Thursday, August 1, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Alternate History, Also Written by the Victors

Review by Ken Burke
                               Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 
                                   (Quentin Tarantino)   rated R

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Set in 1969 L.A., this is mostly focused on the friendship of struggling-not-be-over-the-hill/once-famous-TV-cowboy-star Rick Dalton and long-time-buddy/stunt-double/general-assistant Cliff Booth as Rick’s looking for career-revival-avenues while Cliff often reminisces about previous stunt work (he’s not getting any now), including a very short stint on TV’s The Green Hornet where he was fired for getting into a fight with Bruce Lee.  (Rick and Cliff are fictional constructs—although inspired by real Hollywood actors—but many in the rest of the cast are based [a bit loosely, I’m sure] on historical figures and events.)  Rick still has a fine home in the L.A. suburbs, though, where his new neighbors are director Roman Polanski and actress/pregnant-wife Sharon Tate (Charles Manson also makes a brief appearance so we get plenty of indications as to where this story is headed, although you shouldn’t make too many assumptions if you haven’t seen it yet).  As events roll casually along Rick gets a job as a villain in another TV western (testing his self-determination because while he’s quite a presence on the set his constant drinking leads to some forgetting of lines), then his agent convinces him to relocate to Italy for 6 months to make a few “Spaghetti Westerns” (he also marries an Italian actress, but we don’t see too much of her); Cliff picks up a young woman hitchhiker who turns out to be part of the large Manson Family now living on an old western-movie/TV-ranch where he suspects things aren’t as open-mindedly-loving as they're claimed to be; Sharon enjoys watching herself in the Dean Martin-starring movie, The Wrecking Crew (not to be confused with the L.A. studio musicians of that time who were celebrated in a fine documentary by that name [Denny Tedesco, 2015; review in our April 2, 2015 posting]), showing herself to be an honest, friendly woman who easily draws our sympathy.  I can’t say anything else, though, without violating my no spoilers promise, so either seek out this fascinating (yet not as violent as you’d expect from Tarantino) film for yourself or plunge into the detailed commentary just below.  If you’ve enjoyed Quentin’s revisionist histories of late or just want a well-researched, well-crafted sense of L.A. at that time, I highly recommend this film, much easier to find (currently in 3,659 domestic theaters) than ones I’ve been reviewing lately.  

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: In February, 1969, we find Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is desperately running out of time to keep his Hollywood career in A-status (or even a solid B at this point) because, despite his fame from the late-1950s black & white TV series Bounty Law (which we get a few scenes from to illustrate his character’s “only the strong survive” attitude, along with a brief interview from that time with him and his long-time stunt-double, Cliff Booth [Brad Pitt]), he’s largely been reduced in recent years to guest spots on such fare as TV’s (actual) pop-music-variety-show, Hullabaloo (NBC 1965-’66), or appearances in various movies where he always plays a villain who gets killed, although he does take on an heroic turn in a fanciful version of history where he fries a group of Nazi leaders with a flamethrower (evokes Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds from a much later time [2009]—more on that below).  At this point, Booth (a war vet; Korea we assume) isn’t getting any stunt work, largely because of the rumor he killed his wife while they were arguing out on a small boat (through an insert flashback we get a sense this could have happened but nothing definitive’s shown); however, he’s still working with—actually, for—Rick, as his chauffeur (through another one of those inserts—this one with quick voiceover narration—we learn Rick’s lost his license due to numerous drunk-driving-arrests), handyman, etc.  While Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater with his obedient pit bull, Brandy, Rick still has a palatial residence on Cielo Drive in the swank L.A. neighborhood of Benedict Canyon, north of Beverly Hills, next door to 10050, recently rented by now-famed-director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha)—as a result of Rosemary’s Baby (1968)—and his actress-pregnant wife, Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie)—Polanski directed/co-starred with her in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), but she’s likely best known for Valley of the Dolls (Mark Robson, 1967), so you can tell early on Tarantino’s giving us a mix of fact and fiction, bringing in Hollywood personalities of the time (Tate goes to a party at the Playboy Mansion where she meets Michelle Phillips [Rebecca Rittenhouse] and Cass Elliot [Rachel Redleaf] of The Mamas and the Papas) along with imaginary characters such as Rick and Cliff (although their relationshlp’s based on Burt Reynolds and his stunt-double Hal Needham, their roles respectively inspired by actors such as Tab Hunter and an action character, Billy Jack, played by Tom Laughlin).

 In a brief role, Al Pacino plays Dalton’s agent, Marvin Schwarz, who lambasts his client for constantly playing villains who die, thereby undermining his own presence as a star, yet Rick willingly takes another villain role in for a TV series, Lancer (actually ran on CBS, 1968-1970).  As all of the strands of this story begin to weave together, we see Cliff reminiscing about a slightly earlier time when he was also short on work (Bounty Law apparently ended in the early ‘60s), got a job through Rick’s friendship with stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) on TV’s The Green Hornet (ABC 1966-’67) but gets into a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), playing Kato on the series, leading to a quick dismissal by Randy’s wife, Janet (Zoë Bell).  Meanwhile we also briefly meet Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), who comes to 10050 Cielo Drive looking for former tenant Terry Melcher (actual record producer) or his friend Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), only to be turned away by current resident Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch)—also real, hairstylist, Tate’s ex-lover but now living with her and Polanski.  Things begin to get complicated from here as Cliff one day picks up hitchhiker Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who lives at the (actual) Spahn Movie Ranch (where Bounty Law was shot) with a couple dozen members of the Manson Family (but we never see Charlie again), including Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning)—the one that later tried to kill President Gerald Ford—who sort of runs the place by providing sex and companionship (in her own caustic manner) to properly owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern), now decrepit, almost blind.  Booth knows George from long ago, doesn’t much like what’s now happening on the ranch, but as he starts to leave he finds a tire in Rick’s car’s been knifed by Steve Grogan (James Landry Hebert)—both he and George are actual folks from this era as well—so Booth beats him badly to force him to put on the spare, then drives off.  In another part of town, Tate buys a book for Polanski (who’s working in Europe at this time), then goes into a movie house to watch, enjoy (along with the audience) herself in the Matt Helm (Dean Martin) comedy-spy-movie The Wrecking Crew (Phil Karlson, 1969) where she flashbacks on successfully taking martial arts lessons from Bruce Lee for her action scenes.  Dalton, on the set of Lancer, has some pre-shooting talk with precocious, somewhat-snotty 8-year-old-child-actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters), then conducts himself quite well (despite the mustache and fringed leather jacket the director insists on, making him almost unrecognizable) until he blows some lines (due to his constant drinking), viciously berates himself in his trailer, then delivers an outstanding performance (Trudi’s awe-struck), which even surprises Rick.

 After this Dalton accepts Marvin’s prodding to go to Italy for 6 months to do some “Spaghetti Westerns” (Cliff comes along as well), also marrying Italian actress Francesca Cappucci (Lorenza Izzo) along the way, but when they all return to L.A. Rich tells Cliff he can no longer afford him so with Francesca passed out from jet lag and sleeping pills, the 2 guys spend the evening getting drunk at a Mexican restaurant, then come home where Rick’s making more margaritas in his blender (Cliff’s off smoking an acid-laced-cigarette he bought some time ago) when a noisy-muffler-car pulls up, driven by Tex Watson (Austin Butler) with passengers Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty), Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke)—all actual members of the Manson Family, told by Charlie (for no reason we can fathom) to kill whomever now lives in 10050 Cielo Drive as some sort of revenge on Terry Melcher.  Rick chases them away, they leave, then realize who he is, decide he’s part of the killer-mentality Americans were conditioned by from 1950s TV (they all watched his show) so they decide to kill him (except for Kasabian who takes the keys, drives away [the real Linda K. stayed on watch while the others killed Tate, Sebring, 2 others staying at the house]).  When they come back, knives at the ready, Rick’s out floating in his pool but Cliff’s about to be their victim when suddenly he and Brandy lash out at the would-be-killers, eventually terminating Watson and Krenwinkel, wounding Atkins who stumbles into the pool, firing a revolver randomly while bleeding profusely, motivating Rick to pop out of his stupor, run inside for the flamethrower (he kept it from that earlier Nazi movie), then torches Atkins.  Cliff, mildly wounded (by his standards) in the melee, is later taken to a hospital as the cops clean up the scene, leading to closure as Dalton strikes up a conversation with Sebring who brings him in to meet Tate and the others (implications are he might get a career boost with Polanski while the attempted-murders might bring about an earlier end than we knew to the Manson gang).  A radio ad under the credits involves a contest related to Batman, one of many constant references to pop culture of the time.⇐

So What? When you combine the actual grisly murders of Sharon Tate and her companions on that fateful night of August 9, 1969 with the violent-filmography of Tarantino (especially his most recent work—Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained [2012; review in our December 30, 2012 posting], The Hateful Eight [2015; review in our January 21, 2016 posting]), you’d have every reason to expect this film to be ghastly in its content, even if the trailer implies a lot of comedy and character development more so than an assaultive-plot.  Well, sure, in the final scenes there’s a hell of a lot of 1-on-1-violence, but it’s of the interpersonal-fighting-variety with no shots fired (or that hit anyone), just a lot of pounding fists, dog attacks, plus the emphatic finale of a flamethrower.  Otherwise, the Manson Family and their intended attack on whomever they find in the house rented by Tate and Polanski exists as a subplot here, rising to the surface in the primary narrative’s climax, with most of the earlier focus on the fictional rapidly-fading-former-TV-star, intertwined with the actions (literally) of his stuntman friend.  Of course this fictional overlay of Dalton and Booth doesn’t detract from the meticulous-rendering of Los Angeles of this era, noted by L.A. natives Tarantino and DiCaprio (although Quentin wasn’t born there but arrived with his mother to the area when he was just 4) in the first of the interviews available below in the Related Links section of this posting, from the neighborhoods used in the filming to posters and ads in the background of shots to radio chatter from the time (enhanced by an insert in the credits of a black & white TV ad of Dalton promoting fictional Red Apple cigarettes, notable for their filterless-smoothness).  While I didn’t visit L.A. from Texas in 1969 I was there on vacations in 1957, 1964, and 1975, with my memories also verifying how well this film conveys what I sensed from that era—although a major component of the city during the time was a horrid blanket of smog (especially in my earliest trip, where the air was almost unbreathable), an aspect of those days missing from this film, although such foul pollution’s not there now for the filming of … Hollywood nor would the addition of it through computer-graphics contribute anything useful to the intrinsic (somewhat mythological) appeal of this reputed-sundrenched-Southern California-site, so we’ll just have to chalk up the absence of this pollution to another of Tarantino’s fantasy twists on reality (yet, there’s plenty that’s historically accurate here as well, as explored in this video [8:20] of 10 things the script got factually right, along with this explanation of the ending [6:34] which also sets out to clarify the record vs. the rewriteplease note that both of these are full of spoilers, so keep that in mind if you watch them).

 I'll acknowledge the relative lack of violence here surprised me, given how I’ve watched Tarantino attack the screen throughout his career, especially in those most recent ones where blood flowed like a river after a spring rain, but the overall attitude ⇒(along with the salvation of Tate and company, as well as her substance-abused-neighbors)⇐ shouldn’t have been so unexpected to me given I’d seen some reviews noting this as the finale of a loose-Tarantino-trilogy (starting with … Basterds, followed by Django … [ignoring The Hateful Eight]), so I should have expected a twist on what we’d previously come to know about how Quentin’s approached his recently-revised-history (please note: here come a few spoilers on those earlier films, but I'm not separating such comments out as I usually do because the content's been available for so long; I'll confine my spoiler warnings only to ... Hollywood) by killing Hitler, Goebbels, and the audience of Nazis in a locked movie theater at the finale of Inglourious …, then allowing an ex-slave in Django ... to kill as many Southerners as the story will hold during Civil War days before riding off to help free others.  ⇒This time around the entire situation of the Tate murders is reversed, not only with the actual victims not even under attack that night but their historical assassins killed instead through the efforts of Rick, Cliff, and Brandy.  Owen Gleiberman of Variety is appalled by this ending (although he admits he’s mesmerized by all that comes before), claiming this salvation-plot-twist demeans the brutal deaths of pregnant-Tate and her 3 houseguests—which could be seen as a valid concern about Tarantino’s narrative intentions here, although Gleiberman’s quite accepting of the finale of Inglourious Basterds because, presumably, Hitler deserved to die anyway (and did, a year later); yet, doesn’t such a surprise ending to the European-battlegrounds of WW II demean all the dead Allies (and Germans) who had to fight to the bitter end for another year after the events of this earlier Tarantino revisionist triumph where Hitler is killed, by Jewish-American soldiers no less, who also get to annihilate a host of his followers in ways that never happened in 1944?  Don’t get me wrong; I cheered to see those Nazis shot down or consumed by flames, just as I was also delighted to see Manson’s followers prevented from carrying out their brutal attacks, getting beaten to a pulp (even if it’s fiction) rather than getting away (for awhile, until their 1969 arrests, ultimate convictions in 1971) with the senseless killings they performed in our off-screen-reality.  But, then, I can be vindictive.⇐

 Maybe it’s a bit ghoulish to applaud the brutal killings of Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel, but it was all in self-defense (especially with Booth’s dispatching of Watson and Krenwinkel using nothing but fists, a large can of dog food, the dog’s teeth, and various household objects while their would-be-assailants were armed with knives and a revolver); true, Dalton’s use of the flamethrower to finish off the injured, crazed Atkins is somewhat over the top, but she did have the gun at that point, would easily have killed him if she’d been better able to compose herself … not to mention how costly it was going to be to clean up all that blood she was oozing into his pool so, damn it, he had a right to be upset!⇐  I’ll accept criticism from those who find my lack of support of Gleiberman’s position (although you’ll have to endure essential spoilers to even read it, just above) to be insensitive to the murders occurring on that almost-50-years-ago-August-night, but, just as with Tarantino’s previous revisions of historical records, I’m satisfied with how this all works out even though I was caught off-guard by these depicted events in his latest marvelously-directed-narrative.

Bottom Line Final Comments: However, no matter what Mr. Gleiberman or I think about … Hollywood (where even the title sets us up for a combination of Tarantino’s previous catalogue of cinematic mayhem joined to the memories of another filmic-celebrant of cruelty-induced-violence, Sergio Leone, whose previous “Spaghetti Westerns” with Clint Eastwood culminate in Once Upon a Time in the West [1968], yet we may overlook the fantasy/fable-implications of “once upon a time,” which is more what Tarantino’s latest work ultimately delivers with its revisionist twist), domestic (U.S.-Canada) audiences were quite receptive to it during its debut weekend bringing in a whopping $41 million in ticket sales, a solid start toward recouping its $90 million budget (plus at least half of that total in marketing/distribution costs)—although that commendable amount’s dwarfed by the second week of Disney’s remake of The Lion King (Jon Favreau; review in our July 25, 2019 posting) which is now close to $1 billion in global-intake with its worldwide total at $999.5 million ($361 million of that domestically, which just about accounts for its reported production and post-production costs), so at this point I guess audiences are still more interested in seeing Scar get his just-desserts than the similar fate of the Manson would-be-killers (look, there’s only so much I can do to keep dancing around spoilers; besides the PG rating for the former also helps pack families in while the R for … Hollywood puts a clear limit on what anyone could expect from considerably-more-adult-fare [no matter the Hamlet implications in The Lion King]).  Reviews (this time I’ll simply note them as written by the CCAL—Collective Critics At Large—because they strongly offer a positive outlook) are quite supportive as well, with an 84% collection of positive response at Rotten Tomatoes, an almost-exact (notably encouraging from this group) 85% average score at Metacritic (one of the highest numbers for anything explored by both me and them in 2019), with details in Related Links if you care to know even more.  I encourage a viewing of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, especially if you normally tend to avoid Tarantino films due to their violent approach to storytelling, because ultimately this tale’s a fascinating study of 3 intriguing characters—Dalton, Booth, Tate—along with a subtle-but-useful-exploration of how Hollywood was changing in the late 1960s from the secure business world Dalton and Booth enjoyed for a previous decade or so (after all, X-rated [at the time, later reclassified to R] Midnight Cowboy [John Schlesinger, 1969] came out just a couple of months before the final events of Once Upon a Time …, then went on to win Oscar’s Best Picture award the following spring), plus presenting a great time capsule of L.A. (minus the smog) during that seemingly-mystical-era of yore.

 Therefore, my closing commentary on this film in the form of a Musical Metaphor should also reflect its time, so I’ve chosen the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”* (from their 1969 album Let It Bleed), but instead of designating 1 link as official, like normal, I’m giving you 3 versions of the Stones in performance of this song spanning the decades from 1969 to almost-literally-today, just as this film looks back over the 50 years since the events it depicts to give us something rooted firmly in that era but also seems (bitterly, sadly) as current at this morning’s headlines where you could easily find news accounts of similar, shocking, unmotivated (except in the twisted minds of the lunatics who’ve committed them) murders, just like those done by the Manson Family back when deranged cult-leader Charlie (whom, thankfully, we see little of in this current film, so as not to call any further attention to a man who deserves none—nor will I honor his warped perspective on the world by linking you to anything from The Beatles’ “White Album [actually The Beatles, 1968], especially “Helter Skelter,” which supposedly gave him secret messages) sent his minions out on killing sprees—even between the time I saw … Hollywood and when I began formulating this review there were 8 more mass shootings (where at least 4 victims are shot), 1 near me in Gilroy, CA, 7 more from Washington, D.C. to Washington state, with 8 total dead, 46 injured.  Similarly, in “Gimme Shelter,” we find a soulful lament of “War, children [… along with] Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away,” as wailed (on the original recording) by Mick Jagger, Merry Clayton, so I’ll start you with this live performance from December 31, 1969 (just the guys, no female voice) at a time when the band was going through its own tragedies with the death that July of founding member Brian Jones (replaced in this video by Mick Taylor), followed by the tragedy that Dec. 6 at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival (a location even nearer to me than Gilroy) when armed Meredith Hunter stormed the stage, clubbed to death by “security guards” Hell’s Angels with pool cues (explored in detail in the Gimme Shelter doc [Albert and David Maysles, 1970], also briefly noted in this video).

*I’d also like to note my inclusion of this song here gives me 1 minor accomplishment topping famed director Martin Scorsese in that he’s used it (very effectively of course) only 3 times in his films (Goodfellas [1990], Casino [1995], The Departed [2006]—here’s a video recapping those inclusions of his) whereas this is the 4th time for me in a Two Guys review (previously Flight [Robert Zemeckis; review in our November 9, 2012 posting], Iron Man 3 [Shane Black; May 11, 2013 posting], Darkest Hour [Joe Wright; December 14, 2017 posting]), a minor victory at best, but we must flaunt our triumphs when we can.  (As well as admitting our stumbles, easily on view in the layout of the earlier 2 of those reviews, but I do keep trying to make them more acceptable as a reading/visual experience.)  Also, I’ll note I was influenced to use a Stones song at this point of the review because of the effective, extensive inclusion of their "Out of Time" song (from the 1966 Aftermath album, U.K., 1967 album Flowers, U.S.) toward the end of … Hollywood as everything’s building to a climax with the events of Rick and Cliff, Sharon and her friends, the Manson hit-squad.

 Just for context, from there I’ll jump to a 1998 concert version of “Gimme Shelter” where Lisa Fischer joins in on the vocals (as she did from 1989-2015 at the Stones' live shows), then finish with footage from their current tour (July 27, 2019 Houston, TX) following Jagger’s recovery from heart surgery (Sasha Allen now on the lead duet with him), all of which tell us, just as in our fragmenting society of 1969 (where Dalton and Booth both despise the counterculture hippies, even the ones not brandishing knives) or its current-parallel-cultural-divide, “the floods is threat’ning My very life today Gimme, gimme shelter Or I’m going to fade away.”  Yet, just as with the unexpected ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a better result than all this chaos—then and now—is “just a kiss away,” if we could only find the courage to talk with, rather than at, each other so that once again we might find some form of happy endings (as the child actor in Lancer finds comfort in Disney movies, although we need to realize more substance in our lives than just pleasant fantasies—including the ones from Tarantino’s latest) in our intracultural negotiations rather than constantly pushing ourselves to confrontations where a harsh result remains “just a shot away.”  Can we do it?
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: (you can also visit, an extensive fake magazine about Rick Dalton and the 1969 Hollywood era; click into it where the little circles with an X inside float around, then scroll up or down for the various features) (21:45 interview with director Quentin Tarantino and actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margo Robbie in a format intended for viewing on the Internet) along with (22:37 interview with the same 4 taken from a broadcast TV interview on NBC’s Today)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 13,486 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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