The Best Picture Nominees: Once Upon a Time …In Hollywood

| February 7, 2020
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The 92nd Academy Awards are just days away, so this week I am taking a look at each of the nominees individually. Are they worth it? Let’s take a look.

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No one can ever say that Quentin Tarantino is guilty of repeating himself. Yes, there are themes that resemble one another and he has a style that is consistent, but the content always feels fresh and original. What sets Once Upon a Time …In Hollywood apart is that he could not have made this film twenty years ago, or even five years ago. Like Martin Scorsese with The Irishman, Tarantino’s latest work shows the director’s age and maturity, seeing the movie world in a way that he never could in his early days.

The value of hindsight with regards to his craft is key to this film. He knows the Hollywood world. He knows the movies, he know who made them and he knows what makes them work. And he knows how to turn our expectations. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …In Hollywood is reminiscent of Inglorious Basterds only to the degree that he takes the tapestry of history and subverts it into a revenge fantasy that plays out, not as it happened, but as it might have happened. It’s a bold wish fantasy that alters the facts in a bloody and surprisingly fascinating way.

Here he reconditions the story of the terror and mayhem spree of the Manson Family and adds a fictional narrative that alters their crimes in a way that it might have happened. His fiction is brought about by two characters that make so much sense to us that they might have existed for real.

First is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Steve McQueen-like action star who has built his popularity making cheese-ball action pictures of no distinction and by earning a steady paycheck on a rather vacuous TV western called “Bounty Law.” Out of these less-than-memorable efforts has come the realization that maybe he has squandered his gifts, that his best days may be behind him.

The other is former stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who lives among the phony Hollywood establishment but refuses to wade in the waters of its feckless B.S. He’s not shy about calling them on it – as he does in a hilarious fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

Rick and Cliff are the fulcrum for what will become the revenge fantasy involving Charlie Manson and his family as they converge on the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on their fateful night. What comes of this is not what we expect and it’s certainly been the most divisive element to this film since it dropped last Summer.

And yet . . . and yet, while I admire all of these things, Tarantino’s most unexpected surprise comes with the short story of a third character who is central to this de-mythologizing of Hollywood in the late 60s, and that is the story of Sharon Tate.

Played in a lovely performance by Margot Robbie, Tarantino turns her ultimate tragedy into something else – a portrait of a young women with stars in her eyes, whose career is just beginning and whose life is beginning to bloom. From this we get a sense of Tate’s normalcy. We see her folding laundry, inviting friends over, going to the movies by herself. In that, Tarantino un-myths Sharon Tate and allows us a glimpse of what could have been. It’s really touching, and it’s my favorite element of Tarantino’s reorganizing of history. It’s one thing to see the Nazis and the Manson family shot up and burned out, but it’s something else to suggest what Tate’s life might have been had she been permitted to life. That’s the part of the fantasy I didn’t expect.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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