Revisiting That Time In Hollywood
On the first anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th Movie, a fresh analysis turns on, tunes in and drops truth...
– Brooke Ellis
Recognition has not eluded the man behind the random yet profoundly-influential quirky dialogue, multi-timeline-defying plots, or the extravagant violence that has likely traumatized the faint-hearted. Reservoir Dogs set a new standard for an ensemble cast, Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained were wildly fun (and bloody) rides, Deathproof proved just as gruesome as its “Grindhouse” inspiration while The Inglorious Basterds reinvented the war against Nazis. Furthermore, the stageplay-like confines of The Hateful Eight didn’t halt the envelope from advancing and the excellent Kill Bill volumes amplified female empowerment. But it was the superior survival instincts of Jackie Brown that genuinely championed the pro-woman sentiment. Besides being Quentin Tarantino’s most believable outing, it also tapped into a real sensitivity rarely portrayed by the director - until last year. He didn’t just revisit such depths of character, he elevated his art. Not by topping the trademark action, gore and puns for which he is so known, but rather through sympathetic realism - and a vicarious sense of long-overdue retribution. Now, with a much-better-acquainted perspective, we look back at the production that is rapidly becoming a classic tale of filmdom...
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was based on an original premise that immediately grabbed fans: A past-his-prime actor and his best friend/stunt double struggle with the challenges of modern day 1969 Hollywood in the midst of an ominous cloud - the rise of the Manson Family. The cast announcement of A-listers galore somehow avoided any controversy for lacking any persons of color (it could be alleged that it was an intentional reflection of white-washed Tinseltown ’69). Even QT fave Sam Jackson was missing, igniting some disappointment among hardcores. In a movie delightfully peppered with look-alike cameos (one gets goosebumps at the sight of “Mama Cass”) it could at least be expected to catch a glimpse of Sammy, Jimi, Harry, or Eartha, et al. Despite this, the finished product has proven to raise the bar for period dramas.
Old Hollywood has long been a source of material for celluloid storytelling, complete with a guaranteed audience of genre-devotees like me. I typically focus on the years 1915 through 1950 and rarely dig deep into films from the sixties. But having been born in 1968 – and an avid fan of shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, I am familiar with most of the major players and hard-working bit part actors of that decade. Reruns of Combat!, Rat Race, Tarzan, Bewitched, etc… played endlessly in syndication during my youth. “That person was on Star Trek!” I would note of usually very middle-aged (or old-beyond-their-years) players. Unlike today, they didn’t have too-youthful actors somewhat inexplicably portraying doctors, lawyers, generals, Klingon's, whatever… instead were veterans of the scene that found loyalty in the industry. And that’s just one niche uniquely capitalized on in the film that mines obscure fields and finds gold.
The fictional Jake Cahill (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a success. He had a couple of big movies and a wildly popular series - in TV’s Bounty Law he was “Rick Dalton”, the hero. It’s easy to imagine his rugged cowboy face plastered on a million lunch boxes. But he sacrificed the show with hopes of getting bigger theatrical roles. It didn’t happen. He found himself relegated to TV guest spots, always as the bad guy. At the height of his success he bought property in the Hollywood Hills, allowing him to be a fixture there for as long as he cared. In beautiful seclusion he could drown his sorrows in drink. And he did. Only his buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) – Jake’s stunt double for nearly a decade - could shame the self-pity. With work sparse, Cliff serves as the personal chauffeur; a necessity after a series of DUI’s stripped Jake of his driving privilege. A dynamic yet even-keeled fellow, Cliff’s circumstances are much bleaker than his employers. Yet he indulges Jake’s angst with encouragement, before returning to his own tiny run-down motor home. It’s a powerful contrast. Cliff can take care of himself. He doesn’t think twice about his circumstances. Jake had that taste of fame that forever leaves one wanting more. It’s a need to stay-on-top that ensures a lifetime of disappointment.
At the famous Hollywood networking haven Musso and Franks, a meeting with Marvin Shwarz (NOT "Schwartz" as he corrects Jake) alters destiny. I can’t tell you why I’ve found Al Pacino off-putting in later years. He’s no longer that stone-cold soft-spoken intense presence of young Michael Corleone, but instead a gruff-voiced hyper creep. This was neither, however, but simply a Jewish Hollywood agent. He’s got the convincing manner of persuasion, the gestures, and the concern for clients so blunt it conceals any hint of personal agenda. He leaves little to question; Jake should ditch the humiliation of playing defeated heavies and go to Rome for guaranteed star-billing in “Spaghetti Westerns”, always as the hero. It's a strategy that worked in real-life for Clint Eastwood working with Sergio Leone, and at the time many former aging A-listers had to cast their nets internationally to get work (Boris Karloff's last films were Mexican productions). Marvin makes a solid case and a crest-fallen Rick reluctantly agrees. The move proves successful in both career and love, as he returns to the US with a fistful of dollars and a vivacious Italian new bride.
One would be challenged to detect a faltering performance in OUTIH. With top-notch acting across the board, realism is achieved. Some of the QT-trademark phrases are paired with delivery so memorable you can practically peg the future classics. If society doesn’t completely collapse and avid movie buffs can continue to indulge their frivolous passions, lines like “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”, “You’ll be livin’ it in fifteen years”, “If I kill you, I go to jail”, “YOU’RE the blind one!”, “We’re in Hollywood, maaaan!”, “Naw, it was dumber than that” and “Bring bagels!” are sure to bond geeks for years. Even mannerisms, such as any time Cliff points (especially when he’s on acid) or the Manson-minion hitchhiker’s perky dance, are worthy of physical homage.
Although censors in China took issue with the films depiction of Bruce Lee, Mike Moh’s portrayal is captivating. The blend of arrogance, celebrity, physicality and comedy should not be overlooked. And there’s the latest recipient of Quentin’s penchant for reviving a career of a former star - 70's “Spiderman” Nicholas Hammond. Nick had also appeared in 1979’s The Martian Chronicles adaptation from which one of the TV moments I'd never forget was when the man he thought was his brother is chillingly exposed as anything but. Very youthful in that role, it was momentarily jarring to see Nicholas suddenly aged. But it is eccentric Sam Wanamaker on screen, his experience and knowledge evident in his enthusiasm for the craft of film-making.
Ultimately, it is Leo who steals the show, proving beyond a doubt the true depth of his thespian skill. Jake’s heartbreak over the state of his career is relatable. When he blows a line, yet proceeds to redo it masterfully with naïve camp, his redemption is felt. When he beats himself up in his trailer for allowing himself to be hung-over, his pain is torturous. He’s damaged goods, further inflicted with a stutter that implies a growing compromise of insecurity. Upon meeting James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), the latest TV adventurer in line to defeat the former hero, Jake is asked to confirm a rumor - “Was it true you almost got the McQueen part in The Great Escape?” A sharp music cue and cutaways to the John Sturges film putting Jake in the lead role imply deep regret over a lost opportunity. Rick uncomfortably dismisses the notion, though admitting that for a moment, he was, allegedly, in the running. Despite downplaying any chance he had, the nature of the Escape sequence - playing the role his way - indicates a crushing obsession with what could have been.
The films art design is a major contributor to an all-encompassing authenticity, nothing, no one, looks or feels out of place - this IS 1969. While the choice to use full-color HD to represent a Kinescope recording viewed by Marvin Schwarz was surely a creative one, depictions potentially amiss are but the absence of booming baritone voices common among leading men of the time. Even Olyphant's "Stacy" appears uncharacteristically soft-spoken. Meanwhile, an endless succession of vintage radio and TV audio clips shrewdly provide contemporary context. Such use of sound design is particularly effective during one of the films most suspenseful scenes, a thrill you can only experience once. Despite potential danger, Cliff Booth is determined to make certain his old colleague George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is alive and well. He enters the dilapidated and vermin-infested “Spahn Ranch” home (where the Manson family resides) that is situated away from aging western town exterior sets that made the location famous. As Cliff proceeds cautiously, snippets of random dialogue from a small black-and-white television emit loudly while Manson disciple Squeaky Fromme flips through the channels. She settles on a program with oddly appropriate dark music ALA Alfred Hitchcock Presents; low bass swells accentuate a feeling of dread as Cliff nears George’s room. As he opens the door, creaking wood and gusts of wind add to an ominous atmosphere, and the buzzing of nearby flies implies the presence of rotting death. It is potent use of the power of suggestion.
“I could be a pool party away from starring in a Polanski film!” Jake imagines at the first sight of his new neighbors, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), their career on the rise while Rick is on his perceived decline. Through her storyline, it’s hard not to fall in love with Robbie as “Sharon”, the wide-eyed innocence and fresh excitement of the new star are cute contagions that make the knowledge of her fate almost unbearable. This sweet girl was robbed of her future, gruesomely murdered by deranged members of the Manson family. But wait – before they can carry out the infamous act their muffler-impaired car disturbs the at-home peace of Jake Cahill, who has already had enough of “those goddamn hippies!” Armed only with a blender full of fresh margarita, he gives them hell. It’s a naively fateful moment that leads to a major change-in-plan. The family-foursome now surmises that since Jake shot countless outlaws on TV as Rick Cahill, he represents the evil Hollywood system responsible for teaching them to kill. Targeting him would make an even more poignant statement than the one ol’ Charlie meant for them to make, he’d surely approve! However, in a stroke of unexpected creative genius, instead of succeeding in their ambiguous warning to the world, celluloid justice is gloriously dispensed. Now, at the films end, Quentin’s thirst for extreme violence is finally put to use for maximum effect. As Cliff smashes heads while his dog tears crotches and Rick weaponizes a retired flamethrower he made famous in his opus, The Fourteen Fists of McKluskey, one cannot help but punch at the air - FUCK YOU, HIPPIES! FUCK YOU FOR KILLING SHARON TATE, ABIGAIL FOLGER, JAY SEBRING, STEVE PARENT AND WOJIECH FRYKOWSKI!
Whether Quentin intended it as such, it feels like justice - for a city thrown into a state of fear, for the friends and families of the victims, for America. It’s beautiful. While its brand of revenge is essentially trivial, it is rewarding to view this unexpected bit of comeuppance. And as the chaos clears and Rick stands alone in the cul-de-sac of Cielo Drive, a shadowy figure calls out. Behind the gate built to ensure the privacy of a secluded home is the third of an inseparable trio (as “Steve McQueen” asserts earlier in the film) that includes Polanski and Tate. Celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) is wowed equally by the presence of the Bounty Law actor as he is learning of the mayhem that just ensued. Sharon buzzes in on the front intercom and is also thrilled the TV star is there. Despite the trauma Rick just endured, the promise of finally meeting his famous neighbors is about to be fulfilled in the best way possible. While eerie Twilight Zone-like music haunts the air, the gates open. Are these the gates of heaven? Is Rick joining people we know to be dead? While I’m sure a case could be made for such a twist, the sight of Jake revitalized by hope as he is welcomed by the new Hollywood elite is a touching one and is best left literal. The music transforms, now a bit upbeat and easy, while spirits soar.
Since it's release, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has earned a cult following and the colossal prestige of becoming my rarely-changing favorite movie. And although a sequel isn’t entirely necessary, I’m sure Jake Cahill would appreciate the gig.
Text content © 2020 BDE.