Once upon a time … in Hollywood

It had to happen. And because its so bloody long, I wasn’t going to use up the whole of a school night to watch it. So here goes.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo diCaprio) is a fading tv cowboy. The jobs are running out and a producer played by a woefully underused Al Pacino is trying to persuade him to move to Rome and sign up for some cheap spaghetti Westerns. Meanwhile he increasingly forgets his lines, drinks too much and finds himself overshadowed by an 8-year old method actress (although, because she is woke, she prefers the name “actor”).

Cliff (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s long-time stunt double, but as Rick’s roles dry up, it is harder for Cliff to find work. Beside which, Rick is working for increasingly small film companies which can’t afford to employ extra stunt men. And some of these film companies are run by women who don’t take kindly to the fact that Cliff allegedly killed his wife (I think we’re supposed to side with Cliff on this one). So, Cliff works mainly as Rick’s driver and handyman and lives in a trailer.

Meanwhile Rick has new neighbours. Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate have moved in. We see virtually nothing of Polanksi (who is “filming in Europe”) and the Tate that we see is vain and cheap enough to try to get cinemas to let her watch her own films for free. Apart from that, most of what we learn about Tate come from listening to what other man say about her (an underwritten woman’s part in a Tarantino film? Who’d have thought of that?)

The film looks great, has a well-chosen contemporary soundtrack and is way too long – but you knew all that already: its a Quentin Tarantino film. Most of the best scenes show the interaction between Rick and Cliff – ever since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (aka the “good films”) Tarantino does have a good ear for dialogue, at least when its between men. But Cliff is allowed too often to wander off on his own, and the plot has a tendency to meander.

So we have lots of scenes of Rick on set, or of a musical side venture, or of Cliff driving around LA, which are interesting enough but do nothing to take the plot forward. So, its all a bit disjointed, and the film would have lost nothing and gained a lot of tightness if it were an hour shorter.

In general, though, it was engaging, and I’d certainly rank it among Tarantino’s better films. There were some issues, though, that deserve talking about.

Firstly there is a scene in which some people talk about the boxing strength of Cassius Clay. Now this film is set in 1969, and Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali at the beginning of the 1960s. By this time, the only people who talked about Cassius Clay were hardened racists. Yet one of the people in this conversation is Bruce Lee. I spent the whole scene expecting that the film was leading up to something, and yet it swiftly merges into something else and never raises the issue again.

Secondly, this is a film by Harvey Weinstein’s old friend and defender where one of the characters is the child rapist Roman Polanksi. You feel that this will be addressed directly when Cliff picks up an underage hitch hiker who offers him a blow job while he’s driving. Of course Cliff refuses and would never do anything with underage girls, but you get the same feeling that you (or at least I) do when Tarantino’s films contain Samuel L Jackson saying the word “nigger” a lot (so he can’t be a racist, see). The problem isn’t that the scene is in the film, but the fact that he seems to have needed to put it there.

Thirdly, the problem that plagues a lot of Tarantino’s films. There is a lot of violence against all sorts of people – perhaps less in this film than in many of the others. Yet when women are the victims of the violence, the camera becomes leering and lascivious. There are lots of lingering shots of damaged and bloody women’s faces, which never seems to happen when men are beaten up. Its all a bit unsettling, and not in a good way.

Finally for now, there’s the rewriting of history. Its difficult to do this without plot spoilers, but for a film that takes such glee at including real life characters like Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, let’s say that its version of the notorious Manson murders is nothing like the official version (aka what actually happened). To which you can say, artistic license, and Tarantino can do what he likes, but what’s the point really?

In the real life story, Manson, Polanski and Tate were all very interesting characters (even if the first two were truly despicable). And yet all three are peripheral to the plot of this film, and barely appear. Instead we get the fairy tale assumed by the first half of the film title.

The more I think about it, the better it would have been to drop the Manson subplot, and to concentrate on Brad and Leo. At least that way we would have been spared the reaction to one of the hippy women calling herself pussy cat (“everyone needs some pussy”). In a film with such good acting and dialogue elsewhere, there was no need for any of this.

Job wanted: script editor to cut down Tarantino’s verbal excesses. Post open for the last 23 years or soon. Hopefully will be filled soon.

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