit bull plays Cliff’s good doggo Brandy, and in a film brimming with beautiful creatures, Brandy is the most stunning.
This is Tarantino’s American Graffiti, his Dazed and Confused, or Boogie Nights, where strands of time and place thread deeper than plot. It’s not faulty, either, to think Tarantino borrows from his contemporary colleagues as much as he cribs from the Old Masters – the onscreen chyrons, Kurt Russell narration, and, most memorably, a clipped flashback to the moment Cliff Booth may or may not have killed his wife (never satisfyingly defined, terrifically) bring to mind the color and whimsy of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and I’m scrunching up my face right now seeing that statement down in print. It’s true, though: QT’s films are commonly hurtling toward darkness, yet Once Upon feels like a repudiation, as much as a culmination, of his oeuvre. There’s a point in the experience where the tension of watching a Quentin Tarantino story dissipates, where you begin to understand the director has forged a different path, heading instead toward some semblance of warmth and light. All of which renders the third act’s problematic violence tonally out of step (another shocking conceit from the guy who appropriately and raucously torched Nazis, car-tired someone’s face off, and gimped Ving Rhames). As Cliff repeatedly bounces a character’s skull off whatever surface is adjacent during the climax, the sequence’s one grace note is that it isn’t so much Pitt’s character as the perpetrator as it is 50 years of pent-up cultural melancholy and anger focused on the nightmare that cut short the hope and joy of an era.
Somewhere in the middle of last decade, Bubba managed the San Fernando Valley Italian eatery famous for being the site of the murder of Robert Blake’s then-wife. The ensuing notoriety did nothing to stop Angelenos from packing the restaurant for years to come, and it’s evidence of how inextricably linked Los Angeles’s food scene is to its culture at large. As advertised, Once Upon is an ode to LA, then and now, and especially evocative in recreating the area’s eateries. El Coyote shows up, the Mexican joint where Sharon Tate and pals ate on the night. Chili fucking John’s in Burbank? Yes, indeed (and who, I might add, puts their transcendent chili over spaghetti). And Casa Vega, where not only Dalton and Booth slurp themselves into drunken slumps, but – yup – where Bub and I once, twice, whatever, deigned to leave our car behind, too.5
Indelible as some of the acting in his films has been, Tarantino’s directorial presence has always really been the featured player, for better or not (aside from maybe 1997’s Jackie Brown, a movie that feels like direct kin). In Once Upon, though, the acting’s the thing. A couple of notable supporting cameos, the kind of which QT is famous for, especially in that he never just drops them into the show for a cheap thrill but as an important cog in the overall atmosphere: Nicholas Hammond, ye of the live-action television Amazing Spider-Man (that ran from 1977 to 79) and Sound of Music Von Trapp family, plays TV director Sam Wanamaker, oozing a magnetic compulsion for chasing artistic aspirations; and Luke Perry, noble and tender, in one of his final roles as real thesp Wayne Maunder acting opposite Dalton in a scene from the western series Lancer.
The film paints Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate as being the one that got away. If she had lived, the diegesis seems to imply, things – not just in Hollywood or in America, but maybe everywhere and definitely in our collective hearts – might’ve been … better. It’s a spirited, guileless performance, and not in any of the manic pixie actorly ways that only seem to otherwise pop out in a feature article for Vanity Fair. The sequence where Tate watches herself onscreen as Freya Carlson in 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, her smile sheepishly unfurling under unselfconsciously humongous eyeglasses in light of the audience laughter her performance is eliciting, envelops her – and us – like a security blanket. It’s an incandescent moment, reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s can’t-believe-this-is-happening grin in Ed Wood (1994) as the curtain opens on his golden opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Anyone who might have been initially upset at the thought of Robbie as Tate is likely quite moved by her work here.
Now, Brad Pitt.
Bub’s ex-girlfriend, a hit-the-pavement working actor back in the day, renowned as the dancing bride in the opening credits of 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding, once landed a commercial for a Japanese sneaker brand co-starring Pitt, during an era where movie stars routinely leased themselves out for advertisements overseas that were assured never to be broadcast in the States.6 Her remembrance of him at the time was as a swell, pleasant guy who took opportunities to go off by himself in between shooting. And Pitt as Cliff Booth is just that, the embodiment of writer/world cruiser Bob Bitchin’s quote, “Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.”7 When he takes the chance to go off by himself, usually while Rick is shooting, it’s to adventure around Los Angeles’s ecosystem in a Cadillac chariot, to commune with and explore the city’s nature, something like one of Toshiro Mifune’s wandering samurai QT has so often rhapsodized about. He’s also the kind of guy that Rick isn’t ever likely to take for granted, even as he may do so with almost everyone else in his life. And, like the friend we all need, Cliff can handle an ordeal, whether it’s reassuring Rick he’ll be okay or navigating through a minefield of Mansonites at Spahn Ranch to check on an old colleague.
In Once Upon’s most unsettling and suspenseful sequence, Pitt’s cadences, the way he curls his Missourian accent around a word or name, or carefully explains his intentions to walk on over to the back house to visit George Spahn, owner of the dilapidated western movie set, or the way he turns back over his shoulder to gauge the mood of the increasingly menacing hippies who seep out of adjacent facades, are as revelatory as they’ve ever been, and Pitt has been a performer historically unafraid to utilize unique vocal sound design and physicality to help delineate his characters (think 12 Monkeys, Kalifornia, or Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds). If Robbie’s Tate is the heart of the film, Pitt’s Booth is its soul, a stabilizing presence that invokes the personas of the only other two stars who probably could’ve pulled this off as effectively – Paul Newman and Robert Redford. And Pitt’s scenes with Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a Manson follower flitting about town (Qualley’s career is, simply, one to watch), flirt with the kind of Powell and Loy energy that sears something into you after it’s left the screen, although I’m not sure it’s so easy to imagine Powell and Loy discussing blow jobs. Check that, it is.8
Bub and I were supposed to see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood together in the theater, as we had with Boogie Nights years prior (and recently, mourned one of the defining avatars of that era in our lives, Philip Seymour Hoffman), but as things in life are apt to get in the way, we ultimately didn’t. But it’ll be on disc and/or streaming soon enough and we’ll watch it again, and just like the scene in which Rick and Cliff park themselves in front of the television set to collaboratively riff on the latest episode of whatever show Rick is portraying the villain in, we’ll have some good shit to say to each other.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from freely available YouTube trailers.
- The Formosa Cafe figured prominently in Curtis Harrington’s L.A. Confidential (1997); the legendary spot has been through a few aesthetic iterations over the years, as recent as this past spring, but it remains open. [↩]
- See It’s a Great Feeling (1949), directed by David Butler and co-starring Dennis Morgan (also playing himself) and Doris Day (not playing herself). [↩]
- Watch DiCaprio and Tarantino discuss as much in this Vanity Fair interview, around the 11:40 mark: https://youtu.be/cF76gm9PdOs. [↩]
- I’ll save our “Hiding from Duane Whitaker” (Maynard, Zed’s friend, from Pulp Fiction) story for another time. [↩]
- All of these establishments are open to this day. Chili John’s is closed for about a month or so every summer. Apparently, some people don’t want hot chili in the deepest, toastiest part of the southern California season. Those people are wrong. [↩]
- Raci (pronounced “Rocky”) Alexander, https://imdb.to/2ZLiMPb. [↩]
- Of many quotes about nature that could underscore the themes of the film, found here: https://runrepeat.com/hiking-and-adventure-quotes#section5. [↩]
- William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in 14 films together, the absolute pinnacle being 1934’s The Thin Man, directed by W. S. Van Dyke. To my knowledge, they never discussed oral sex onscreen. [↩]