‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Review: 1969 as a Warning Fairy Tale

Anyone who’s watched every movie Quentin Tarantino has made will know he’s frequently taken on revisionist history when dealing with real events. You can argue he’s done this as a form of wish fulfillment or catharsis as a what-if on how we could have rid the world of evil. For his latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s taken this stance and offered a twist: Subsequently presenting jaw-dropping truths about actors in Tinseltown.

We all know 1969 was a major turning point for not only Hollywood but also the entire globe. The moon landing alone changed our perceptions of what’s possible, while the uncontrollable terror of the Manson murders in the Hollywood hills two weeks later proved human madness could go to unimaginable levels.

Tarantino paints an evocative portrait of Hollywood from the time while bringing an enjoyable (and funny) look at various film genres for film geeks.

Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie | Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

The film has three stories going simultaneously

While the main leads are actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), three stories interweave throughout this unconventional cinematic tapestry. Despite Tarantino taking you on his trademarked wild ride where even he seemingly didn’t know where the story would go, you’ll also find some familiar Hollywood tropes.

Dalton is a washed-up actor who happens to have a close and longtime friendship with Booth. If you think this sounds a little like A Star is Born, you’re somewhat right, and the examination of the underbelly of Hollywood is more than apparent here.

Don’t let this deter you, though, because Tarantino has a lot more to say about Hollywood than A Star is Born did. The acclaimed director pays tribute to some of his own favorite movie genres he’s utilized.

The intertwining stories are Dalton’s career downfall, due to alcoholism, plus Booth’s wry lament on the downfall of his own career and Hollywood itself as it becomes overrun with Hippie culture. Thirdly, we have the story of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who happens to live next door to Dalton on the now notorious Cielo Drive.

Tarantino takes his time to depict Hollywood’s era of change

Depicting 1969 might sound like an easy task with the right wardrobe, cars, and using the crutch of CGI. Tarantino manages to recreate 1969 Hollywood down to every morsel, and how he did it is almost wizardly. It appears he simply used ingenuity over CGI, not including shutting down Hollywood streets — plus highways — to capture the zeitgeist of the era.

There isn’t a doubt this was a major turning point time for everyone. Yet, what the audience doesn’t see coming is the title of this movie gives away an important aspect: We’re definitely watching a real fairy tale — one from a mirror-like alternate universe. Tarantino takes his time to let us absorb the details without ever mentioning the moon landing ever happening.

At the same time, the film has numerous dark truths about Hollywood and how stories like Dalton’s continue to repeat even today.

If you can carp there isn’t enough for women to do in the film, they’re the only ones who provide any sense of sanity. Tate is depicted as down-to-earth, completely approachable, and normal compared to her male counterparts. DiCaprio’s broken down Dalton also encounters a precocious 10-year-old child actor (Julia Butters) on the set of a spaghetti western who gives him a real lesson in how to approach life and acting.

Film genre nerds will be in heaven

It’s more than clear Tarantino is a fan of the 1960s and 1970s martial arts films and spaghetti westerns. We’ve seen him utilize these genres in many of his more recent movies. Here, we see them play out in meta glory. Yes, Tarantino really plays the meta card in this outing, including a memorably hilarious fight scene between Bruce Lee (stunningly played by Mike Moh) and Cliff Booth.

Dipping further into the meta-universe, we see Dalton acting in an Italian-produced spaghetti western with fictional Italian names dotting faux movie posters. Beforehand, we see him acting on various fictional TV westerns of the day done with accurate detail. Stick around for the end credits as well where Dalton’s seen doing an uproarious cigarette commercial.

All these meta touches might seem like diversions. They all make narrative sense and show off DiCaprio’s acting ability better than ever.

In-between this madness, Tarantino gives us a glimpse of other celebrities living in Hollywood at the time, including Steve McQueen and other names younger audiences might not even recognize. The Manson cult is also chillingly depicted during a tense and expertly directed scene involving Cliff Booth visiting Spaun Ranch.

An ending that will divide every Quentin Tarantino fan

Nobody can deny the Manson murders in Hollywood were the darkest moment in the town’s history. Tarantino dared to make a change to this that will likely be debated for years to come. How he does it is beyond outrageous and also utilizes some serious violence/blood.

No, we can’t give away the ending. Regardless, one could argue the ending here is one ultimately giving the best tribute to Tate. You’ll be left thinking to yourself we need to appreciate women in Hollywood and how much they keep the men from ultimate self-destruction. 

Conversely, we’re reminded Hollywood has and always will be a real fairy tale. You’ll realize this is Tarantino’s greatest dark fairy tale within the real-life fairy tale.

*Nine out of Ten Stars*