Part of the Gang: Once Upon a Time in Tarantino’s Hollywood

Cannes, France – May 2019 – We had gathered at the front of the ‘Last Minute’ queue that lined the red carpet leading into the grand Palais theatre, a queue considered to be the lowest of lows in Cannes Film Festival hierarchy terms. That didn’t stop us from being in our best gear though, the ladies in floor length evening dresses and the men in tuxedos – all polished and primed, based on the very slim chance we’d have at getting a moment on that red carpet ourselves. As the minutes rolled on however, it became increasingly clear that we wouldn’t have a hope at being in with a chance of a ticket to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time Hollywood, the most hotly anticipated film of the year. Once we accepted that, we relaxed and enjoyed the priceless ticket we did have to the show of glamour, excess and superficiality unfolding right in front of our very eyes.

Blacked out Mercedes rolled up, paparazzi assembled to take up their positions on makeshift step-ladders and a handful of women fainted on the red carpet due to the combined physical pressure of their obnoxiously tight corseted dresses and the social burden of maintaining their glamorous appearance. Cinemas’ most iconic stars walked the red carpet to a chorus of cheers, but back in the midst of the crowd agitation reached another level entirely. Half of the smug and ticketed crowd were refused entry to the film for no apparent reason. Most of them looked in disbelief, after promising their other halves an evening of old Hollywood glamour.

As the doors to the Palais closed and we made our way out, that familiar echo of desperation to be a part of it all could still be heard. ‘I’m on the phone to the studio,’ Harvey Weinstein-type figures would hiss across the barrier at fatigued festival officials. They didn’t acknowledge them though – they clearly weren’t in the club. It was a bittersweet moment to see the difference in the upper echelons of society. As the plebeians trying to get in on the action, our expectations of being in the thick of it were far lower and so any interaction or feeling of belonging, feeling like we were in the gang, was just a bonus. So it must be terrible to really believe that you’re part of the gang, when you’re not and you get left outside after the doors close.

It makes sense why Tarantino wanted a Cannes debut, it has managed to retain that Old Hollywood mentality, with a social hierarchy that only the French could maintain. Like Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, clinging on to a bygone era that had simply passed him by.

Dublin, Ireland – August 2019 – The Irish premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood last week was worlds apart from the world premiere at Cannes a few months ago. Sony Pictures Ireland made sure that guests knew where they were from the get-go. With a red carpet leading up to the door and palm trees inside, just for a moment, you might think you were heading into the infamous Viper Room on Sunset instead of the Stella theatre on Rathmines Main Street. The films’ promotional aesthetic of burnt orange, lined the inside of the bar, with Bloody Mary’s on tap. Posters of the main character Rick Dalton hung along the walls and street signs that called out key Hollywood locations like Cielo Drive, were scattered around the venue. Two Once Upon a Time in Hollywood events have taught me that it’s much more than just what’s on screen.

The Review – I’ll say it straight out, OUATIH takes a while to get going. When things do get going, Tarantino has an awful habit of dragging sequences out with very little pay off. He’s not shy in exploiting the extraordinary set pieces he’s been gifted with Sony’s budget, recreating 1960’s Hollywood to a perfectionist tee. But there’s also no doubt that there’s moments of nostalgic glory that you can’t help but be drawn in by, putting yourself in the shoes of the lost and bewildered who wandered into Los Angeles in a daze in the 1960’s.

OUATIH soothed the anxieties many people seemed to have about how he’d deal with the infamous Manson murders. Tarantino curbs this by centering his film around Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a TV actor whose star has waned, along with his stunt double, Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt. There’s a very loose storyline at play here, following the ‘has beens’ as they navigate a new kind of Los Angeles.

Even the location scouting pays off, depicting an isolated and withered Rick Dalton at his Hollywood Hills home, parking his car next to the entrance to the gates of Polanski’s palatial mansion. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, rising artists in their own right, represent a new liberal Hollywood elite who pull up to their gates and drive further up the hill, as if indicating that the path Dalton could have taken now leads to someone else’s success. Tarantino offers up vignettes of Dalton in his manufactured TV westerns, the square static images of television contrasting with the exciting, roaring landscape of film that Polanski and Tate, in his eyes at least, are mastering.

That Tarantino uses Tate, Polanski and their merry band of free loading, free spirited acquaintances, merely as a visual tool is refreshing. Although it means Margot Robbie has just a few lines of dialogue, their relatively two dimensional characterizations mean that Dalton focuses only on the conventional signs of success as a marker for his contrasting failure. There’s even a scene where Dalton imagines himself as Steve McQueen’s character in 1963’s The Great Escape. As Steve McQueen himself was a frequent attendee at the Tate/Polanski house next door, it illustrates to DiCaprio’s character what he missed out on in work and in life.

Manson and his ‘family’ are shown through the eyes of Brad Pitt as he’s taken in by the guiles of a young and flirty Manson hippie follower. He gets drawn in out of pure curiosity. To everyone’s relief, the Tate Manson murders aren’t explicitly shown, instead Tarantino showcases his signature violent showdown with the rabid hippies in a different state, perhaps to his detriment.

In the end, he ties it all up nicely with an obnoxious showdown, that feels rushed, lead by a tick of the box. As a Tarantino film, it doesn’t have the usual tropes – violence is practically non existent until the third act and swearing is limited. Maybe it was the budget he got. Maybe he’s gotten a little bit more mature. Maybe there’s more time to tidy everything up, but he’s more polished now. If you’re looking for that art-house Tarantino experience, you have to look back, not forward. This was absolute, shameless indulgence, making a movie he’s always wanted to make. This is his self-indulgent ode to an old Hollywood that everything he’s ever done has led to. It’s not perfection, but it’s different. And he’s built a career out of being different and being himself. And somehow, he’s made his own genre of film and made his own gang, that everyone wants to be part of.