Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a standard Disney fairy tale with slasher aesthetics, a cast that’s too good for it, and a director now perhaps permanently up his own mythos.
It gives us morsels of truth in order to cover up a fat lie, and the breadcrumbs that led me through the woods, while bypassing the witch’s lair, turned out to be a byproduct of a particular type of authentic enchantment. The one redeeming feature about the whole endevour – Brad Pitt‘s actual acting chops.
And on the face of it, Quentin Tarantino‘s new film, set to be a showreel glorifying the industry of canned dreams, in a backhanded kind of way, turned out to be all about the Pitt. The Hollywoodness of Brad. The finest Tinseltown can offer, without the obligatory self-serving squirm – the Missouri guy that looks like Apollo, talks like a farmer, is loyal to his dog, and always has your back. Also fit enough to knock out Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). With sheer sarcasm. A reluctant gent, and catnip for the ladies. Albeit a guy that killed his nagging wife and got away with it. In the story.
I bounced my way out of the cinema, knowing I was spoon-fed speed, but finding happy nourishment in the sugar, all my girlhood crushes revived and redeemed. Predictably, a nasty feel soon set in, somewhere in (the pit of) my gut. That instinct we all should follow while in the woods, off our faces, but we don’t.
In a way, Mr Pitt, as such, possibly unwittingly, might be the greatest cinematic illusion of them all. Lending his decency and skill to a scam. Or maybe he’s the scam. Dunno. When we buy into the unreal, it takes time to figure it all out, and ugly reality can sneak up on us. Like it did to the people in tragic number 10050 Cielo Drive.
For in life, there is rot. And this film has a special way of addressing its own rot, in a way that is an apt allegory for the delusional arc of Hollywood. Its internal downfall lies in the fact that this insight is most definitely accidental. It’s all supposed to be a showbiz joke that’s not a joke, which is a joke only showbiz insiders could really get. And we are let in, for a pervy peek.
It’s the crack in that eternal sunshine that let the light shine through.
This story is a two-hander, of a failing Hollywood B movie player, and TV actor, Rick Dalton, on his way to spaghetti western stardom (Leonardo DiCaprio doing his very best to disregard the cartoon ethos), and his loyal stunt man Cliff Booth (William Bradley Pitt, owning the cartoon ethos), while times are a-changing, and neighborhoods are too. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, iconic and sadly redundant) moves in with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) next-door to Rick and, at the same time, presents both a sunny opportunity and dark foreboding marking the death of Rick’s career.
They are the new cool, he is significantly out of touch. Robbie merely gets to play a feeling, an energy, an image, a human light-bulb, not a person, yet she’s strangely excellent at it, because at this point, she can do more or less anything.
Let’s tackle the backstory a bit, like we would if we were a forensic psychologist. Because what we have is a gruesome murder scene, on the one side, and a town that decides what the truth of it will be, on the other. It’s 1969, and Manson (Damon Herriman) is the hidden disease of Hollywood. The demon child who will slay the hippie daydream come summertime, leaving the soft pastel tones of endless parties and tequila sunsets bloodstained and bare. In RL, he was the town pimp and pusher, a refugee from a horrific childhood, a boozy disloyal teenage mom, and a history of institutional abuse that is astounding, with grandiose high-strung dreams of his own, and a raging mental illness that could not be contained within the caste system of the film and music industry.
Thus the monster was released out of its own inner bounds, infecting starstruck outcasts, mostly runaway teens, whose vulnerability was their own lack of life experience and a need to be accepted yet unique. The way all cults are born. What Charlie provided was his own brand of narrative hallucinogens.
His counterpart, in myth, would be the damaged hero that slays the Minotaur, ridding the city of its nemesis, while reluctantly questing on the path to righteousness.
And we get that, but without the complexity, subtlety, and wisdom of the myth (or, in fact, of actual cinematic masterpieces, like Pulp Fiction, or Jackie Brown). Because when a fully fleshed Cliff Booth aka Brad Pitt arrives at the Spahn ranch, a former movie set where the Manson family now roosts, all we get is cookie-cutter villains in a group setting and one good man standing – a scene straight out of a particularly boneheaded western/police procedural. Of which there are many clips dispersed, as they are Rick’s bread and butter.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood does that pimp thing where it tries to sell you the very stuff it mocks. All that was missing was a whiff of red menace someplace, and I’d be pressed to think we were being canvassed to vote Reagan a decade too early.
This film, shallow as it is from the inside, and well crafted, as it is, from the outside, unintentionally exposes Hollywood dealing with its own internal rot the only way an industry built on manufactured reality can – with a minimum of self-awareness, maximum self-aggrandisement, twisting the narrative in a direction that is pleasing to the ego, entirely devoid of any essential truth.
The original narcissist.