29 January 2020

Devouring the Oscars -- Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood for Best Picture

In which I make the case for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood for Best Picture.

At this point, Quentin Tarantino never getting a Best Picture before his retirement is about as scary as the feeling I once had in thinking: What if Peyton Manning never gets a Super Bowl ring? (Thank God! He finally came through...twice.) Of course, Tarantino’s work is the kind of divisive, especially this past decade, that doesn’t really play with the preferential nature of the Oscar ballot. I suppose my point is that we should hope that a Tarantino film wins that kind of big at the Oscars. And, for me, this one feels like the one that should do it, even if it seems like it likely won’t.

So, when I considered what I would do for The LAMB's annual Devouring the Oscars series this year, I jumped right on this one.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first GREAT movie since Inglourious Basterds. Set over one long winter's night and day and one wild summer night, it is a movie that feels as original as anything Tarantino has made, despite its historical references. After my opening night screening at the Belcourt in Nashville (on 35mm!!!), my buddy Joshua and I both couldn't help agreeing that we'd never seen anything like it. I even said those words: "I've never seen anything like it." It moves differently than any movie I've ever seen. There's a slowness that carries most of the runtime that somehow immersed me, certainly more so than the deliberate first hour plus of The Hateful Eight (the one Tarantino I outright hate).

The slowness works here, in part, due to the quality of a small handful of long scenes and the equity of attention paid to the two leads: Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a borderline washed up former action star and TV cowboy, the lead of NBC's long-running Bounty Law now playing the heavy in a run of TV guest spots, and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, his stunt double, driver, and right-hand man. Within that is the adventures of Sharon Tate (Robbie), newly married to Roman Polanski (seen but never heard) and living next door to Rick with movie hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) among various fancy friends.

That long February day in 1969 finds the three stories intertwined...with Tate's breezily interjected. Scenes play out at great length and are full of brilliant levels of detail. Rick on the set of "Lancer," his new young co-star, and an Oscar-worthy breakdown and rebound. Cliff and his sordid possible past, his run-in with a hitchhiking hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) and the Manson Family, who are squatting on his old friend George Spahn's (Bruce Dern, in a hilarious short cameo) Movie Ranch and an Oscar-worthy masterclass in patience, ferocity, cool, and tenderness only Brad Pitt can deliver (complete with two beatdowns). Their respective locations and situations reflecting their roles as partners and friends: one shooting a Western, one living one. Sharon Tate breezes through with pure happiness, a symbol of Hollywood at the time, a newlywed be-bopping into a book store and stopping off at a movie house to giddily watch the actual Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin--a brilliant Tarantino touch. Robbie's performance is magical. Her presence is much like that of Tate's: You are instantly taken with a pure positivity and that looming sadness of your own knowledge of history.

Then, the movie skips ahead and Tarantino turns everything up to eleven: the tension, the comedy, the love, that final sequence on Cielo Drive.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is the story of what we know happened vs. what we wished had happened. It fiercely blends truth and reality (featuring a host of look-alike actors playing very real people) with Hollywood machinations and magic. It plays on our expectations and rewards us with the possibility of a time as it should have been remembered. It contains a character in Charles Manson, represented by Tex (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison), and Katie (Madisen Beaty) as those who would brutally murder Sharon Tate and her friends, more tangibly evil by a mile than any other Tarantino character (Hitler notwithstanding). It counters that with its own over-the-top violence, yes, but it is a violence in service of a love of that time and place, Hollywood in 1969, its true main character, a time marked by a crime that would end the free-loving 60s, turn “hippies” into extremists, and place the nation in a wave of 1970s fear and anxiety. The hopeful notes that Tarantino delivers in this revision counter that violence with pure love, friendship, the nicest and most likable Tarantino protagonists since Jackie Brown and Max Cherry.

Brad Pitt's turn as Cliff Booth may be forever embedded in me. For all the huge showiness of Leo's terrific performance (complete with tics and stutters and emotional breaks) as Rick Dalton, there is the quiet, assured cool of Brad. I am forever grateful to Tarantino for introducing Cliff Booth to the world. Cliff is hard, violent, his past worth several tough questions, but he fully embodies the notion of best friend. He is the type of guy that other men are drawn to because he makes us feel powerful simply by how comfortable he is in his own skin. He supports with kindness and protects with grit. He has Rick's best interest at heart always. He makes Rick a winner. And the mixture of humor and violence he retaliates with in the film’s much-discussed finale worked like a charm in both of my theater screenings: gasps, laughs, roars, cheers.

I loved this movie. I went back to the theater twice (and have watched a few more times on that beautiful 4K Blu-ray). Tarantino brings the wild fun, the star power, and works his newfound interest in uneven narrative structure to new heights with beautifully shot (by Robert Richardson), luxuriously long scenes that play with perfect comedic pitch and/or dramatic tension. It is, above all else, a love letter from Tarantino to a time he can only remember as perfect, when he was a young boy who moved to Hollywood from rural East Tennessee. It is an experience of history, artifice, expectations, and remembrance of what was, what might've been, what has and what could be.

It has both Hollywood and Once Upon a Time... in its title.

It's a fairy tale. A worthy one.

Best Picture Nominees (ranked)

9. Jojo Rabbit (not screened; going soon)
8. Joker
7. 1917 (will win)
6. Ford v Ferrari
5. The Irishman
4. Little Women
3. Parasite
2. Marriage Story
1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (should win)


  1. I am sorely lacking in seeing all the movies up for an Oscar but I have seen this film and I truly enjoyed it. When I first heard Tarantino was making a film with Sharon Tate as a character I was very hesitant considering how she and the others were brutally murdered but Tarantino was very respectful even though a flame thrower was involved. How one wishes that actually happened and, somehow, it makes one feel better even though it didn't end that way. The emotional impact he conveyed was surprising and relevant. The scariest part, for me, was when the Pitt character goes to the ranch. When he walks up to the cabin and turns around only to see these hippies surrounding him like a wolf pack, it was eerie. I saw the Joker and, although a good film with Phoenix giving an excellent performance, I don't feel it is as good as this film. This film has all the earmarks of an Auteur director whereas The Joker, an unlikeable film, is quite good but no where near the level of a great film. I call it a good movie. Taron Egerton is truly snubbed because he out-acted Phoenix, in my humble opinion, Phoenix.

    1. I totally agree on Joker. And Egerton is great. I think I'd place Phoenix just a little higher. Glad you loved this movie!

  2. I love this film so much. Yet, it came during a really hard time for me as my dad had passed away a month before I saw the film. I thought about him a lot when I watched it as he was around during those times as he loved TV westerns and westerns as well. I think he would've loved this film. Especially the ending as I was in such glee over what Rick and Cliff did.

    I also loved what Margot Robbie did as she did bring Sharon Tate back to life and reading about the response from the Tate family. I'm glad they liked it as they were happy to at least have Sharon back for a few hours at least.

    1. Margot Robbie really brings something special to this. The whole discourse on her lack of dialogue is ridiculous.