Release Date(s)2019 (December 10, 2019)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is director Quentin Tarantino’s celebration of late 1960s Hollywood, TV stars, and always sunny Los Angeles. It’s also an unusual buddy film tinged with danger, a revisionist take on history, and a showcase for two of the screen’s most radiant stars.
Leonardo DiCaprio id Rick Dalton, star of the recently cancelled TV Western Bounty Law. He guest-stars now on other shows, usually as the villain, and worries about his career’s downward direction. He also drinks too much and his driver’s license has been revoked for drunk driving. His longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is his driver and one-man entourage, seeing to the star’s home repairs and often providing a sounding board for his insecurities.
Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Because there is scandal in Cliff’s past, he must rely on Rick to get him assigned to projects, an increasingly tricky business with Rick’s own stature diminishing. After chauffeuring Rick to his lavish home in the Hollywood Hills, Cliff returns to his trailer to watch TV with his dog.
Meanwhile, Rick’s agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), is trying to convince Rick that going to Italy to star in “spaghetti esterns” will revitalize his career.
Tarantino blends his fictional characters with real-life people. New neighbors have moved in next door to Rick: young, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, critically acclaimed film director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker), Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), and Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) show up at interesting moments, and other real people, famous and infamous, are mentioned in the dialogue.
The episodic structure of the film allows us to see Rick, Cliff, and Sharon on their own. Walking along Hollywood Boulevard, Sharon sees her name on the marquee of a theater showing her film The Wrecking Crew, and introduces herself to the box office cashier and theater manager as the klutz in the movie. She’s invited in to watch the movie and we see her sitting there, fascinated with her own appearance and delighted that the audience laughs at her slapstick moments. She even mimics the karate moves she learned as that scene plays. Despite being an industry insider, she is as fascinated with movie magic as any other viewer.
A lengthy sequence involves Cliff picking up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who happens to be one of Manson’s acolytes and driving her to the Spahn Movie Ranch, which has been taken over by the Manson commune. He inquires about George Spahn, with whom he worked in the past. Things turn from cordial to tense as his request to see his old friend meets with excuses. Alone amid these potentially dangerous people, he perseveres. The scene is quietly foreboding.
The considerable wattage of DiCaprio and Pitt enhances the tale. Their blend of looks, personality, and talent shines. When they’re on screen, it’s hard to notice anyone else. The natural, comfortable way their characters talk and understand and accept each other’s vulnerabilities makes their relationship believable. Their friendship is solid.
Tarantino fills the film with period references—snippets of radio commercials, trailers for then-current movies, a copy of the once-ubiquitous TV Guide on Rick’s coffee table, openings of the popular TV shows Mannix and The FBI shown on vintage TV sets, and an endless stream of pop music hits. The film is Tarantino’s love letter to an era.
The approach is episodic, and it works. We get great moments, such as a scene on a backlot when Rick and an 8-year-old actress (Julie Butters), waiting for their scene to be set up, discuss the books they’re reading and Rick becomes impressed with her dedication to her craft. After Rick blows his lines repeatedly during a scene, we see him having a tantrum in his trailer, screaming, throwing things, kicking furniture. Another scene on the backlot shows an arrogant Bruce Lee lecturing stuntmen on his superiority until Cliff decides to pit his own skills against Lee’s balletic karate.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is a long film at 2 hours and 41 minutes, but the time breezes by because Tarantino keeps us intrigued constantly. The pacing is casual and allows for the characters to reveal their insecurities and joys and evaluate the directions their lives are taking. The first-rate supporting cast includes Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, the late Luke Perry, Bruce Dern, Lena Dunham, Brenda Vaccaro, Emile Hirsch, and Clu Gulager.
One of Tarantino’s best films, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood tells several stories simultaneously in a time of transition for Hollywood and the nation. Studios were trying to acclimate themselves to a younger demographic and newer directors were on the rise. Tarantino takes a nostalgic look at this time while also infusing a sense of trepidation.
The R-rated Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the widescreen format of 2.39:1. The opening shows scenes from Rick’s TV series Bounty Law with an NBC promotional ad. These scenes are in black-and-white and shown in the standard small-screen format of the time. Production design has gone all out to accurately recreate Hollywood Boulevard in 1969. Visual references to the late 60s are everywhere, including billboards, neon signs, ads on the sides of buses, movie posters, and marquees for movies that would have run back in 1969.
A scene from one of Rick’s movies shows him literally incinerating a group of high-ranking Nazis with a flamethrower, the flames illuminating the screen. A Hollywood party scene set around a swimming pool is bathed in pink light as a crane shot shows the guests dancing, drinking, and chatting. While Sharon Tate watches her performance at the movie theater, the camera switches back and forth between the onscreen action and her reactions as she sits enjoying her performance and the laughter of the audience around her. In Rick’s feature western, dramatic rays of sunlight shine through a window and ceiling fans cast shadows on the floor. At Spahn’s house, the windows are covered and the interior is very dark despite the sunny day outside, raising suspense as the audience increasingly fears what Cliff might discover. In a creepy composition, Manson and two of his acolytes walk up a dark driveway.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD. There are options for French and Spanish tracks, as well as an audio description track in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include French, Spanish, and English (for the hearing impaired). Dialogue is clear and crisp throughout, allowing the audience to fully appreciate Tarantino’s clever dialogue. The sound is particularly dramatic in the shoot-out scenes in the Bounty Law sequences, the conflagration caused by Rick’s flame thrower, and the motor of Cliff’s car. Music from AM radio is a key sound element, with vintage songs by Deep Purple, Joe Cocker, Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond, and The Box Tops playing in the background during many scenes, often in cars.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include additional scenes and 5 behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes. A Digital code on a paper insert is also included.
Quentin Tarantino’s Love Letter to Hollywood – 1969 was a transitional time between old and new Hollywood—“the last great gasp of what Hollywood was all about.” Rick is an actor trying to make the transition from being a TV star to working in feature films. Tarantino remembers the town from when he was 6 or 7 and it was exciting to turn today’s Hollywood into what it was. AM radio provides much of the music. Leonardo DiCaprio notes, “there’s so much detail of Hollywood history in this movie.” Kurt Russell comments that the film is a “love letter to a time I knew really well.” The movie is a “Tarantino-esque fairy tale.”
Bob Richardson: For the Love of Film – Quentin Tarantino invited cinematographer Bob Richardson, who had worked with the director previously, to read the script. Richardson got an immediate sense of how the movie would flow, setting up “amazing, magical moments.” Most of the movie was shot on 35-millimeter film, with the Bounty Law sequences shot on 16-millimeter. Both 65 and 70-millimeter were considered but abandoned because those formats would not accommodate the zoom. Margot Robbie describes an impressive crane shot. A few other shots and their complexity are also described as accompanying clips are shown.
Shop Talk: The Cars of 1969 – Picture car coordinator Steven Butcher and picture car captain Leonard Jefferson discuss the acquisition and placement of vintage automobiles and other vehicles. Tarantino didn’t want the cars to look pristine; he wanted them to look “lived in.” Cliff’s car was made to look the way a stunt man would want his car to look and perform. There were two 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghias for Cliff—a stunt car fitted with cameras and a regular car. Rick’s 1966 Cadillac would have been three years old in 1969. Roman Polanski drives an MG roadster and three era-appropriate Porsches were obtained for other characters. The two men discuss how cars were chosen to reflect the characters driving them. Trucks bearing iconic advertising, period buses, and scores of background automobiles were needed to create realistic street and traffic scenes. “It was a challenge” to assemble so many 60-year-old cars, “but a good challenge.”
Restoring Hollywood: The Production Design of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood – Hollywood has changed since 1969 but “there’s still enough there to get a toehold.” Production designer Barbara Ling had to transform Los Angeles on a budget. Hollywood Boulevard was shut down for four straight blocks and store fronts were designed to replicate period businesses, so the company had to get 100% of the merchants “on board.” It took months to build store fronts and then dress their windows. Hollywood Boulevard was movie row in 1969 but none of the theaters remain. The marquees, however, had been left in place, and were restored to their original look, with titles of movies that would have played in 1969. The goal of the street scenes was to create a vibe of what the time was like. The Western street at Universal Studios, site of countless TV westerns and feature films, was used for the film Rick is making, and Melody Ranch became the setting for Rick’s black-and-white TV series Bounty Law. Because actual backlots are always bustling with activity, a school’s property was used for the backlot in the movie. The Spahn Ranch location was not far from the real ranch and was designed to look dirty and grungy. Ling says, “It’s more challenging to work with a director who has something in his brain and then to meet his standard.”
The Fashions of 1969 – Costume designer Arianne Phillips notes that costumes are not merely clothes, but are essential to establishing the characters’ identity, offer visual clues, and help tell the story. According to Leonardo DiCaprio, “I get to put on a lot of goofy outfits. Rick looks desperate to be relevant.” Costumes are “visual vocabulary.” Actors bring the costumes to life. Phillips consulted with Sharon Tate’s sister and studied some of the actress’ clothing to get a handle on how to costume Margot Robbie. She was allowed to borrow some of Tate’s jewelry for Robbie to wear in the movie. Costumes had to reflect both what the actors would have worn in movies and what their street clothes would have been like. “It’s like designing for two movies.”
- Old Chattanooga Beer Commercial, Circa 1969
- Red Apple Commercial, Circa 1969
- Hullabaloo: Rick Dalton Sings Green Door
- Bounty Law
- Lancer: The Meeting of Two Brothers
- Charlie Talks to Paul Barabuta and Waves to Cliff
- Rick Dalton and Sam Wanamaker Talk on Set
– Dennis Seuling