Hollywood isn’t just a place but also a state of mind, an idea Quentin Tarantino mines eloquently in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood. The film is an ode to a place with ghosts in and around every corner: they’re right there in the margins of old cop shows like Mannix and Banyon, like genies in YouTube bottles; they lurk in the beads of condensation on a Musso & Frank’s martini glass, happy to participate, in their own small way, in modern happy hours. Tarantino has deep affection for Hollywood, the place and the vibe, and he brings it to life through the story of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), an aging TV star and his longtime stunt double who find their careers fading in the Hollywood of 1969. Their heyday was the 1950s; now Rick is relegated to playing the heavy in random TV episodes, with Cliff basically keeping him company.
But even as their careers downshift, they’ll play a crucial role in Tarantino’s reimagining of what might have happened in Benedict Canyon on Aug. 8 of that year. The beating heart of Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is a neophyte movie star who was murdered almost before anyone could get to know her name: Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, was stabbed to death in her home by members of the Manson family on Aug. 8, 1969. Tarantino’s film is both a valentine to her—she’s played, with a deeply touching blend of self-deprecation and effervescent optimism, by Margot Robbie—and an artistic act of retribution against those who killed her. It takes history seriously by imagining what might have been, and by granting life to a woman who, as events played out, never got a chance to make her mark. Tenderness isn’t a quality we normally associate with Tarantino, but this movie is filled with it.
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