By Tom Siebert
From “Singin’ in the Rain” to the latest remake of “A Star Is Born,” many films have been made about the star-making-and-dimming machinery of Tinseltown.
But Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” twists and turns the movie-movie genre into an entertaining valentine to the culture of the late 1960s, even attempting to rewrite a fairy-tale ending to one of the most notorious crimes in American history, the Manson cult murders that occurred 50 years ago this month.
It is February 1969 in Los Angeles. Western TV series star Rick Dalton, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is driven around by his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, who has trouble finding work because rumor has it that he killed his wife.
Booth is a war veteran who lives in a rusting Van Nuys trailer with his pit bull Brandy, while Dalton resides in a Benedict Canyon mansion next door to actress Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, who directed the blockbuster thriller “Rosemary’s Baby” the previous year.
Similar to Woody Allen’s “Zelig” and Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” this movie has its fictional characters interacting with real-life luminaries.
In a long tense flashback, Booth reminisces about beating up famed martial-arts actor Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of TV’s “The Green Hornet.”
Ms. Tate attends a party at the Playboy Mansion in the nearby Holmby Hills section of L.A. Some of the guests include mega-movie star Steve McQueen as well as Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas, a highly popular soft-rock group of the times.
Director Tarantino’s genius is evident throughout the epic film, but especially when he digitally inserts DiCaprio’s character into the McQueen role in a scene from the 1963 classic “The Great Escape,” since Dalton’s name was on a list of possible replacements if misfortune had prevented the star from making the movie.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a Trivial Pursuit extravaganza for Baby Boomers, with references to 1960s music, movies, TV shows, catchphrases, and Southern California iconography.
And Mr. Tarantino is a virtuoso of verisimilitude who perfectly recreates the kitschy cultural pastiche of 1969.
Booth watches a black and white television showing Vegas-style singer Robert Goulet melodramatically hitting the high notes of “MacArthur Park,” an unlikely No. 1 song for British actor Richard Harris.
Trying to jump start his fading career, Dalton crosses over to the pop music show “Hullabaloo” and wails the 1956 hit “The Green Door” as go-go girls dance around him.
And in a particularly poignant scene, we finally get to know Sharon Tate, who was known more for her stunning beauty than her acting acumen. Actress Margot Robbie inhabits Ms. Tate, portraying the budding starlet as an intelligent free spirit who walks unrecognized to the Bruin Theater in the Westwood section of Los Angeles.
Sharon tells the ticket seller that she is in the current movie playing, is invited in by the manager, sits down, and delights in her own performance in “The Wrecking Crew,” one of Dean Martin’s series of Matt Helm films that spoofed James Bond.
Meanwhile, Dalton lands the lead role in a new TV Western, “Lancer,” which co-stars Trudi, an eight-year-old method actor played smartly by Julie Butters.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has a great soundtrack that showcases the eclectic radio of the late 1960s, which ranged from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” to Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” to “California Dreaming,” the José Feliciano B-side version, not the Mamas and Papas original––in a trademark Quentin quirk.
The music of Paul Revere and the Raiders, a Colonial-clad rock band that had several hits in the late Sixties, is also prominent in the movie. When Ms. Tate and her friend, Beverly Hills hairstylist Jay Sebring, rock out to the Raiders’ “Good Thing,” Sharon teases him about what his client Jim Morrison of The Doors would think of his taste in music.
And Manson cultists are shown watching an episode of “It’s Happening,” one of three TV shows that the popular Paul Revere group hosted during the era.
Thematically, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is about the old versus the new, the ushering out of the studio system in favor of maverick independent filmmakers, and the end of innocence for the tight-knit entertainment community.
The first half of this homage to Hollywood is all fun and gamesmanship. Brad Pitt acts just like the slick, hip, and handsome movie star that he is. Mr. DiCaprio, however, plays a much more complex character, acts otherworldly, and should win some awards.
The chain-smoking-and-coughing Dalton is an alcoholic who struggles with his lines during the lengthy, meticulously staged cowboy-series scene. He then has an emotional breakdown in his dressing room, goes back to the studio sound stage, and delivers a compelling performance.
The incandescent cast of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” includes Kurt Russell, the late Luke Perry, and film legend Al Pacino, whose casting-director character Marvin Schwarzs helps Dalton break into so-called Spaghetti Westerns, the Italian-made movies that propelled Clint Eastwood to international fame.
But when the soon-to-be-notorious Charles Manson shows up at the Tate-Polanski home looking for Terry Melcher, a record producer who had rejected his folk-rock songs, Tarantino’s tale gets real. Real scary.
While driving Dalton’s car, Booth picks up a hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and takes her to the old Spahn Movie Ranch, not knowing it is now a hippie commune where Manson and his drug-crazed followers are holed up.
Booth recognizes the desert ranch as the place where he and Dalton filmed the 1950s Western series “Bounty Law” and wants to say hello to his old friend George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the 80-year-old owner of the dilapidated outdoor studio lot.
Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played creepily by Dakota Fanning, reluctantly allows Booth to visit Spahn, who is sleeping in a back bedroom. (The scene becomes more frightening when one remembers that Ms. Fromme tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford in Sacramento’s Capitol Park in 1975.)
After checking on Spahn to see that he’s all right, Booth walks back to his car, only to find that Mansonite Steve Grogan (James Landry Hebert) has slashed the front tire. He then brutally bashes Grogan and forces him to change the tire.
Then comes the fateful night of August 8, 1969, when Manson cultists Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel drive to Ms. Tate’s home with the intent to kill everyone inside, as the Mamas and Papas’ “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” plays prophetically on their car radio.
But they mistakenly arrive at the estate next door to 10050 Cielo Drive, occupied at the time by Booth, Dalton, and his Italian wife Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo), as the Vanilla Fudge’s psychedelic version of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is heard in the foreboding background.
And this reviewer will keep readers hanging on about the ending so that you may be inspired to go see this endlessly fascinating film.
What actually did happen that night was that Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and her house guests Voityck Frykowski, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger were murdered.
And on the next night, grocery store executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were viciously stabbed to death by Manson Family members in the nearby neighborhood of Los Feliz.
If only Hollywood could have rewritten those tragic scripts.