Movie review: Once upon a time in Hollywood

September 02, 2019

ON August 8-9 of 1969, just about three weeks after man first landed on the moon and Gloria Diaz won as the first Filipina Miss Universe, the world was shocked by the horrifying death of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, who’s 8 months pregnant, and four other companions (including her former boyfriend, hairdresser Jay Sebring) in the murderous hands of ruthless Charles Manson’s cult members.

We can’t believe it’s been exactly 50 years ago since it happened. We saw the late Sharon Tate in the big 1967 hit, “Valley of the Dolls”, based on the blockbuster novel by Jacqueline Susann, and she was so sexy. She was the wife of Director Roman Polanski, who did the acclaimed films “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”. He was then directing a film in Europe when the tragic home invasion happened.

This is now the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, which has certainly taken a lot of liberties in telling the story. The movie is a combination of fact and fiction. The first part happens in February, 1969, and the next one six months later, in August.

The story concerning Sharon Tate (as played by Margot Robbie of “Tonya”) is based on facts, while the other story concerning Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is fictitious. Leo is Rick Dalton, a big TV star who played the lead in the western series, “Bounty Law”, while Brad is his stunt double and personal friend, Cliff Booth. But Rick’s career is now over the hill and he currently plays villain roles in other TV shows.

Cliff is a Vietnam veteran who’s rumored to have killed his wife and got away with it. In other words, these two big Hollywood stars play losers. Cliff lives in a trailer near the Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre with his loving dog, a pitbull named Brandy who’d play a big role in the film’s ultra violent climax. Both Leo, now 44 years old, and Brad, who’s 55, deliver performances that are alternately touching and hilarious.

Brad has a funny, crowd-pleasing scene with an annoying Bruce Lee (played by look-alike Mike Moh), who plays Kato in “The Green Hornet” then. Lee goads Brad into a fight and he gets humbled when Brad hurls him into a car, but he still thinks he’s the one who beat up Brad.

Leo has the more emotionally challenging role as an actor whose career has hit the skids, but Brad is oozing with more charisma even in a simple scene where he is just fixing a broken TV antenna on Rick’s rooftop, flirting with a Manson family member called Pussycat or bravely facing the hostile Manson family members who try to prevent him from visiting an old friend who owns the ranch where the cult is camping out, George Spahn (Bruce Dern.)

The fading Rick then meets a powerful agent (Al Pacino) who advises him to try doing spaghetti westerns to give his career a shot in the arm. The character is obviously pegged on Clint Eastwood who successfully turned to Italian westerns as the Man with No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars” after his TV career in “Rawhide” has faded. It was directed by Sergio Leone, who also did the movie “Once Upon a Time in West”, which obviously has inspired the title of Tarantino’s own movie.

Clint then returned to Hollywood and successfully revived his acting career as Dirty Harry. Leo has many well acted scenes but the most moving for us is when he gets encouragement from a child actress he’s acting with, well played by 8-year old Julia Butters. He becomes teary eyed after the validation he got from the little girl who tells him “that is the best acting I’ve ever seen.”

Leo as Rick happens to be the next door neighbor of Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in Hollywood Hills. On the supposed night of Sharon’s murder, the Manson cult killers make the mistake of straying into the house of Rick instead of Sharon’s, something they’d surely regret. This is a very violent blood bath of a sequence, which gave the movie its R-16 rating. Whether you’ll agree or not with the way Tarantino changes history is all up to you.

The movie runs for nearly three hours, but it never flagged for us. Some movies than run for only two hours have boring moments, but not this one. You know the director is indulging himself, like when he inserts Leo as Rick in a scene lifted from “The Great Escape”, but he certainly knows what he’s doing. His love for Hollywood of the late 60’s is very evident.

The period is painstakingly recaptured with the help of his production designer and cinematographer, and also by all the vintage songs you’d hear throughout the movie. Real life actors are resurrected in the movie, like Damian Lewis (of “Homeland”) looking eerily like Steve McQueen, and Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy. There’s also Nicholas Hammond (the boy Friedrich in “The Sound of Music”) doing an impersonation of Director Sam Wannamaker and Kurt Russell playing Brad’s stunt coordinator.

Tate is treated with utmost respect. It projects her guileless innocence in that sequence where she sees her movie, “The Wrecking Crew” with Dean Martin and Nancy Kwan,  being shown, presents herself to an unbelieving ticket booth seller as one of the film’s stars, then enters the moviehouse to watch herself with the audience and she thoroughly enjoys watching them laugh at her antics as the klutz. In the film clips used, you’ll see the actual Sharon Tate while Robbie watches her on screen.

The film is ambitiously layered with non-traditional storytelling and whether it adds up or not to something really cohesive for the viewer is now up for audiences to decide. Some will see it as Tarantino’s homage and celebration of the Hollywood version of that particular era and its history. But if you’re shallow, you’d only notice Tarantino’s foot fetish as there are many shots of bare feet in the movie, some of them even dirty and enough to make you cringe. For those looking for nostalgia, it wallows in 60s pop culture and there’s a montage showing the popular restaurants of the era, including El Coyote where Tate and friends have dinner on that fateful August night. You’ll either love the movie or despise it, but we don’t think you can question Tarantino’s dedication to the craft of movie making.