Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can be seen, as most of the best Quentin Tarantino movies can, as a collection of short stories (along with Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill; Jackie Brown is a novel; Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight and Death Proof are plays; I have no idea what Django Unchained is–I haven’t seen it since it was first released and I’m as baffled by it now as I was then, but I suspect it’s a movie). He’s best when he’s building out of small, discreet scenes, rather than trying to follow a single thread through various permutations. The approach allows his movies time to breathe, and lets his actors do their thing. Hollywood is, for its incredible first two-thirds, a series of sketches around two days in the life of three characters: former TV Western star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio; Dalton’s longtime stunt double and best friend, played by Brad Pitt; and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the young actress who has just moved in next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive with her husband, Roman Polanski. It’s February of 1969, and we know, but they do not, that the night of the Manson Family murders is only six months away.
Hints of that fateful night to come, one of those events that has transcended its own tragedy, like the Stones at Altamont, to become a symbol of the End of Something (Old Hollywood, the 60s, Innocence), abound through this first two-thirds: we see Manson’s young followers digging through trash and hitch-hiking through Hollywood; Charlie himself shows up looking for the former residents of Tate’s house; Pitt even takes a trip out to the Spahn Ranch with one of the Manson girls (played by Margaret Qualley, from Fosse/Verdon). But more time is spent away from them, with each of the principals going about their day. Tate takes a trip into town where she spots a movie theatre playing her latest movie, the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Pitt works on DiCaprio’s house and reminisces about the time he beat the crap out of Bruce Lee while working on Green Hornet (Mike Moh does a very funny Lee impression). DiCaprio works on a TV western pilot, where he tries his best to act despite a hangover and depression over the state of his career (he’s considering an offer from Al Pacino to go make Westerns in Italy). It’s these stories, which have nothing to do with Manson but everything to do with Hollywood and Tarantino’s vision of it, that make the movie something special.
I’m toying with the idea of seeing them as three parts of a whole theory of Hollywood. DiCaprio as its heart: as an actor he’s highly emotional, it’s what allows him to achieve greatness in his performances, but it also sends him into rages and funks when he fails. Robbie’s Tate is all wonder and joy, a dream of youth and beauty and exuberance. Her sitting in a dark theatre, listening to the laughs her performance gets is maybe the warmest, happiest moment Tarantino has ever filmed. Pitt is all technique and skill, the muscle that makes it possible for DiCaprio to function (in work as well as life: he’s his driver and does odd jobs around his house, like fix the TV antenna). Supremely aware of himself and his own capabilities, he has all the quiet confidence in himself that the other actors (including the preening Lee) lack. He’s the Marlboro Man, a masculine ideal. And not so hidden within him is the threat of violence. He’s naturally attractive, but absolutely capable of murder, an uncomfortable dichotomy which will be put to the absolute test in the film’s final third.
Quentin Tarantino is the best director of actors of his generation. In any other hands, a movie like this, packed with famous names playing famous names, steeped in a historical place and time marked by wild behavior and wilder fashions, would degenerate into farce. Think of the wig acting of a movie like American Hustle, where brilliant performers are buried beneath a whole lot of noise and nonsense. Tarantino understands quiet as well as any mainstream American director. He has the patience to let the camera rest on an actor while they work, taking us inside DiCaprio’s head as he shows us the difference between mediocre acting and great acting. This might be my favorite Brad Pitt performance, at least since True Romance. He gets the swagger of a man who isn’t needy enough to be a movie star, who loves his dog but will without hesitation break your nose if you wrong him, exactly right.
There’s much more to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it can wait until sometime later, after everyone has a chance to see it. Suffice it to say that I think it’s Tarantino’s best since Jackie Brown, and, going by imdb dates, it’s without a doubt the first great movie of 2019.