Quentin Tarantino Wants You to Love Your Movie Stars…Before It’s Too Late

by Nick Kush
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino was on top of the world. He had just followed up his critical darling film Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction, essentially crowning him as the next celebrity director. In the eyes of many, he was infallible. From that point on, he could do whatever he wanted. And so he did for a while, continuing to showcase his own love for films through his violent pastiche.

Flash forward to 2019 and it feels like everything and nothing has changed simultaneously. Tarantino is still one of the few prominent auteurs in the industry, but as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows, he’s at a different point in his career and life. Armed with years of experience and stories to tell, Tarantino’s latest work is also his most contemplative. Like Jackie Brown, it’s a different vibe than the few films that came before it in his filmography. He’s more concerned with hanging out with this set of characters, watching them go about their daily business, ultimately drawing conclusions about his career so far and the industry that surrounds him.

Using Westerns to Showcase a Bygone Era

It’s not breaking news to say that Westerns fell out of favor with the general public decades ago. But at one point, they were everywhere. They were the mass form of entertainment for multiple generations, highlighting the frontiersman sentimentalities that were ever-present at the time. For years, the only thing that people watched was Gunsmoke or, more appropriately given Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in the film, The F.B.I.

But in an instant, they were gone, cast to the side for a new crop of entertainment. With global events such as the Vietnam War shifting our way of thinking, we saw film and TV change forever.

Now, in 2019, when we look at these Westerns, they appear quaint. Unremarkable, and simple. Comfortable. Watching the portrayals of the pure, gun-toting hero vs. the cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain is almost cute in comparison to the vast array of content we have available today. Yet, the fact remains that people worked tirelessly on these projects, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hopes that we understand that notion.

It also helps that Quentin Tarantino shoots these Western sequences with a similar style to Django Unchained and not something more era-appropriate. Then again, that also helps to underscore Tarantino’s idea of melding history with art: films and their components should always be remembered. They always serve some purpose in one way or another, no matter how vastly we’ve changed in the years since that version of the artform’s peak.

once upon a time in hollywood

Image via IndieWire

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton

Folding into this conversation is Rick Dalton, played expertly by Leonardo DiCaprio. As Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz explains, Dalton is on the verge of obscurity. Relegated to playing the villain of the week on shows like The F.B.I., he has to get crafty in extending his career. Playing the villain so many times is Hollywood’s gross way of conditioning America to hate him, to hope for his demise and cheer on the hero to punch him repeatedly in the face until he submits for good. Dalton senses the end coming, leaning into his vices, drinking countless whiskey sours (and consequently cursing himself out for doing so in one of the best scenes in the film) and smoking so much that he seems like he’s on the verge of emphysema.

It’s difficult not to look at Leonardo DiCaprio’s own career when looking at this character. Obviously, DiCaprio isn’t in danger of leaving the industry altogether. However, DiCaprio will turn 45 later this year; he’s effectively beginning to transition to a new era in his career as well. The actor is no longer the teen heartthrob that took the entire world by storm in Titanic. Perhaps he won’t be the focus of the paparazzi for much longer. Who knows, he might have to start stepping into supporting roles while the next Leo takes center stage. Change is most certainly on the horizon, and we might not be prepared to see it happen as soon as it might.

DiCaprio commands the screen as if he’s grappling with these issues himself as a performer. It’s a masterful casting choice by Tarantino to place a star with such circumstances surrounding him in this role.

once upon a time in hollywood

Image via The Hollywood Reporter

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth

By Rick’s side is the unbelievably cool Cliff Booth, who has already felt the effects of the industry turning on him…and then some. Brad Pitt’s character is equal parts melancholy and suave. He’s accepted his fate as a cast-off and is doing whatever he can to help his friend without asking for anything in return. Not to mention that Brad Pitt is really, really cool with every single move.

Like DiCaprio’s portrayal of Rick Dalton, much of Brad Pitt‘s fame and public personality is visible in Cliff Booth. Even though he’s 55 years old, Pitt is obviously still all the things we attributed to him back when he was at the peak of his powers: undeniably charming, dashingly handsome, and a great, great onscreen presence.

However, in what has become one of the film’s most controversial elements, Booth is finished in Hollywood because he may or may not have killed his wife. It’s a very striking and possibly problematic characterization that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood leaves intentionally vague. Yet the rumors of what may or may not have happened on that ship have quickly become more interesting than what actually happened for the characters in the film, much like the way we consume news surrounding our stars, spitting them out and leaving them as a shell of their former selves.

It’s impossible not to make connections to Pitt’s relationship with Angelina Jolie for this very reason. Whatever was true or false concerning in the copious amounts of gossip that surrounded them for years, the sheer amount and intensity of coverage forever changed how we perceive both of them. Pitt has largely been underappreciated as an actor throughout his career, with many focusing on his off-screen personality rather than his on-screen choices. He has yet to win that coveted Oscar. The same can be said for Jolie, even if she has an Oscar win to her name. Fame itself can be crippling for a career, forever sullying someone’s reputation and taking the spotlight away from how truly great they were as an actor, or, in the case of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a stuntman.

Image via Vanity Fair

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate

On the other hand, Margot Robbie‘s Sharon Tate remains unsullied by the industry. She’s on the rise; her best work is in front of her. While her character’s treatment has also been at the center of some controversy, Robbie’s performance as Tate is responsible for some of my favorite moments in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and is a showcase for how great of a talent Robbie is.

Robbie’s Tate is still taking everything in as an actress. She still gets a kick out of seeing herself in her own movies, as shown in an utterly delightful scene with her reacting to everyone’s cheers in the theater to her moves on the screen. I immediately fell in love with her when she silently squealed as the crowd cheered her character on in The Wrecking Crew.

I think many might mischaracterize Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as simple for her lack of dialogue. However, it’s an obvious choice that Tarantino made in his script. She’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; happy to simply have any semblance of a career at all. In fact, she’s portrayed as an almost angelic figure, greeting everyone she comes across with unabashed kindness and hopefulness. Robbie’s Tate doesn’t have an ounce of cynicism in her body. In contrast to and intersecting with the falling careers of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, Tate is a beacon of hope for the next generation in the industry.

And though she already has some dynamite performances on her resume, I feel fairly confident in saying that the best has yet to come for Margot Robbie herself. She has yet to win an Oscar, and she is undeniably the most popular young actress in the business. In Tarantino’s version of history, Tate gets to live to see another day, to continue to make inroads in the business and elevate her fame. Maybe her career would have even played out like Robbie’s if given the chance.

once upon a time in hollywood

Image via Polygon

The New Generation on the Horizon

It’s not a coincidence that the periphery characters in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are played by notable figures. They come in two batches: those that didn’t quite meet their perceived potential and the young upstarts that are ready to take over the industry.

I was struck with profane sadness upon seeing Luke Perry’s Wayne Maunder in action. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood marks his last performance, and serves as a hauntingly poignant look at the sliding doors element of Hollywood. Once tapped as one of the next possible stars after bursting onto the scene with his role in Beverly Hills, 90210, the rest of his career didn’t exactly play out as one would have expected. He was consistently working, but it seemed like his material never matched his prospects. It’s hard to look at the other character actors that fill the screen such as Timothy Olyphant, Scoot McNairy, Rebecca Gayheart, Zoë Bell, and many others and not feel similarly for what maybe could have been.

In contrast, much of the Manson family in the film is played by up-and-coming actors, many of whom have famous parents. Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, and Dakota Fanning lead the way in this respect. Even Austin Butler, who plays Tex Watson in the film, is cast to play Elvis in an upcoming biopic.

As part of the Manson family, these characters are consumed with carrying out their mission and establishing a new normal in the world. Here, one can make many connections to how the next generation of young actors always pushes out the aging generation. The Hollywood machine never stops turning. Many will be left behind.

Image via Looper

Delaying the Inevitable

After the carnage is finished and dealt with at Rick Dalton’s house, we see the first sign of appreciation that Rick gives to Cliff in the entire film with him saying, “you’re a good friend.” Rick even offers to come with Cliff to the hospital, but Cliff tells him not to worry and to come to see him in the morning. Cliff remarks that he’s doing okay, saying “I’m not gonna die. It’s not my time yet.”

You’re damn right, Brad Pitt. You still have plenty to give to this industry, and I know I’ll be here to cherish every second of it.

Rick quickly turns around to see Jay Sebring standing at the end of the driveway in the house next door. Sebring is immediately starstruck by Rick, contrary to what Rick has thought of his perception for the entirety of the movie. Sharon Tate quickly jumps on the call box from inside the house and shares her affection for Rick’s work as well after hashing out the details of the crime that just occurred. Jay and Sharon then invite Rick inside for a drink. He’s finally appreciated, and he’ll most likely go on to extend his shelf life in Hollywood.

Still, the saying goes that Father Time is undefeated. The last few moments of the film, while rewarding and happy, still feel incomplete and foreboding as the camera pans through the shadows behind Sharon Tate’s house. Though Rick, Cliff, and Sharon were lucky this time around, their luck will eventually run out. Unfortunately, we will have to say goodbye to our icons at some point, even if they manage to continue to shine long after we thought they would be finished. I’d like to think that Tarantino senses that the same fate is coming for him and his peers sooner rather than later. Perhaps we should give them just as much as they’ve given us over the years…before it’s too late.

Image via Who Magazine

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Darius Nejad August 19, 2019 - 8:11 am

Watched the movie a few nights ago & I came to the conclusion it’s neither here or there. It sits in the middle of the road between being a forgettable movie and a good one. Would this movie even make it to the cinema if the big name actors weren’t there? That’s the question. My review on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is out later today, so please do check it out.

Darius Nejad August 19, 2019 - 8:12 am Reply
Liz Gauffreau August 3, 2019 - 9:17 pm

I really enjoyed your insightful discussion.

Nick Kush August 3, 2019 - 9:30 pm

Why thank you!!! 😁😁 I’m trying my best!

Nick Kush August 3, 2019 - 8:34 pm

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