When news broke that Quentin Tarantino would be taking on the Manson murders in his latest film, I admittedly winced. Tarantinos love for over-the-top gore, for painting the screen red, seemed a bad fit with the ghastly 1969 murders of several people, including the actress Sharon Tate, then married to Roman Polanski. What was entirely unexpected was that Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday, would be such a moving film, at once a love letter — and a dream — of the Hollywood that was.
Well-received at its first press screening — no cheers but no jeers — the film revisits that crime through parallel, not-quite equal story lines: one involving Sharon (Margot Robbie) and the other centering on her next-door neighbor on Cielo Drive, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a television star. On the verge of permanent cancellation, Rick spends much of his time with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his best pal and sometimes stunt double. Theres a whole lot of Rick and Cliff — a buddy movie in the making and mutual support system — whose antics, while shooting shows or just the breeze, give the movie a lot of its light, infectiously pop pleasure.
Video: ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – Official Trailer (HD)
For a long stretch, Tarantino has fun with Rick and Cliff as they tool around Los Angeles in a cream-colored Cadillac, the radio blasting. Every so often, the friends hit a beloved landmark, like the Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, where gimlets are served with sidecars and the waiters are as old as the movies themselves. At other times, Cliff drops Rick off at a studio, where the actor sweats, forgets his lines and sometimes proves hes still got it. Cliff just gets up and goes, baby, driving around looking cooler than Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis), who briefly shows up at a party where Sharon and all the beautiful people frolic as the nights grow darker.
At last, Sharons story converges with that of Rick and Cliff. Until then its all easy and breezy, and not especially urgent, with lots of yammer, walls hung with exploitation-film posters and amusingly foregrounded shots of bare female feet. Then abruptly the mood and tone shift with a visit to Mansons lair at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a bravura sequence with soaring crane shots, galloping horses and a chattering Lena Dunham (!) that fills the movie with dread. When Dakota Fanning bares her fangs and a squeaky rodent announces her name before its uttered, the film feels headed straight toward hell — and youre not sure you want to ride along anymore.
Joan Didion famously wrote that many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the 60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brush fire through the community, and in a sense this is true. I wonder what Tarantino might think of that sentiment; not much, I imagine, given that one day he would grow up, live in Los Angeles and chase a dream of Hollywood. He would have been 6 when Tate was murdered. The sympathy that he shows for her isnt surprising, and neither is the adoration expressed toward Polanski, whos largely a marginal character but also symbolically important.
When Rick enthuses about Polanski, it is hard not to hear Tarantinos voice in the characters excitement. For a long time, Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) seems like a near-cartoon of a familiar Hollywood success story: the wildly talented director with a beautiful actress-wife and a wide open future as well as a string of fabulous critical and box office successes. In some ways, Polanski reads like a tragic variation on Tarantino, a kind of horrific doppelgänger, which is one reason, I think, that this movie feels more personal than some of his recent endeavors. He loves this world so much, and that adoration suffuses every exchange, cinematic allusion and narrative turn.
In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Tarantino does a lot thats familiar, including toggling between laughter and mayhem. The true jolt, though, is how melancholic the story finally plays; that is partly (rightly) because of the murders, which weigh heavily on the film in obvious ways. Youre always grimly aware that these arent just movie characters, but figures based on real people who belonged to the same ecosystem that Tarantino would eventually join. He knows exactly what lies ahead for the lost world — of Los Angeles but also of Hollywood — that he has so lovingly reimagined here, which is why this homage also has the ache of a requiem.
In an interview with Esquire promoting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the pair talked about working with the late Beverly Hills, 90210 actor, who played a fictitious TV actor in the upcoming Quentin Tarantino film before his sudden death in March. While Pitt and DiCaprio are two superstars and icons themselves, they admitted they both fanboyed out over Perry.
Thats Luke f***ing Perry! Pitt, 55, recalled thinking when he saw Perry on the set. We were like kids in the candy shop because I remember going to the studios and [Beverly Hills, 90210] was going on and he was that icon of coolness for us as teenagers. It was this strange burst of excitement that I had, to be able to act with him.
Pitt called Perry, who was starring in Riverdale when he died, incredibly humble, amazing and absolutely committed. He said Perry couldnt have been a more friendly, wonderful guy to spend time with. I got to sit down and have some wonderful conversations with him. It was really special.
I remember my friend Vinny, who is in the film as well, we walked in and we both had this butterfly moment of like, Oh my God, thats Luke Perry over there!, Leo said, likely referring to his co-star and friend Vincent Laresca.
In the interview, it was pointed out that Pitt, DiCaprio and Tarantino all came of age in this industry at about the same time. Pitts Thelma & Louise, A River Runs Through It and Interview with the Vampire came out in 91, 92 and 94 while DiCaprio appeared in Whats Eating Gilbert Grape in 93. Tarantino, 56, released Reservoir Dogs in 92 and Pulp Fiction in 94.
Their rises coincided with Perrys TV stardom. From 1990 to 2000, he played heartthrob Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210. He died March 4 at the age of 52 after suffering a massive stroke.
Pitt also talked about losing Burt Reynolds, who was supposed to appear in the film — in role of George Spahn — but died in September of a heart attack at the age of 82.
Ill tell you one of the greatest moments Ive had in these however many years weve been at it in this town: getting to spend two days with Burt Reynolds on this film, Pitt said.
Pitt said that growing up in the Ozarks and watching Smokey and the Bandit, you know, he was the guy. Virile. Always had something sharp to say — funny as sh**. A great dresser. Oh, man, he said with a laugh. And I had never met him, so being there with him reminded me of how much I enjoyed him as a kid. And then getting to spend those days with him in rehearsal, I was really touched by him.
The director said he found out from three different people that the last thing he did just before he died was run lines with his assistant. Then he went to the bathroom, and thats when he had his heart attack.
Bruce Dern replaced Reynolds in the film, which is out July 26. It screened on Tuesday at the Cannes Film Festival.
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