Skip to main content
The Independent Critic

Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Clifton Collins Jr., Samantha Robinson, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Damon Herriman, Luke Perry
Quentin Tarantino
Rated R
161 Mins.
Columbia Pictures

 "Once Upon a Hollywood" is Tarantino at His Best 
Add to favorites

I don't believe in fairy tales. 

Truthfully, I don't believe in love. Love is the biggest fairy tale of all, just some cockamamie story that we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen to convince ourselves that somehow this life is worth living. 

The truth is that most people will never get more than a glimpse at what they consider to be love, a definition birthed out of reading too many Harlequin Romance novels and watching too much of the Hallmark Channel or, hey, even just listening to too many Ed Sheeran records on repeat. 

The further truth is that some of us, I'd dare say most of us, end up broken along the way. We end up so fractured by life's freaky happenstances that we become either incapable of giving love or receiving love or maybe even both. 

I remember growing up with the distinct feeling that I was somehow broken beyond repair, destined to become the beast that I'd been genetically coded to be from a young age. 

But then, something else happened. I changed my mind, I suppose. I told myself a different story and I convinced myself it was true. Despite the fact that I'd been raped more than I'd been loved, I somehow bought into this new story and I convinced myself that love is real. 

Love is real. Hm. Yeah. Go figure. That's the story I told and that's the story that I bought. 

Once Upon a Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino's best film to date, though I'll openly confess this comes from a guy, a film journalist I guess you could call me (some consider even that to be revisionist history), who's never been a particular fan of Tarantino's excessively violent, overly stylized approach to storytelling and filmmaking. 

I've never hated the guy. He's a gifted filmmaker, a detail-oriented revisionist historian with a penchant for storytelling and an ability to connect with actors vastly superior to a good majority of contemporary filmmakers. 

I just don't particularly enjoy the stories that he's been telling. 

The truth is that Once Upon a Hollywood is the kind of film I'd have sworn Tarantino was incapable of making, a master class in immersive and patient storytelling and easily the most emotionally honest film of his career. 

It's not quite a masterpiece, but it's remarkably close. 

Once Upon a Hollywood sets itself in the Hollywood of 1969, a rather fantastical era of Hollywood that was soon to blow up in all of our faces. I'm not even sure that fantastical is really a word, but I like it and it fits. If you're hoping that the film will be historically accurate, you've either been hitting the LSD or you've just never been in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Historical accuracy ain't Tarantino's thing. He's a storyteller, remember?

I have a feeling that Once Upon a Hollywood is the story that Tarantino wishes were true, a kaleidoscopic, possibly acid-tinged fantasy of sorts with pieces of truth wrapped up by rainbow-tinted wrapping paper and dreamlike revisionism that we all kind of wish could be true. 

Once Upon a Hollywood is a Hollywood-set western of sorts, the usual Tarantino ensemble effort centered around a handful of core leading performances who serve more as facilitators for the story than they do actual lead actors and actresses.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a fading Hollywood star from a fading Hollywood era who's only starting to get in touch with the fact that his star has dimmed and his place in the Hollywood spotlight will inevitably be filled by some other up-and-comer. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Dalton's longtime stunt double whose fierce loyalty and absolute adoration for Dalton is so relentless that it likely qualifies as bromance before bromance was really considered a thing. It's a weird friendship, really, “more than brothers and less than wives" according to the narrator, yet so fervent in its absoluteness that one can't help but find it all more than a little jarring. In her review of the film, Midwest Film Journal's Aly Caviness insightfully observes the ickiness over Dalton's defense of Booth when the latter is nearly put out of work after having gained the reputation of being a man who'd gotten away with murdering his wife. It's a weird, brief segment in the film that seemingly has little if any purpose within the story other than, perhaps, showing just how intertwined Dalton's masculinity had become with Booth's. 

Still, it's uncomfortable and Caviness's insight only added to my own discomfort with the scene. 

While a good majority of Once Upon a Hollywood is about Dalton and Booth, Margot Robbie's turn as Sharon Tate is easily the heartbeat of the film and what turns it from a good film to a great one. Robbie again proves herself to be one of this generation's bravest and boldest actresses, a performer unafraid of trying anything and doing anything and somehow always making it work. Robbie's Sharon is an everyday girl next door living a princess's life, a gem of a human being who seems to be in complete awe of the fact that she's become a gem of a human being. She seems utterly devoid of pretense, a rather magical human being. I'd dare to call her a fairy tale of a human being, though I don't believe in fairy tales. We all know what happened to Sharon Tate. History has demanded that we never forget it, but what Tarantino reminds us, perhaps, is that history doesn't necessarily define Sharon Tate unless that's the story that we want to tell ourselves. 

We have a choice. 

Robbie's performance as Tate is utter brilliance, a brief yet infinitely memorable performance that one wishes could somehow undefine and redefine the way that we remember the up-and-coming actress whose light was snuffed out in real life in the most brutal of ways. 

Tarantino has been questioned as of late about his treatment of women in his films, including his treatment of actresses. The caution flags were up for Once Upon a Hollywood, yet the film, perhaps more than any other possible defense, helps us understand Tarantino as an artist even more and this film, in particular, almost serves as a sacred lament for the ways in which he and Hollywood and society have all treated women over the years. 

There's sorrow here. There's quiet, funny, painfully bittersweet sorrow. 

Once Upon a Hollywood is the fairy tale that Quentin Tarantino wants to tell and wants to be told, a bold and visionary and rather miraculous motion picture with award-worthy performances from DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie and a few Academy Award nominations likely to be found amongst the film's cast and crew. Every time that we start to question DiCaprio, we question his stardom and we question his talent, he shows up again and goes a different direction and proves us wrong with the kind of Hollywood swagger that Rick Dalton likely had early in his career. 

DiCaprio still has it. 

Pitt has always been a tad bit better as a sidekick and such is the case here, serving upon a complementary performance filled with equal swagger and tremendous amounts of humor, heart, and gobs of fun. I'd be completely stunned if Pitt doesn't snag an Oscar nomination for his work here. 

But again, then there's Robbie and she's simply unforgettable here whether dancing to Paul Revere and the Raiders or joyfully announcing to a ticket taker that that's her on the movie poster for "The Wrecking Crew," which happened to be her final film. 

At over 2 1/2 hours, Tarantino takes his time getting us to where we know this film's going to go, though even in the film's moments of the highly stylized violence we've come to experience from a Tarantino flick it becomes readily apparent that Tarantino is doing anything but actually celebrating it. 

Again, he seems to be lamenting it. 

Once Upon a Hollywood magically weaves together fact and fiction, stark realism with hallucinogenic fantasy to tell a story that is so complex and layered that it demands multiple views. It's that rare film that is actually worth multiple views. While there's an argument that the film is less a cohesive narrative and more a series of trippy, truth-tinged vignettes, Tarantino for the most part makes it all work and makes it all wonderful. Tarantino infuses into the film's tapestry a blanket full of stars past and present and so many pop culture reference points that you'll go giddy trying to catch them all. 

Yes, somehow, Tarantino leaves room for giddy in all of this.

Crucial scenes in the film are set on Benedict Canyon's Cielo Drive, it's an address that crime history buffs know and in the film it's where Dalton lives next door to his new neighbors, the aforementioned Tate and her up-and-coming filmmaker boyfriend Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). These are scenes that begin the internal ache we feel inside, though Tarantino brightens the film instinctively and Robert Richardson's masterful lensing for the film is quite literally stunning and eye-popping and utterly magical. 

Tarantino tosses in his usual cameos, though they're never gratuitous and always immensely watchable. Al Pacino serves up a Pacino performance as a bottom-rung agent trying to salvage Dalton's career by turning him toward spaghetti westerns, while Damian Lewis shows up as Steve McQueen and the late Luke Perry makes an appearance as an actor whose path crosses with Rick's. You'll also recognize turns by Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning, both part of Manson's family, and folks like Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, and even Bruce Dern among others. 

Once Upon a Hollywood is easily one of the best films of 2019 and most certainly one of the best films, if not the best film, of Tarantino's career. It's both flawed and masterful, much like a fairy tale that you know isn't true but you choose to believe in anyway. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic