This is not the sort of movie that I usually go out of my way to see. As far as I can remember I don't think I've ever seen an entire Quentin Tarentino film, just parts of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, more of the former than the latter. Nothing that I've read about his work has made me think I'd like it, though I did find much of what I did see of Pulp Fiction enjoyable. What made me seek this one out was a review which said it was a great picture of Los Angeles in the late '60s.
Not that I was anywhere near Los Angeles in the late '60s. But I certainly have a weak spot for pictures of that period, and by "pictures" I mean pictures--photographs and films taken at the time. So I thought I might enjoy this movie for that reason if no other. I've been much preoccupied lately with the way the passing of people who have lived in a particular time and place means that it is truly lost to memory, and I find myself enjoying those memories. Yes, it's nostalgia, but there's also an irrational sense that by refreshing and expanding my own memories I'm somehow keeping that world real and alive.
Anyway: there are two things to note about the title of this movie. First, the allusion to the Sergio Leone Western, Once Upon A Time in the West. The protagonist, or one of them, of the Tarentino film is an aging Hollywood star who's being offered a chance to revive his career by acting in spaghetti Westerns. Second, "once upon a time" is, as everyone over a certain age knows (I fear the young do not), the way to begin a fairy tale, and this is in a sense a fairy tale.
The aging star, Rick Dalton and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, are buddies, though the relationship is also master-and-servant to some degree. They are old-time movie and TV people, most well-known for a TV series called Bounty Law. But the series has been cancelled for some years, and Dalton is more or less a has-been.
He's still rich, though. It's 1969 and he lives on Cielo Drive. If that rings a bell, it's because it was the street on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived when the latter and several others were murdered by the Manson gang. Dalton lives next door to them, and yes, that is vitally important to the plot.
I was a little hesitant about seeing this movie, knowing that it involved the Manson murders, which have always been especially disturbing to me because of their association with the counter-culture and its favored drugs, and knowing Tarentino's reputation for depicting violence. And without giving away too much I will say that there are some five to ten minutes of pretty graphic violence, but will also direct your attention again to the title. By far most of the film's 2 hours and 40 minutes are spent on the doings of Dalton and Booth, the trials of the former trying to revive his career and the latter simply trying to get a job and to do what he can as a friend to Rick--and, importantly, to George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, which is home to the Manson family.
A good bit of time is spent on the two of them, or some other combination of people, driving around Los Angeles in Dalton's Cadillac while the radio plays various well-known and not-so-well-known songs from the time. (I would be surprised to learn that Buffy Saint-Marie's version of "The Circle Game" was on AM radio. Not in Alabama it wasn't. According to Wikipedia, it reached #109 on the Billboard charts, so maybe it got played a bit in California.)
Booth pays a memorable visit to the Manson family. And Sharon Tate goes to the movies. I think that scene is what I'm going to remember most about this movie. On a shopping errand she passes a theater which is showing a junk movie in which she appears (The Wrecking Crew: Dean Martin as Matt Helm, secret agent). Delighted to see her name and picture on the advertisements, she coaxes the theater staff into giving her free admission (as though she could not afford it), and watches the movie with effervescent childlike delight, like a little girl thrilled at seeing herself in a home movie. It's a sweet, silly, poignant moment, and I hope Sharon Tate really was something like that.
I gather that a typical culture wars sort of argument has taken place over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Dalton and Booth are the good guys here, and they're also pretty reactionary, griping about the damn hippies. Some liberals took offense at this, some conservatives applauded it. I didn't really see it that way. I mean, it's there, but for one thing, the Manson family surely was as creepy, frightening, and disgusting as they are portrayed here. And for another, Dalton and Booth certainly look good and admirable in comparison to homicidal maniacs, but they are drunken hedonists, not exactly Knights of the West riding against the Dark Lord.
Sorry if this is a little disjointed. I've been trying to get to it for a couple of days and may not have another chance for another couple of days. Final word: I greatly enjoyed this film; it did not seem too long at all (which I rather expected it would); I want to see it again.