Frightening Spider Web of Intrigue
Nothing in Hollywood is real. It is all based on fantasy, subterfuge, smoke and mirrors, and imagination. Thus, director Quentin Tarantino’s smashing new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is really a fairy tale, much in the manner of what Walt Disney may have conjured up for a semi-true Hollywood story. There is even a Cinderella in the form of real-life movie star Sharon Tate (portrayed by beautiful Margot Robbie).
This is not the tale of Cinderella, but a scarily close re-imagining of the Charles Manson murders that happened in the Hollywood hills in 1969. Intertwined with this gothic modern tale of mayhem and murder is the story of television star Rick Dalton. He’s a formerly big star now on the skids and on his way down to appearing in grade Z television roles as Hollywood is changing drastically. He was once on top, the greatest, in big series and movies. All females were crazy for him, and a few males, too.
Leonardo DiCaprio has his best role in several years as Dalton. Still devastatingly handsome, he easily takes on the mantle of the slowly fading actor who still has charisma, but also has terrific doubts about his abilities and staying power. Desperately in need of psychotherapy, he crumbles and cries and pounds his fists through tables in a terrible anxiety about his talent being whisked away without his consent.
In the best scene of the movie, DiCaprio gets consoled by 8 year-old actress Julia Butters (of “American Housewife” fame). She is calm and almost motherly in calming DiCaprio’s nerves about their next scene together. Little Miss Butters is already a scene-stealer, and one can only imagine what acting prowess she will have when she’s Helen Mirren’s age. It’s a turn that should be recognized come Oscar® time!
Brad Pitt has survived some rough times in his life, but when he takes off his shirt in a gratuitous scene for the ladies, we see he is still porting the same abs that knocked everybody out in Thelma and Louise. True, they have gathered some patina over the years, but hey, the guy is in his 50s and looks great. He plays DiCaprio’s buddy, sidekick, sounding-board, and stunt man. He’s also a bit on the skids and works as DiCaprio’s “go-fer” in between film jobs. Pitt plays Cliff Booth in a typically California “laid-back” style, complete with a yellow Hawaiian shirt and cowboy boots. It’s not easy for an actor to make it look like he’s doing nothing, but Pitt is so good at his role that he seems so natural and so “California” that we believe him every step of the way. He wallops with a powerful punch so that we believe he is a strong-man stunt guy.
Pitt’s outstanding scene involves a confrontation with cocky martial arts actor Bruce Lee, played stunningly by newcomer Mike Moh. Both actors want to prove who has the biggest body part, so the two go at it in a fabulously exciting fight scene with no holds barred. Moh is an American-born Asian who lives in Wisconsin. He has a black belt in Taekwondo. Pitt more than holds his own in the battle with Bruce Lee.
The fairytale aspect of Tarantino’s film folds the infamous Charles Manson murders into the story. It is intriguing how that event from the daily headlines gets intertwined with the story of Hollywood, like an egg folded into cake batter. Although we can’t give away how that’s done, it comes across as chilling, funny, and unexpected.
The film’s casting is terrific. Young Austin Butler plays Tex, the murderous member of Manson’s gang who pals around with Squeeky Fromme, played by an unrecognizable Dakota Fanning. Bruce Dern does another unforgettable cameo as George Spahn, the sleepy owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch where the Manson gag hung out. Handsome Timothy Olyphant is a dead ringer for actor James Stacy of the 60s.Other iconic stars making impressions are Brenda Vaccaro, Clu Gulager, Lena Dunham, Luke Perry, Scoot McNairy, Rumer Willis, Michael Madson, and Emile Hirsch playing the unfortunate, murdered Jay Sebring.
In the beginning, it is not apparent that all the diverse storylines have any connection whatsoever. But Tarantino slowly weaves a tightening spider web of intrigue that meshes into a knock-out climax you least expect. He surprises us with his clever directing and script-writing. This is a movie not to be missed, but you must have an open mind about the story content.
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment/ Columbia Pictures and rated “R” by MPAA.)