Warning! The following article contains spoilers about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood! Enter at your own risk!
As an actor and movie buff, I have something almost sinful to admit; I have never seen a Quentin Tarantino film. Violent movies have never held any interest for me (The Godfather is about as far as I can go, I still think about that poor horse!). Give me a love story with Rhett Butler or Mr Darcy any day of the week. But with Tarantino’s latest offering Once Upon A Time In Hollywood newly in cinemas, I thought this would be the perfect film to pop my proverbial Tarantino cherry.
I was nervous about going in to see Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. The Cielo Drive murders which took the lives of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent in August 1969 had always held a sort of morbid curiosity for me. I found that I couldn’t think about what happened for too long before I would begin to feel sick. And stupidly that meant I couldn’t think of Sharon Tate as anything but the victim of a horrific crime and not a woman who was layered, interesting and talented. I knew that Tarantino had a penchant for horrific violence in cinema and the thought that the Tate murders would be included in that intrigued and perhaps even angered me. Surely it is still too soon? Does the Manson family even deserve to have this story shared? So while I went into the cinema nervous, I came out enthralled. Tarantino created a movie truly for film buffs who love movies. This is a cinema experience with a soul and one mighty story to tell.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in the year 1969, the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and follows the story of ageing Western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his buddy and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and his neighbour on Cielo Drive, emerging movie star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Although Dalton and Booth rarely interact with Tate and her friends, you get the sense of the fading of the old and the glamour of the new. The downfall and rise of a star, both acutely aware of the fickleness of Hollywood and what is in now won’t be tomorrow. Tate being an upcoming movie star, newly married to Roman Polanski, Hollywood’s latest and hottest director who had recently directed the smash hit horror film Rosemary’s Baby and fictional Rick Dalton, who has been rumoured to be loosely based on Steve McQueen, whose own Western TV series ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ is similar to Dalton’s ‘Bounty Law’.
Charles Manson and his so called Family almost (and rightfully so) feel like a side note in this movie. Manson desperately wanted to be famous. I am so glad this film was released after his death. Tarantino chose to only give Manson himself the smallest scene so you were aware of his presence without wholly having to deal with him.
There was a lot of talk in the media before the movie premiered that Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tate had few lines and limited screen time. At first that made me angry as most misinformed news articles are written to make you angry do. After seeing the film, I think it was the perfect portrayal. Tarantino defended his choice “It’s not her story, it’s Rick’s story. It’s not even Cliff’s,” he said. “And [Tate] is an angelic presence throughout the movie, she’s an angelic ghost on earth, to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts.” I completely agree. Tate has this image in Hollywood where she delivers few lines but she is ever-present. You know her story even if you don’t know her or have even seen her films. To give her a larger role in the movie would be to make the movie completely about her and I think that would be a disservice to the narrative Tarantino is trying to tell.
Leonardo DiCaprio proves his worth in this film. He is a superb actor. I loved how he characterised Dalton. Brad Pitt is every bit his equal. Funny, charming and unreservedly handsome. You can’t imagine his character being capable of being a wife killer. Whether he was or not and why this was even mentioned in the movie is another blog article in itself, which I will save for another day. Margot Robbie was perfect as Tate. I don’t think any other actress could play her as respectfully and with as much finesse as Robbie. As a fellow Aussie actor, I am supremely proud of her.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale of sorts with a happy ending. The violent end of the Manson family took on an almost comical turn, the audience who were in the cinema watching with me were laughing uncomfortably as us humans tend to do when faced with something that make us uneasy. But I think knowing what these awful killers did in reality, allowed us as the audience to feel a sense of relief in a violently intense scene. Seeing a heavily pregnant Tate and Sebring safe and alive after the Manson Family members were killed made me melancholy and a gave me a sense of ‘if only’. The way only a good fairy tale can do.
This felt like Tarantino’s love letter to the town he loves so much and perhaps a cautioning of the change once again afoot in modern-day Hollywood, much like it was in 1969. The horror of the Manson Family killing spree changed Hollywood forever. It lost the last of its innocence and brought in the new Hollywood era that we see today with more realistic and adult style storytelling in cinema.
But if you get anything out of this movie, I hope it is that Sharon Tate was more than the murder victim of the Manson Family. She was a friend, a daughter, a sister, a mother and an actor. She was carefree, loved life and loved the movies. Her career was only beginning to flourish and time could have only told where it would have led her. I am glad that I now know the woman and not the victim. I am also glad that my first bite of a Tarantino film was as sweet as this. I can’t wait for more!