Cannes 2019: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by Luiz Oliveira
I know you’re expecting this fable to start in the summer of ’69. After all, that’s when the story you know happens, well, happens. But things started going wrong a bit before and when we first meet TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/assistant/BFF for life Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) it’s still February 8th. It’s sunny, though, since we’re in California and the world is still swinging.
Decay is in the air and Dalton knows it. He’s a famous TV actor who tried his hand at movies but it didn’t work out. So he’s back on TV, except that now he ain’t a “hero.” He’s a “heavy,” getting beat up by younger cowboys, shot dead in one pilot after another. Cliff, on the other hand, he’s always just fine. He knows his prime has passed but he really doesn’t care. The man loves his dog, trailer, job, and friend. He’s just as happy picking an on-set fight with Bruce Lee as fixing Dalton’s rooftop antenna.
There they are, the director seems to say, going through the ins and outs of a Hollywood existence. There’s plenty of God’s-eye-view camera moves here, as if the teller if this tale has built himself an incredible playset, a Los Angeles so authentic to its 60s time period, one can only imagine how he was able to get so many wide shots. The set and prop details are a fetish here, for he was doing this kind of thing way before anyone ever dreamed of Mad Men. Angelenos will be delighted, for sure.
This is, after all, a Tarantino dream, with plenty of feet, a ton of music cues, names and references, western sets and shoots, and old friends playing small roles. Plenty of scenes from old movies and TV shows are on every screen.
At some point, however, the 60s went wrong, and living right next to Dalton are Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. They’re out and about, part of the crowd, hitting the party scene and hosting friends over, blinder than everyone else to the Vietnam War on the radio and those odd hippies on every street corner.
Those more familiar with what happened in that coming summer will have a better hold on who everybody is (and a few of those listed on IMDb never show up, showing there’s plenty of movie beyond the 160 minutes shown here at the fest). In the podcast era, why not indulge in “You Must Remember Manson”? Two central sequences, one at a western TV shoot and another at The Spahn Ranch, home to a menacing family, are the film’s best.
Pitt and DiCaprio are at their best in their roles, as is Robbie. Margaret Qualley is a particular stand-out as a member of the cult.
By the time The Mamas & the Papas hit the soundtrack, however, it’s about time the California dream became a nightmare and this is where Tarantino steps into a minefield. Maybe he makes it out, maybe he doesn’t and the internet shall have one hell of a time debating everything that transpires. Ever since the unfortunate death of his true muse, Sally Menke, QT has been all id, with no one to tell him when to step on the brakes. He knows this is all touchy material but, when you think about it, he’s been here before.