For the longest time, little was known about the latest film from Quentin Tarantino other than that it would connect to the Manson family. As it turns out, the Manson family are more like wallflowers in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, although they’re presence is always felt. The same can be said about Margot Robbie as actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered along with four others by the Mansons in 1969. Tate will forever be associated with the Manson murders, which often overshadows the fact that she was a promising up-and-comer. If that horrific night hadn’t occurred, there’s no telling what she might’ve accomplished or how her presence might’ve affected then-husband Roman Polanski. Tarantino has an unconventional way of getting justice for those who’ve been wronged in the past, as seen through Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tate receives a final curtain fit for a queen.
While Tate is integral to the plot, she’s not the focus of the film. That distinction belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth. It’s hard to think of a point in DiCaprio’s career when he wasn’t king of the world. Even on the heels of critical duds like The Beach and J. Edgar, he was still generally viewed as one of the defining actors of his generation. In this movie, DiCaprio finds himself saddled with a foreign concept: playing an actor whose career is fading. Rick broke out into stardom on a television drama called Bounty Law, but a combination of alcoholism and ego have left him desperate for work. The only person Rick can confide in is his stunt double Cliff, who has to drive him everywhere after his license is suspended.
Pitt is worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination, playing a loyal wingman who’s laidback most of the time, but pick a fight with him and that chill attitude will quickly melt away. Cliff even goes toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee, portrayed Mike Moh in an onslaught of celebrities playing celebrities. Among the various cameos are Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, the late Luke Perry as Wayne Maunder, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, and – the true scene-stealer – Julia Butters as a child star who is apparently supposed to be a young Meryl Streep. These stars decorate a shimmering sky that severs as Tarantino’s ultimate tribute to La La Land in the 1960s. Just as the 60s draw to a close, however, something more sinister is seemingly on the horizon as Charles Manson and his followers begin to sprout up.
Even with all the celebrity cameos and Manson family members, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never forgets that it’s a buddy picture. DiCaprio and Pitt share a natural chemistry, but they’re just as strong apart, making the runtime of 161 minutes fly by at a brisk pace. The friendship between Rick and Cliff was inspired by the real-life dynamic between Burt Reynolds and his stunt double, George Spahn. Originally, Reynolds was supposed to appear in the film as Spahn. After Reynolds passed away in 2018, however, the role was filled by Bruce Dern. James Marsden of Westworld was also intended to pop up in the film as a young Reynolds, but his contributions were left on the cutting room floor. Hopefully Tarantino has an extended version up his sleeve, but for now he’s made a film that’s consistently humorous, exhilarating, and surprising.
Although Reynolds had a respectable career, he was also notorious for his occasionally poor behavior and turning down major roles. Rick Dalton is almost like an alternate universe version of Reynolds, exploring the roads taken and the roads not taken. In over 25 years of filmmaking, the closest Tarantino has ever come to making a sequel was Kill Bill: Volume 2, which was really just the second half of one movie. As Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reaches its wicked climax, though, the audience can’t help but wonder what Tarantino could do with a follow-up. A bit like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time Trilogy, it would be great to see Tarantino explore Hollywood’s late 70s and 80s scenes in subsequent installments. Of course, Tarantino has stated that he’ll only direct one more film before hanging it up for good. It’s admirable when a filmmaker quits while they’re ahead, but if this modern classic is any indication, Tarantino has plenty more stories to tell.