Article Thumbnail

‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ Is Tarantino Discovering His Softer Side

The provocateur, now deep into middle age, proves to be a sympathetic chronicler of characters whose time is running short

Like a lot of people, I don’t entirely buy that Quentin Tarantino is going to retire after his next film. For a few years, he’s hinted that he’d make 10 movies — he considers his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to be his ninth, counting the two Kill Bill films as one — and then quit. And on Jimmy Kimmel’s show this week, he sounded like he was still considering packing it in: “I kind of like the idea of making 10 motion pictures and then — boom — that’s it, that’s done, the filmography is locked and there you go.” 

Tarantino is still a young man, only 56. And as Once Upon a Time demonstrates, he remains a passionate, inspired filmmaker. And yet, while watching this portrait of Hollywood in 1969 — a period in which television was encroaching on cinema’s cultural dominance and the murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends cast a pall over the industry — I noticed a rare but undeniable melancholy asserting itself in Tarantino’s work. To be sure, this is a violent, electric film — it feels like a QT joint through and through — but it’s also one in which time’s finiteness hangs heavy over the proceedings, and especially its main characters. Tarantino may not be retiring, but he seems acutely aware that life is fleeting. Death has always been a major element in his stories, but the weight of aging, regret and loss — the things that sting differently than bullet wounds — gives this film its sneaky power. If this is Tarantino, indie cinema’s onetime enfant terrible, at middle age, it’s a good look.

Once Upon a Time has been billed as the first superstar pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, but the film’s mood is hardly celebratory or swaggering. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a onetime star of a successful TV western called Bounty Law. But that show ended years ago: Now, Dalton is feeling like a has-been, begging for bit parts and struggling to cobble together a film career. Meanwhile, Pitt is Cliff Booth, Dalton’s longtime pal and loyal stunt double. A war veteran who may have murdered his wife — Hollywood is a place of rumors and gossip, y’know — he mostly drifts through life, largely serving as Dalton’s driver and de facto shrink. Whatever glory these two men once enjoyed in La La Land, it’s long gone. They’re not dead, but in industry terms, they might as well be.

When Once Upon a Time isn’t hanging out with these two buddies, we’re checking in on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star recently married to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who’s the toast of the town after directing the critical and commercial smash Rosemary’s Baby. But Tarantino is far less interested in her husband than in Tate, who hangs out at the Playboy Mansion or sneaks a peak at her recent film, The Wrecking Crew, in a movie theater, happily taking in the laughter of the audience all around her. Tate is a somewhat distant figure in Once Upon a Time, but Robbie plays her as a young woman fully in love with her life. She’s very happy and very optimistic, but every time we see Tate, there’s an undeniable sadness to her scenes. She’s alive, but we know that soon, tragically, she’ll be dead.

It’s no surprise that Tarantino’s ode to a bygone Hollywood era is flecked with nostalgia. With its references to Bruce Lee and Sergio Leone — not to mention the campy Batman TV series and drive-in theaters — Once Upon a Time is practically a love letter to the pop-culture artifacts that made Tarantino the film geek he is. With such a setting, the movie can’t help but be wistful, but it’s not just Tarantino who’s lamenting the end of something. Almost wherever you look in Once Upon a Time, characters are wrestling with a future that’s out of their control. It makes sense: After all, Hollywood itself was in decline, relying on glossy musicals and other productions that were backward-looking, turning off younger audiences in the process. (The renaissance, led by outsiders like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, was just around the corner.) As such, Tarantino films the whole movie like it’s a party that’s winding down — it’s time for everyone to move on.

But move on to what? It’s a question that haunts Dalton and Booth. Dalton longs to be a great actor, but the way DiCaprio plays him, we sense that greatness will forever be beyond his grasp. He’s a little too basic and also too much of a drunk — he’s a good-looking guy who’s past his prime and out of his depth. As for Booth, he’s a steadier soul — if you can call a possible murderer “steady” — but his blasé demeanor belies his sneaking suspicion that he’s just hanging around waiting for the end. Soon, his ol’ buddy Dalton won’t be hirable — actors get too old and are put out to pasture — and that will leave Booth with next to nothing. If there’s anything sadder than an actor holding on to the dream of being a star, it’s his hanger-on being totally dependent on the star’s continued success.

These characters might sound pathetic, but Tarantino depicts them with unwavering compassion. It’s probably why Once Upon a Time is my favorite of his films since Jackie Brown, his 1997 crime drama that also looked at aging characters. Despite all of his bravura — or, perhaps, because of it — his occasional willingness to show a softer side might be his secret weapon as a storyteller. And Tarantino sees a connection between the two movies, too. “You’re dealing with more melancholy people,” he said recently in Time about Jackie Brown and Once Upon a Time. “The characters in both movies are dealing with their own mortality. Things didn’t quite work out the way they wanted. And now there’s more behind them than in front of them.”

But where Jackie Brown was based on Elmore Leonard’s novel, this new film is his own creation, and he seems to understand something profound about what happens when people start to grasp that life has a finish line. That realization can inspire individuals to look back, make a catalog of what they’ve accomplished, and often they may be depressed how little there is to show for their time on Earth. Pam Grier’s Jackie and Robert Forster’s Max are older than everyone else around them in Jackie Brown, but their age doesn’t bring them maturity or wisdom — mostly, they’re just tired and resigned, stuck in their so-so circumstance. In their own way, both characters are just playing out a string. So, too, are Dalton and Booth, but the fading glamour of the showbiz world around them makes their slow descent sadder. Dalton has a few of his movie posters on the wall as proof that he lived; Booth has even less. By comparison, Tate, so much younger than these men, has a whole universe of possibilities opening up for her. But then the looming shadow of the Manson family starts to encroach on Once Upon a Time. Even for Tate, something new is always coming along to wipe away what was there before.

Because of his motor-mouth demeanor, bug-eyed enthusiasm and rule-breaking films, Tarantino has seemed permanently brash and eternally young ever since he came on the scene in the early 1990s with Reservoir Dogs. In recent interviews, he’s lost none of that brashness, but it’s been inevitably blunted by maturity and stature. He’s now an icon and an industry fixture — he’s no longer the punk-rock outsider who wanted to set Hollywood ablaze. Not that this is always clear from watching Once Upon a Time, which is full of the virtuoso filmmaking and shocking moments we’ve come to expect from his work. But where his recent movies have often felt like films culled from other films — The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds — this new one seems to tap into the pain and uncertainty of actual human experience. It feels life-sized and deeply felt, not an extended homage.

In that same Time interview, Tarantino was asked about this notion of retiring. Was he serious? He’s clearly given the matter a lot of thought:

I don’t have a super-great answer. I guess the idea is nothing lasts forever. I’ve been making movies one way for a while. I’ve built my whole life to do that. I didn’t get married, I didn’t have children. I kind of just set up that this is my time to make movies. I’m very lucky I’ve been able to work at a high level of opportunity that most filmmakers, at least in Hollywood, do not have the luxury of working, and I’ve appreciated it.

And now it’s getting to be the end of it. I want to be able to do other things and not have to live on the line, like I have for the last 28 years. I don’t feel bad about it. Most directors do not have a 30-year career. I’ve given what I’ve got to work at this level. And to work at another level is not interesting to me. … I would rather choose my own ending.

From that perspective, it’s easy to see why Tarantino has such sympathy for Once Upon a Time’s fading Hollywood also-rans. He knows that, a bit of bad luck here or a wrong turn there, he could have been them. The characters in his new movie, whether they know it or not, are competing with a ticking clock that’s counting down to their oblivion. Tarantino recognizes that the end comes for everyone. I suspect that — like Dalton and Booth — he’d like for it to come on his own terms.

Here are three other takeaways from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

#1. How easy is it to own a flamethrower?

In the film, it’s established that Dalton once starred in a World War II movie where he sets a bunch of Nazis on fire with a flamethrower. Dalton ends up holding onto the flamethrower, which seemed like the kind of thing you shouldn’t be allowed to own whether it’s 1969 or 2019. So I decided to look into the legality of having one around the house.

Turns out, because I live in California, it’s a little harder to be a proud flamethrower owner. Apparently, I need a permit from the fire marshal, which is true only in California and Maryland. Anywhere else in the U.S., it appears you’re free and clear. (By the way, California defines a flamethrower as “any nonstationary and transportable device designed or intended to emit or propel a burning stream of combustible or flammable liquid a distance of at least 10 feet.”)

At this point you’re probably thinking, Hey, how can Elon Musk fit into this story? Well, in 2018, he sold a limited amount of what was called Not-A-Flamethrowers, which looked like a water gun except they shot fire. Initially, some people thought it was a joke, but no, 20,000 of these were made — and sold out almost instantly. Only The Verge, however, tried to see if you could cook with one:

Soon, state governments were deciding, you know what, maybe we shouldn’t let civilians have flamethrowers? Last month, the New York state senate passed a bill that would outlaw Not-A-Flamethrowers. Michael Reid, the chief of staff for State Senator John Brooks, actually said this to a reporter: “Unfortunately, firing out a burst of flame for a number of feet can have some really horrific, unintended consequences.”

Is this part of Musk’s evil plan to cull the human population through their own stupidity? If so, I think I’m okay with it.

#2. There’s a great New Beverly shout-out in the movie.

On the night of Sharon Tate’s murder, she and some friends go to El Coyote, an L.A. institution since 1931. I’ve lived in this fair city for more than 25 years, and there’s a few things I know about that restaurant: (1) It’s cheap; (2) its Mexican food is pretty mediocre; (3) it serves stiff margaritas; and (4) you have to go there at least once. But while Tate and her friends are out front, they notice a fancy premiere going on down the street at what we’re told is a porn theater. Anybody who lives in L.A., though, will laugh knowingly. That’s not any porn theater. It’s the New Beverly.

Talk about your L.A. institutions: The New Beverly, which was built in 1929, has been one of the city’s great movie houses for decades. In 1969, when Once Upon a Time is set, the theater was indeed showing adult movies. That stopped about a decade later, when it began screening double features of non-porn movies. I came out to L.A. for film school in the early 1990s, and the New Beverly was like an annex of USC — my friends and I would go there to see classic movies and recent favorites, often for the first time. The theater has gone through some changes in recent times, but it remains a place for double features that you can’t see anywhere else.

Of course, Tarantino loves the New Beverly so much that he bought it in 2010, helping to ensure its survival. A few years later, he refurbished the theater, insisting that they only show film prints, nothing digital. “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm,” Tarantino said back when he purchased the theater. 

Nine years later, the New Beverly has a great blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in his latest film.

#3. Tarantino’s shortest film is his worst.

Long gone are the days when Quentin makes a film like Reservoir Dogs, which clocks in at just under 100 minutes. As is the case with Once Upon a Time, he now routinely goes over two-and-a-half hours in his runtimes. I’m not sure that’s always benefitted his movies, which can feel baggy and rambling. But to be fair, I know for a fact that his shortest film is easily his worst. Not counting his amateurish first project, 1987’s little-seen My Best Friend’s Birthday, I nominate The Man From Hollywood as his nadir.

In 1995, Miramax released Four Rooms, an anthology film consisting of four separate shorts, all made by different people and all taking place on the same night in the same hotel. Tarantino was the biggest director of the four, and so his went last. It’s important to remember that this was after the runaway success of Pulp Fiction, and he clearly was feeling himself. What he produced was The Man From Hollywood, a maddeningly indulgent tale in which he stars as a filmmaker who’s overseeing a risky bet with a friend. If the friend (Paul Calderón) can light his lighter 10 times in a row, he gets the filmmaker’s car. If he fails, the friend gets his pinkie cut off.

No matter how tedious this short is — and no matter how bad an actor Tarantino is — there’s still a baseline level of craftsmanship that’s high enough that you largely endure all the showing-off. (Everybody in the film is supposed to be drunk, which means you’re forced to watch folks like Bruce Willis play-act intoxication to an embarrassing degree.) Nonetheless, the best part of The Man From Hollywood is its ending. After this huge buildup — will the friend win the bet and save his pinkie? — this is what happens:

It’s a crude, blunt and very surprising punch line — and, fine, it sorta works. Even in this negligible short, Tarantino’s talent still shines through. But I’m glad his movies are rarely this self-admiring. And thank god he doesn’t act in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.