The Golden Age, Tarnished
By Michael S. Goldberger
While Quentin Tarantino has won two Oscars for his screenplays, with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” his most profound motion picture to date, he might finally gather up those statuettes for best film and best directorial effort. The provocative and quirkily philosophical work is thoroughly entertaining proof that he is one of America’s most accomplished, living directors.
Whereas many filmmakers doubtlessly come up with a novel idea for a film that, for one reason or another doesn’t make it to the silver screen with the inspired creativity of its genesis intact, Tarantino’s signature talent is in making his movie dreams come true. His unique brand of outlandishness won our initial, critically approving attention. And now, after wowing us with a couple decades of screaming fastballs and devastating curves, he pulls a humanity-laced changeup from his quiver in a robust flourish of his greater, inner depth.
Here, his film characters abandon the semi-comic, representative caricatures they inhabited and, in a variation on how stereotypes are generally depicted, are imbued with as much soul as chutzpah. As a result, in the waning, last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age that Mr. Tarantino’s photoplay cherishingly deconstructs, we truly care about fading glamor boy/leading man, Rick Dalton, and his stunt double/sidekick, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively. The times, they are a changing, and the winds heralding said sociological watershed are profuse with uncomfortable presentiments.
For some it is business as usual, with all the gimcracks of opulence, swagger and devil-may-care attitude being displayed in the best golden calf tradition. But, as Bob Dylan sings in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which isn’t included in the movie’s era-defining musical score, but would have been apt if not too obvious, “…something is happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?” As Rick and Cliff cruise up and down The Strip, hustling from sound stage to set, to meetings with conniving and dilettantish movie moguls, the so-called regular world goes about its historical path.
Flower children proliferate Hollywood Boulevard, hitchhike and occasionally yell an obscenity at the cops they call pigs. And while no mention is made of the thousands of American GI’s being killed in a war to supposedly halt the communistic encroachment by governments that have since been invited to tilt our elections, memory of the perversion is thick as we imbibe with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. But more immediately, we wince as Tarantino injects Sharon Tate into the scenario. Portrayed with a startlingly childlike innocence by the very pretty Margot Robbie, she lives right next door to Rick with husband and famed director Roman Polanski. Suddenly discomfited and set to wondering how Tarantino will play this, we are put on tenterhooks. But all in due time.
Right now, all attention is paid to the frenetic mishegoss of Rick trying to stay relevant in Tinseltown, and Cliff, who harbors a dark secret, picking up the crumbs that come of any success his pal achieves. Rick frets about maintaining an audience built mostly of a TV series and a handful of films. Psst. He’s more famous than he realizes, or that his blubbering, self-pitying hissy fits would indicate, and which Cliff is inevitably able to calm. This is the best buddy pairing since Newman and Redford in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” (1969) and, in its idiosyncratic way, the most touching in recent memory. Alas, men usually aren’t as simpatico, either in film or real life.
Rick’s career angst doesn’t go unnoticed by movie bigwig Marvin Schwarzs, a devout fan of the actor’s rough-and-tumble shoot-em-ups whose penchant for correcting people’s mispronunciation of his name implies volumes about the assumed culture of Hollywood. Waxing enthusiastic about how he and his wife reserve one night a week to watch Rick Dalton pictures, he is a hoot. If anyone can take a typecast to another level, turn it inside out and say something socially insightful in the bargain, it’s Pacino in this little more than cameo role. Well, Mr. Schwarzs has a plan. Oh, hmm…well, that might work.
Some characters in Tarantino’s opus are real, some are fictitious and some are, well, semi-fictitious. But like most of his eccentric ruminations, whether operating just on the fringe of meditative truth or smack dab in the middle of some feverish lunacy, it cajoles your indulgence. It is a breath of fresh air, whooshed into an institution forever threatening its certain demise in a pyre of decadence. And so, in the case of this jaded cineaste, seeing “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was like being transported to the movie house just off campus, a college kid, discovering anew the audacious, fairy tale magic of film.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Running time: 161 minutes