The Case for Best Picture: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

Written by Steven Hanrahan

Margot Robbie stars as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.

What more is there left to say about Quentin Tarantino that hasn’t already been said? Both the man himself and his filmography have been extensively, obsessively scrutinized by cinephiles and ‘film bros’ alike for nearly three decades now, ever since he shot to cult movie infamy with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. Of course, it’s difficult nowadays to label any of his films as ‘cult’, given his enduring popularity and acclaim. His signature style, combining amoral characters and idiosyncratic dialogue with highly aestheticised violence and a liberal use of homage, revolutionized a stagnating crime genre, inspiring countless clones in the late 1990s who thought they could churn out the next Pulp Fiction. So prevalent is his continued influence on cinema that the verb ‘Tarantinoesque’ was coined to describe the output of his imitators.The question is, how does a filmmaker like Tarantino grow and develop as an artist, given the extent to which they’ve been pigeonholed, their body of work confined to a category of its own making?

In Tarantino’s case he didn’t, not really anyway. Instead, he branched out into a diverse range of established genres, taking influence from blaxploitation (Jackie Brown), martial arts and samurai cinema (Kill Bill), grindhouse horror (Death Proof), Dirty Dozen-esque war movies (Inglourious Basterds) and spaghetti Westerns (Django Unchained). The budgets increased and the films got longer, but Tarantino’s trademarks – the violence, the profanity, the self-reflexivity – were always present. The Hateful Eight felt like a more mature effort, with an even greater importance placed on character-driven dialogue than in the director’s previous offerings, yet was ultimately undermined by its third act’s deterioration into mindless, cartoonish gore. The formula was getting tired; it seemed as if Tarantino had reached an impasse, caught between making the movies he wanted to make and the movies his ravenous fanbase, and by extension the wider film community, expected of him.

This is very much a movie that prioritizes moods and images over words and action, with beautiful cinematography and production design turning the city into a character all of its own.

Which brings me to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. When it was first announced that Tarantino’s ninth feature would revolve around the Manson Family, specifically their involvement in the Tate murders of 1969, people were apprehensive. Would Tarantino really be so tasteless as to take one of the most horrific acts of violence of the 20th century and turn it into another of his typical bloody fantasies? The concern was, naturally, unfounded (say what you will about the man, but he’s not an idiot). Rather, he directed his focus elsewhere, seizing the opportunity to return to the Hollywood of his youth and subverting everyone’s expectations in the progress. Put simply, it’s a masterful synthesis of fact and fiction with a surprising amount of emotional depth to support its technical achievements.

Once Upon a Time… effectively functions as an epic hangout movie; there’s no real plot, just a few days in the lives of fading television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stuntman and best mate Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they navigate an amazingly-realized Los Angeles at the tail end of the 1960s. Their friendship forms the basis of the film, and the chemistry between the two actors is pitch perfect from the very first scene. However, this is very much a movie that prioritises moods and images over words and action, with beautiful cinematography and production design turning the city into a character all of its own. Some will inevitably be frustrated by the film’s perceived aimlessness, but acclimatise yourself to its easy-going rhythm and you’ll find it’s not difficult to lose yourself in this world Tarantino has concocted.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.

That’s not to say it gets by on good vibes and star power alone. At the heart of Once Upon a Time… is an unwavering belief in the importance of cinema, with the filmmaking process depicted as an almost noble endeavour. Not exactly the most relatable of subject matter as far as the general population is concerned, but Tarantino grounds the film in familiar themes that anyone can relate to, in particular the process of change in society and how the individual responds to it; fear of obsolescence and uncertainty regarding one’s future are likewise explored.

He also goes to great lengths to emphasise the joys of watching films in addition to producing them. One of my favourite scenes involves Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to a movie theatre to catch a screening of The Wrecking Crew, in which the real Tate starred. She is ecstatic when the audience responds positively to her performance; in this moment she is once again a young actress with a bright future ahead of her, as opposed to a tragic murder victim, a perception of her that sadly continues to be the most widespread.

As for Manson himself, he is relegated to about ten seconds of screen time. It’s a genius move on Tarantino’s part, a memorable show of restraint from a filmmaker not usually associated with that. Manson desperately craved attention, and that’s exactly what he got; his trial and subsequent imprisonment transformed him into one of the most notorious criminals in the world, securing him a place in Western popular culture for decades to come. Tarantino denies his character any sort of status, in the process making a subtly powerful statement regarding the undeserved exposure men such as Manson are granted in the media. This couldn’t be any more relevant to our current social climate, and Once Upon a Time… deserves to be recognised in this regard.

The final 20 or so minutes are what will make or break the film for most. Its excessive brutality is undoubtedly at odds with the preceding two hours, and it could easily be viewed as Tarantino indulging in his worst tendencies

The final 20 or so minutes are what will make or break the film for most. Its excessive brutality is undoubtedly at odds with the preceding two hours, and it could easily be viewed as Tarantino indulging in his worst tendencies. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it to be a hilarious, thrillingly orchestrated sequence; it also has at least some justification for existing, taking into account the figures on the receiving end of the carnage, making it somewhat more cathartic than that of his previous few films.

Putting all that aside, the film’s final shot is its true payoff, simultaneously an incredibly poignant look at what could have been, and a conflation of the past and future of cinema as a whole. The industry is undergoing a groundbreaking transitional period at present, both in terms of the stories being told and the talent telling them. Awarding Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood the Oscar for Best Picture would be the perfect way of honouring Hollywood’s rich (albeit flawed) legacy, while at the same time looking forward to the exciting new developments the coming decade will bring. As for Tarantino himself, it’ll be a shame if this really is to be his penultimate film; his newfound sincerity is something I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

The 92nd Academy Awards will take place this coming Sunday 9th of February.


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