4. The star-studded cast portraying fictional and real characters
Part of the fun of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is taking in the parade of players that populate the film. The star-studded cast play a mixture of fictional and real people, and while those familiar with this particular era of Tinseltown and America will reap the most rewards, it still makes for a pleasure cruise of Hollywood who’s who and even sort of as something of a history lesson.
As already discussed there’s Sharon Tate (Robbie) and there’s also other marks of the Manson family; Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), portrayed as real, relatable people.
We also get a scene where we can hiss at Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) himself, and more than a couple wherein we can wince at his most devout followers; Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty), and Linda “Flowerchild” Kasabian (Maya Hawke), the latter of whom we can silently cheer as she became a cooperating witness during the real-life trial but in the movie is relegated to a cameo that nets a pretty decent laugh. Other real-life Manson family members portrayed include Clem Grogan (James Landry Hébert) and Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning).
There’s also a wealth of inspired casting choices for legendary celebrities like a Kato-era Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), Waybe Maunder (Luke Perry), Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf), and a darkly funny turn from the always great Bruce Dern as rancher and studio owner George Spahn.
Other notables in the cast include Rebecca Gayheart, Clu Gulager, Al Pacino, and a scene-swiping Julia Butters.
3. Brad Pitt’s performance
If it hasn’t been made clear yet, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, at its heart, a buddy picture. While DiCaprio’s fading star Dalton is an affectionate ode to insecurity and ego, it’s Pitt’s Booth as his personal stuntman who really is the cherry on top.
Cliff Booth is so much more than Dalton’s stunt double, he’s often his on set stand-in, his personal driver, personal assistant, and bestie for life. With seemingly little effort he encapsulates the two-fisted authority that Dalton can only feign on the TV screen. It’s Booth afterall who can best Bruce Lee with drollery and swagger to spare. His run-in with the strungout hippies of the Manson family at the Spahn ranch is another instance of his heroic marrow and fealty. By the time the final act starts to unspool, it’s Booth who will probably wow you most.
And also it must be said, without digging too deep here, that the notoriety that marks Booth in the bad books of his Hollywood peers, with good cause, is the shady probable murder of his wife. But just maybe, in a tale spilling over with ambiguity and annotative gestures, Booth with his redemptive dark past, makes the perfect crux for those very reasons.
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as revisionist history
It’s been written here and just about everywhere that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairytale of Los Angeles, and it most certainly is. And while there won’t be any spoilers here as to how Tarantino wakes us from said dream in the film’s finale, let’s look for a moment at what may be the most radical of all the revisionist aspects of the movie.
Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, and Emile Hirsch’s Jay Sebring to a similar but lesser extent, are wonderful in how they humanize two people who have been universally viewed as murder victims. In the film we see Sharon as warm, matter-of-fact, a little silly, and always sincere.
Like Sharon, the audience becomes infatuated and carefully seduced with cinema, and a time and a place that’s now long ago, and long lost. But maybe, just maybe, with so generous and tremendous a heart, she and us along with her, can still be saved.
1. In Quentin Tarantino’s own words
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood premiered at Cannes on May 21, 2019. While promoting the film there Tarantino must have given a hundred interviews. Here’s a short pull quote from an exchange he had from around that time with Deadline’s Mike Flaeming Jr. focussing on Tate’s part of the story:
“While not making the Sharon Tate story, I wanted to explore who she was, the person. In doing research on her she sounds almost too good to be true from everybody who knew her. She knew a lot of people so there’s a whole lot of verbal historical accounts of her. She just seems to be one of those too sweet for this world kind of person.”
“I got very infatuated with her, just the person she was, as I was learning about her. So I thought it would both be touching and pleasurable and also sad and melancholy to just spend a little time with her, just existing. I didn’t come up with a big story and have her work into the story so now she has to talk to other characters and move a story along. It was just a day in the life. It’s a day in the life of all three of them [DiCaprio’s Dalton, Pitt’s Booth, and Robbie’s Tate –Ed.], that Saturday in February. A day in the life, driving around, running errands, doing this, doing that, and just being with her. I thought that could be special and meaningful. I wanted you to see Sharon a lot, see her living life. Not following some story, just see her living, see her being.”
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.