The comparison is tempting but flawed. Basterds, for all its masterful suspense, was rooted off-centre, in the unreal—“wouldn’t it be fun if the world was like this”, as opposed to the way things were—thus a Nazi colonel pulls out an exaggeratedly large meerschaum pipe, and a film critic is played by Michael Fassbender. It is a celebratory film announcing that movies can save us from anything.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a drier film, albeit set in an oasis. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a onetime TV cowboy who dreamt of a movie break, missed his shot, and is now reduced to bad-guy roles, getting walloped by the new prime-time kids to make them look good. His only friend is his stuntman, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, literally paid to make Dalton look good, now an errand boy/chauffeur who talks the actor up. A producer asks whether Booth is Dalton’s son, showing how far two men meant to resemble one another have drifted.
Tarantino recreates the Los Angeles of his boyhood, flashy marquees and neon-titled theatres serving cinema in every flavour. The film rightly won the Oscar for Production Design. The 1960s live. Hippie girls sell acid cigarettes and get car rides from movie stars—or stars-to-be, anyway. Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, who still has to point herself out in the posters of films she’s in. Robbie is radiant as a bright-eyed starlet who colours this film about jaded performers with hope, while Tarantino, making sure we see the real Tate in film clips and posters, lets her posthumously do the same.
Tate is best known for her tragic death, as a pregnant woman slain with her friends during the infamous 1969 Manson murders, committed by hippies controlled by Charles Manson. Considered a crime that ended the 1960s and made America lock its doors again, the killings were motivated by Manson’s own petty rage towards former occupants of the house. Tarantino’s beatniks instead want “to kill the actors who made them want to kill”, rather like today’s keyboard warriors opposed to free expression, keen to blame movies for real-world maniacs, eager to cancel people out.
Sharon Tate was married to Roman Polanski, then one of the most admired directors in town. Eight years after Tate’s death, Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl and has been a fugitive from the US ever since. In 1969, DiCaprio’s Dalton feels vindicated about having listened to a friend and bought a house in Hollywood instead of leasing one. Washed up as he is, he is now Polanski’s new neighbour, living next door to “the director of Rosemary’s Baby”, conceivably one pool party away from being in a big film.
Tarantino’s protagonist behaves strikingly anti-Polanski. Despite Pitt’s well- earned Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Cliff Booth is the true leading man. He keeps Dalton in good spirits, bests Bruce Lee in hand-to-hand combat, wants to keep old friends safe, and loves his goddamn dog. When Booth picks up a hitchhiking hippie giving him the eye (Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley), the chemistry is immediate. She offers him oral sex, and Booth asks for her age. She claims to be 18, but the steadfast stuntman insists on documented proof.
Through this act of restraint, Tarantino pointedly spells out whom we should root for— even though, a few scenes ago, he intentionally left it unclear whether Booth had murdered his wife. That is a moral dilemma we are meant to struggle with, to observe how it affects our admiration of Booth—if at all it does. Heroism is an on-screen conceit. In the real world, everyone’s grey. And greying.
Like all stars, Dalton imagines he could have been a contender. One scene features a digitally altered clip of DiCaprio’s Dalton starring in 1963 war epic The Great Escape instead of real hero Steve McQueen, but that’s a wonderfully optimistic what-if dream. Three more famous actors (each named George) were in line before him, plus McQueen did the iconic film anyway. He never stood a chance (which, in this film, is what McQueen says about himself at a Playboy party, discussing his chances of wooing Sharon Tate).
On set, Dalton runs into a young co-star, assiduously staying in character well before her take. Trudi (played by Julia Butters) is 8, doesn’t like sexist nicknames and teaches Dalton how to pronounce his character’s name. It is an extraordinary conversation, with a man choked up by a book, by fiction that cuts too close, and a little girl showing him a kindness. She has no idea who he is, and therefore, later, her applause overwhelms him. For an instant, he finds enough faith to talk himself up. He tells himself what his stuntman would.
As Booth drives to his own humble trailer away from Dalton’s Hollywood house, Tarantino uses snippets of a half-dozen songs to show how far the stuntman has to travel before heading back early in the morning to pick the actor up. The budding Sharon Tate walks away from the camera, echoed by the rusted Rick Dalton lumbering on to set, framed just the same. Cinematographer Robert Richardson concentrates on mood, lingering and digressing as characters do, unyielding and razor-sharp only when they force themselves to be: when the stuntman is caught in a trip-wire-tense showdown, or when the actor finally finds his meter.
Pitt and DiCaprio are tremendous actors, and—as friends who are “more than a brother but a little less than a wife”—give us their finest. Here’s DiCaprio, tentative about asking his stuntman to join him and watch his TV show together, and there’s Pitt, phenomenal as an otherwise alert man tickled by an acid high.
As the fateful night nears, time slows down. The acid kicks in. The infamous words used by the Manson murderers, about “doing the Devil’s business”, are rubbished by Booth when recounting them later; he admits it isn’t verbatim. Tarantino doesn’t do verbatim. The finish is magnificently unreal—a marked departure for a film this grounded—and, in itself, forms a critique of the Hollywood ending, the way things wrap up in the movies, the way movie tropes facilitate easy escape. It thrills, but never feels joyous because we have been made too aware of how it did not, and could not, happen. Tarantino’s contrasting finish is gratuitous, hilarious and disturbing, and where Basterds was wishful, here is a wistful lament. Life isn’t filmed in Technicolor, and we don’t have stuntmen. If only Sharon Tate had lived next door to the movies.
Twitter – @rajasen