Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review: An ode to Sharon Tate


Quentin Tarantino continues his hot streak of 3 hour epics with his incredibly laid-back L.A. odyssey and Leonardo DiCaprio/Brad Pitt vehicle, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

When David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake released earlier this year, the comparison to an L.A. odyssey was made by many critics due to its meandering storyline and exploration of L.A. and popular culture. The film’s central plot took a backseat to the main character uncovering the deep roots of popular culture not only in his life, but the lives of L.A. residents in general. Despite its playful nature, it’s ultimately a cynical look at the culture we surround ourselves with.

Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, views the culture surrounding the world of Hollywood and popular culture just a tad more differently. Tarantino grew up as the golden age of Hollywood was seeing its end in the late 1960s. The golden age saw American cinema gradually evolve into one of the most powerful industries in existence, thanks to innovative filmmaking, the birth of the movie star, and the prominence of sweeping epics.

The golden age saw its end as the 1970s came around and one of the most glaring elements that critics claim led to its end was the case of the Manson murders. Cult leader Charles Manson, through the use of brainwashing and manipulation, was responsible for the grisly murder of actress Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969, effectively shattering the glossy image of Hollywood as the world tried to comprehend what happened.

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Combined with the horrors of the Vietnam war, Hollywood could not keep with its facade of happiness and larger-than-life personas and this is something that Tarantino explores with his newest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Using the 1969 setting to his advantage, the controversial director puts his own spin on the world of Hollywood during the time, completely engulfing the viewer’s eyes with packed settings full of movie references, real-life restaurants and stores, and of course a changing social climate.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has largely been called Quentin Tarantino’s most different and unique film to date, primarily because of his decision to not craft a story centered on revenge, assassination plots, or crime. Even with the stigma of the Tate murders being present here, there is not a lot of room to exploit that and Tarantino tends to focus his efforts on crafting a compelling look at the end of an era in Hollywood. How does it hold up as a movie though?

Revisionist 1969

Quentin Tarantino, if nothing else, is known for twisting his narratives to fit his own personal style and chronology, even when faced with actual historical events. Inglourious Basterds saw the auteur change-up history to give Hitler a much different fate, while Django Unchained used the real-life events of slavery in the mid-19th century to compose an exciting action-thriller genre film, complete with slave owners getting gunned down with gleeful intent.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Brad Pitt and Leonardo Dicaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood / Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures /

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Tarantino dig into his revisionist tendencies again with a Hollywood setting that is thriving in 1969. Movie stars and producers spend their time partying and enjoying the fruits of life, while aspiring actors mingle all throughout the sprawling the city of Los Angeles. Not since Pulp Fiction has a Tarantino film felt so unashamed and laid-back in showing off its pretty setting.

Equally laid-back is the writing of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and its central characters. At the heart of the story is the duo of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), an actor/stuntman collaboration and friendship on the cusp of a changing film industry.

Dalton is a TV actor who tries transitioning into film with less-than-positive results and Booth is a struggling stunt actor whose reputation as an unlikable A-hole with a major scandal follows him all the way into his increasing state of irrelevance.

Together, the men navigate through the bustling area of a vastly changing Hollywood as they try to find purpose in their lives amidst the rapidly evolving social climate of an industry transitioning into the 70s. The story is not exactly focused on one specific event, rather Tarantino uses his near-3 hour runtime to explore the various scenarios that Dalton and Booth get themselves into, building to an exciting and surprisingly subversive finale that’s telling of what Tarantino wants out of this movie experience.


The state of 1969

The theme that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood explores the most is self-reflection, with much of it coming from the perspective of characters fading away as their younger counterparts adjust to the changing of the times. Rick Dalton, in what may be the most overtly comedic performance from Leonardo DiCaprio (yes, even more than Wolf of Wall Street), sees his time in the sun as a popular TV actor setting as Hollywood producers and directors are looking for something new and fresh, which Dalton seems woefully unprepared for.

Dalton’s most famous role is of a cool bounty lawman on a Western TV show called Bounty Law. The role does not require him to work terribly hard, as he’s there to deliver his lines and shoot prop guns and fire flame throwers. The craft of acting, though somewhat important, takes a backseat to Dalton getting notoriety from his acting roles. Except in 1969, that is no longer enough and Dalton’s old mindset is challenged by an industry demanding something more, which he may or may not be inclined to deliver on.

Cliff Booth, on the other hand, has a career currently on the skids thanks to his confrontational attitude and general disrespect towards his co-workers (outside of Dalton). Played to perfection by a top form Brad Pitt, Booth evokes both sympathy and pity for his situation, as his cool and relaxed demeanor endears the audience to him, while simultaneously turning us against him as trickles of his backstory are drip-fed to us. He’s a man with a ruined reputation and his only claim to relevancy is being Dalton’s personal chauffeur.

These two men, in all their attempts to stay relevant with the times, can’t help but fall back into the attitudes that led to their decline and/or downfall and DiCaprio and Pitt’s chemistry and real-life reputations as veteran actors bring an uncomfortable sense of realism to the characters.

We all know someone or some people who refuse to challenge their own perspectives and stay static in their mindsets. Dalton and Booth, for all the coolness they provide, are in many ways Tarantino’s most pathetic, yet strangely endearing protagonists he’s ever written.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Brad Pitt stars in Columbia Pictures Once Upon a Time in Hollywood /

The future of Hollywood

What further endeared me to the heart of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was its treatment of the various aspiring actors making a name for themselves in the film industry. For starters, we have the film’s wild card, Sharon Tate, played with bubbly glee by Margot Robbie. Tate’s acting career often gets overlooked thanks to her untimely murder, but Tarantino vows to portray Tate as a lively and fun person with a genuine care for her craft.

One of the most telling scenes in the film (not a spoiler) is a sequence of Tate visiting a movie theater to watch The Wrecking Crew, a 1969 comedy that was one of her real-life final roles. Whereas Dalton and Booth simmer in the juices of their own fading relevancy, Tate watches with excitement as the audience cheers on during her scenes within the film, peeling back the layers to reveal a woman with real passion for the art of filmmaking, which is how Tate was described by the people who knew her.

Tarantino’s direction, while sharp as usual, is unusually sensitive in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in terms of scenes with Tate and it’s indicative not just of his own personal viewpoint of the late star, but of his feelings towards the changing state of Hollywood at the time. Tarantino has always been a director who enjoys referencing older films, citing them as the films that inspired him to make his own projects.

But here, Tarantino basks in the glory of the old while coming to terms with the emergence of a new era, which he frames as inevitable and necessary in the long run. His framing of Tate suggests that her type are meant to carry the torch into the next era and he presents this as something of a blessing in disguise, in spite of the older generation refusing to move on.

To top this off, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actively addresses this with the introduction of Trudi Fraser, a child actor acing opposite Rick Dalton in a new TV show filmed during the movie. Played by arguably the film’s breakout star, Julia Butters, Fraser fashions herself as a method actor who takes the craft of filmmaking very seriously, in stark contrast to her washed up, alcoholic co-star.

Here, the differences between generations is made all too clear for the audience, exploring the confrontation between the old and new as Dalton grapples with his own insecurities when he sees how dedicated Fraser is to her small role. Butters elevates the character with a quick-witted and layered performance in which she presents herself as a stern and serious actor with a dash of playfulness to offset her stoic film set attitude.

Although the role is brief, Butters plays her part to a tee with charm and nuance that is sure to help her as she continues to evolve as an actor in the future. Tarantino’s direction is also at its most honest here, effectively framing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as an ode to all of the Sharon Tates and Trudi Frasers of the world. While he is saying goodbye to the golden age of Hollywood, he is actively welcoming the new generation with open arms.

Quentin Tarantino
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JULY 11: Director Quentin Tarantino attends the photo call for Columbia Pictures’ “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on July 11, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

A final goodbye

Quentin Tarantino has mentioned that after he directs 10 films (he counts Kill Bill as one full feature), he intends to retire from directing feature-length films and watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gave me the sense that this was, in a way, his swan song before retirement. It’s easily his most personal film, tackling the film industry that he has been involved in for so long, and it’s somewhat set up to be his final goodbye, as well as a goodbye to the golden age of American cinema.

The golden age lead to the growth of a still-thriving film industry that wasn’t killed when the 1970s came around. Even with the murder of Sharon Tate, the world recovered, but Tarantino is here to make sure we don’t ever forget the spirit of Sharon Tate and the talents that harbor her passionate attitude towards filmmaking and acting. Robbie may not get as much screen time as Pitt or DiCaprio, but her presence is arguably the strongest in the entire film as Tarantino takes us on a tour of what is now something of a relic.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s title is appropriate, given how long ago 1969 has felt since the murders. It almost feels like a tale  told once upon a time, in the same vein as epic spaghetti westerns. This film may not be as overtly epic as the films that inspired it, but it is nonetheless large-scale in its exploration of the film industry. I came away from the film feeling a strange sense of catharsis for the film industry and I think that’s what Tarantino intended.

This film is far from his most accessible, but once you look at the implications of its themes surrounding the beauty of filmmaking, it may be his most satisfying venture to date. It’s a story of cinema in a film that fully embodies the wonders of cinema and Tarantino’s chill depiction of it all makes for a sweet time, even if the violence isn’t as consistent as his other films.

That being said, the climax surely implies that Tarantino has not lost his bloody edge.

Next. Quentin Tarantino filmography: Worst to best. dark

Final Verdict: 9/10

What were your thoughts on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Is it your favorite Quentin Tarantino film or no? Do you even like him? Sound off below!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out now in theaters.