‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Takes a Scenic Journey Through LA in 1969

DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie give stellar performances in Tarantino's latest film.

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dancing at a Playboy Mansion Party. (photo: Andrew Cooper, © 2019 CTMG, Inc.)

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dancing at a Playboy Mansion Party. (photo: Andrew Cooper, © 2019 CTMG, Inc.)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is an exquisite film until the ending. The film’s title alludes to it as a fable or fairy tale and that is especially true in its final scenes. The story itself is fantastic, not because it has a fast-moving, tight storyline, but because like a meandering stream it passes many interesting views. The main plot features a changing Hollywood of 1969, a middle-aged actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his good friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Dalton, who was the star of the fictional TV show “Bounty Law” is trying to find his way after the series ended. He’s concerned that he has become a has-been. He would love to make the leap from TV to movies. Booth acts as Dalton’s driver/personal assistant, and handyman. While Dalton’s go-to attire is a turtleneck with gold chain and pendant and brown leather coat. Booth is a denim clad cowboy type who wears moccasin boots and sometimes sports a colorful print, collared shirt.

A Fine Bromance

The camaraderie and support they show one another is one of the film’s highlights.When Dalton lands a role as the villain of the week in “Lancer” he pressures stunt coordinator, Randy (Kurt Russell) to put Booth in the episode. Randy is hesitant as his wife resents Booth getting away with killing his wife (shown in a flashback scene). Booth does get hired, but soon gets fired for fighting with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set. There was some controversy over the portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film. One day when dropping off Dalton at the set he tells him,”You’re Rick fucking Dalton, don’t you forget it.” DiCaprio and Pitt play superbly well off of one another and turn in spectacular performances of their characters in their first film together.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate looking at her movie photos on the front of a movie theater. (photo: Andrew Cooper, © 2019 CTMG, Inc.)

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate looking at her movie photos on the front of a movie theater. (photo: Andrew Cooper, © 2019 CTMG, Inc.)

Dalton’s next door neighbor in the Hollywood Hills are the historical figures Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Tate just had a breakout role in the film The Wrecking Crew and there is a fun scene of her walking by a movie theater where the film is showing. After checking out the movie posters outside, she walks up to the box office and asks if she can get in for free since she is in the movie. The box office girl asks the manager and she gains entry.

Tarantino sets up a great camera position of her watching the film with the camera focused on her face with her over-sized glasses. Robbie is wonderful in this scene. She expresses the joy through her facial expressions and mannerisms that Tate must have had from watching herself do well on the screen and hearing the comments and laughs from the audience around her.

A fun flashback scene is Dalton starring in the World War II movie, The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey. In it he takes out the German High Command in a meeting room with a flamethrower. Dalton when taking a break from shooting “Lancer,” has a touching moment with a young actress Trudi (Julia Butters) who he is set to shoot a scene with. She is in a small rocking chair reading her script and he asks if he can sit and read his Western novel. They start to talk and the Western novel becomes a metaphor for his life and he starts to get choked up. Trudi senses this and helps him through the moment. 

Quentin Tarantino lining up a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt on the set of 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.' (photo: Andrew Cooper, © 2019 CTMG, Inc.)

Quentin Tarantino lining up a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. (photo: Andrew Cooper, © 2019 CTMG, Inc.)

Tarantino is a Los Angeles native and the film is partially an homage to the Hollywood/Los Angeles of the late 1960s. He does great work as a cultural anthropologist in this film.  He and the crew do an amazing job with the period clothing, cars, signage, storefronts and cultural touchstones of the era. A somewhat mundane scene that took a lot to set up is a shot of the Los Angeles Freeway with several lanes going in each direction of cars that would have been on the road in 1969. It does not appear to be done through CGI.

Booth while driving back and forth from the studio keeps seeing a young hippie girl at the bus stop and hitchhiking. He’s normally going in the opposite direction. One day he sees the girl and he is going in the same direction. She sticks her thumb out to him to signal a ride. He stops and the young woman, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), gets in. Qualley is very good in her role. Booth gives her a ride to Spahn Movie ranch where she lives with the family—the Manson Family that is!

When they arrive at the Ranch, Pussycat introduces him to Charles “Tex” Watkins (Austin Butler) as Manson Family members look on secretly. Everything is fine at first. Tension starts to build as Booth demands to see the owner of the ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern) to say hello. They had met when Booth worked on movies at the ranch. When he goes into the house he is confronted by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning). He checks on Spahn. After seeing that he is alright, he decides to leave the ranch. Burt Reynolds was set to play Spahn, but died before his scenes could be shot. As Booth is walking back to his car the other young women of the Manson Family are in front of the ranch buildings and glare at him as he walks past. 

When Booth arrives at his car there’s a knife stuck in his tire which has caused it to go flat. Sitting on a fence close to the car is a guy, Clem (James Landry Hébert). He asks him to put the spare on. The man refuses, so Booth beats him up until he agrees. Tarantino uses an innovative camera angle at the end of the fight scene. He shoots the fight from behind Booth and between Booth’s legs. As Booth lands a devastating blow we see both of Clem’s feet lift off the ground into the air. Booth drives away just as Tex arrives back from a trail ride.

Later, members of the Manson Family: Tex, Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) have arrived on the street outside Dalton’s house to kill Tate. The scene has been set up by showing Tate and her friends having a fun evening together at her home. This is where the highly entertaining movie goes off the rails.

A Quantum Leap

Dalton hears the loud muffler noise on the Manson Family car idling and goes outside and yells at them to leave. They do and then regroup, deciding to kill Dalton instead of Tate since he and others show how to kill on TV, therefore they must be killed. Tarantino is brilliant in the twist, but why mess with the concrete facts of an American tragedy. He could have had the same ending without Tate and the Mansons being involved, or shown other adventures of Dalton and Booth.

Booth is staying over at Dalton’s house and answers the door when Tex and the Family members knock. Tex immediately points his rifle at Booth. Atkins and Krenwinkel (Kasabian has deserted the gang) go looking for Dalton, but instead find Dalton’s wife, Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). She is attacked as she lays sleeping in the bed, then gets up and runs away. Booth uses a few innovative moves to kill Tex and Watkins.

Some of the gratuitous violence of the ending also seems a little less than real. When Booth is banging the head of Krenwinkel off of the fireplace mantel it almost seems like he is banging a mannequin with a pivot mechanism at the waist. It is too uniform, Krenwinkel’s legs and feet don’t move at all. Booth and Dalton kill the Manson family members in this fractured fairy tale.

The ending notwithstanding, there are many other reasons to see Hollywood. There are very nice touches of humor in it. One such instance is with Al Pacino portraying producer Marvin Schwarz, a big fan of Dalton. When they meet in a bar he asks if Booth, who’s also sitting at the bar is his Dalton’s kid. It would be great if Tarantino made a sequel with DiCaprio and Pitt reprising their roles as Dalton and Booth.

Another fun flashback scene is when we see Rick Dalton do a screen test for the part of Hilts ‘The Cooler King’ in The Great Escape. It’s interesting to see Dalton inserted into actual footage from the movie. We even see a remarkable acting doppelganger (Damian Lewis) for Steve McQueen at a party at The Playboy Mansion, which Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski are attending. There are many well-known actors in Hollywood including: Luke Perry (his final role), Brenda Vaccaro, Michael Madsen, Lena Dunham, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Rebecca Gayheart, Rumer Willis, and Zoë Bell.

Wait until all the credits role to see a faux Red Apple Cigarettes TV commercial with Dalton as the actor and Tarantino as the director. 

Tarantino wrote, directed, and produced Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Cinematography was by Robert Richardson with film editing by Fred Raskin. Casting was by Victoria Thomas. Production Design by Barbara Ling with set decoration by Nancy Haigh. Costumes were by Arianne Phillips. The film also features a fantastic ‘60s music soundtrack. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is rated R and is a Sony Pictures studio release.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Cooper and Sony Pictures.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central .