Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Dream in the Dream Factory, by Scott Nye
Quentin Tarantino’s four most recent films have all been titled in homage to his heroes of the 1960s and ‘70s. It hasn’t been my favorite tendency he’s indulged, as the works themselves are far more imbued with his considerable creativity than they are dependent on the reference points they admittedly encourage. His latest, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood suggests an effort to similarly situate the film amidst the Leone masterpiece Tarantino adores, but the title card for this newer film has a far different effect. Leone’s film played on legend; Tarantino, on dreams, and our personal fantasies.
The film takes place in 1969, and is primarily told from three points of view – Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio), a former TV star frustrated with his fading opportunities; Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s longtime stunt double who now works mostly as an all-purpose assistant; and Rick’s next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a young actress whose career is starting to take off. The first two are Tarantino’s invention, but Tate was a real person, killed by members of the Manson family on August 9th, when she was over eight months pregnant.
Most of the film takes place in February of that year, in the long afternoons that, in Los Angeles, are relatively indistinguishable from the rest of the year. The pace of life here can be so fluid that it’s hard to know the passage of time. Rick and Cliff can still drive around in t-shirts like they’re in their thirties; the latter can visit the Manson family at Spahn ranch in Chatsworth and feel the desert heat. Sharon can stroll about Westwood by day, ducking in to see her new movie, and dance at the Playboy Mansion all night. Rick can lounge in a film set chair and reflect on the book he’s reading. They have all the comforts the city can offer even those on the fringes of its famous industry. They have time to drift, to imagine, and also to worry.
By 1969, America thought it was reaching a breaking point in anxiety, anxieties the film rather maturely pushes to the background. Robert Kennedy’s assassination is discussed briefly in one of the countless radio broadcasts we hear snippets of (shades of Demy’s Model Shop, the best film that can ever be made about Los Angeles in 1969), and the culture clash between Rick and Cliff’s generation and the hippies who linger on the sidewalks is felt in the periphery. The war isn’t mentioned at all. What Rick and Cliff are going through could happen anytime, to anyone, as Rick discovers when reading what should be a cheap, throwaway novel. We all get older.
DiCaprio (now 44 years old) and Pitt (55) have largely dodged the issue of age in their work; with the exception of Pitt in By the Sea, both have resisted appearing as anything past early middle-age, old enough to have young children but still young enough to have a wide future. This is really the first film I can think of seeing Pitt and thinking how old he’s getting. Tarantino encourages this by giving us long stretches to simply look at him, stretches of time where nothing’s happening but his face. And like Angelina Jolie, Tarantino is a smart enough director to simply give his film over to Pitt, his way of standing, moving, looking, and being; the essence of cinema that too few directors care to explore. Beyond his innate handsomeness, these stretches don’t necessarily call upon his considerable charm, but instead lead us to wonder what you think about when you’re that good-looking, that age, and have nothing to go home to but a rundown trailer and a particularly well-trained dog. We get a glimpse into one such daydream Cliff has. And we think we come back from it. Probably.
DiCaprio, the contemporary cinema’s most electric bundle of nerves, is the ideal vessel for Rick’s anxiety. Cliff accepts, to a point, what he’s become and where he’s heading, and he’s open-minded about the hippie revolution in a way Rick certainly is not. Rick wants things he can count on, citing advice 1950s character actor Edmond O’Brien gave him to purchase property in Hollywood to fix your roots there. Rick’s inability to relax, his desire to appear calm and centered when he is anything but, is a perfect fit for DiCaprio, who despite being a natural screen actor has no sense of chill. He lends Rick a stutter, and a look in his eyes like he’s always a little bit somewhere else.
We see an extended sequence of Rick filming the part of the bad guy on a TV western pilot, half a foot in his head – there are no cameras around him, no breaks between set-ups, his performance more how he sees it than how the TV viewer ever will (the camera’s rolling rotation between DiCaprio and scene partner Timothy Olyphant acting as the mirror Rick won’t even look directly into). It’s a stunning sequence in part because of its long takes, in large part because DiCaprio tears it apart both as Rick and as the character Rick’s playing, and because it seems to have so little bearing on the film – why all this effort on the making of a TV pilot? – until gradually, it feels like that’s all that ever mattered. How we see ourselves, and forgetting that others might.
This is the loosest screenplay Tarantino has yet written, largely bereft of the ultra-clever lines that have marked his work from the start. The payoffs are so barely telegraphed that their eventual fruition could be sudden inspiration. I’d even venture to say Tarantino’s finally made the old-man film he was attempting to retire before realizing, a film made on reflex, about all the spare moments between the big moments. He was praised for this in Pulp Fiction, rightly so, but in retrospect it feels like he filled that time with smaller big moments. His characters were too clever to ever be really bored. Here, Sharon wanders past a theater three times before deciding to go inside.
And you feel, through this lax quality and the length of time he spends with the simplest things, Tarantino’s desire to live inside it. It’s clear he could spend the entire film driving up and down Hollywood Blvd, dipping into restaurants and shops, chatting up their proprietors for even a few seconds. His desperation for details – the radio jingles, the ads on the road, the old signs that come alive as August 8th creeps towards August 9th – all mark a world he is ecstatic to recreate. I love these kinds of films, made for the pleasure of their making. It’s a dream of the past, a dream of the town that makes our dreams come true.
Those who saw Inglourious Basterds will know that Tarantino’s dreams do not hew precisely to the historical record, and the extent to which he faithfully depicts the events of August 9th, I’ll leave for you to discover. It stirred a lot of questions in me about the morality of bringing the dead to life onscreen, and revisiting a tragedy so horrific as to be unimaginable for most of us. There’s a strong case to be made that Tarantino does so irresponsibly. I don’t have a conclusive thought on that yet, nor would I expect to after a single viewing. I do feel that, as a film, as a thing one sits in for nearly three hours and wanders around and ruminates it, it’s a bold, strange, incredibly alluring experience. But I share Tarantino’s fondness for the era, and the dream is powerfully persuasive.