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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Review: Good, but not as Tarantino was, once upon a time

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Review: Good, but not as Tarantino was, once upon a time

It is inspired by the murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends at the hands of a hippy cult in 1969, only the film re-writes this historical fact. It is inspired by the super-hit spaghetti Westerns of the mid to late 60s, led by Italian director Sergio Leone, only he is never mentioned in the film. It is a satirical take on martial arts’ ‘God’ Bruce Lee, but takes an amazingly unflattering look at him. Mainly, it is the story of an aging TV actor and his body-double/man Friday, highlighting the exemplary bonding between the two, yet painting them as pretty much uni-dimensional figures. Quentin Tarantino serves us fare that will definitely clear any appraisal, though it will not rank right up there.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood covers events that, fictionally, unfolded between February and August 1969. Actor Rick Dalton, former star of 1950s Western television series Bounty Law, laments to his best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth, that his career is over. Booth, a Vietnam war-veteran who lives in a trailer with his pit bull dog, Brandy, drives Dalton around town and relies on him for occasional work. Booth is generally shunned due to rumours that he had killed his wife.

Meanwhile, actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, have moved into the house next door to Dalton's. Dalton dreams of befriending the couple in order to restore his status, convinced that one invitation to a pool party there would give him a golden opportunity to impress Polanski enough to win a role. Later that night, Tate and Polanski join Jay Sebring, a hair-stylist, at a celebrity-filled party at the Playboy Mansion.

At Dalton's house, while fixing the TV antenna, Booth reminisces on a sparring match he had outside the set of The Green Hornet, with Bruce Lee, when he threw Lee on to the stunt co-ordinator’s wife’s car and made a massive dent on it. Booth had been put on the payroll only on the insistence of Dalton. Charles ‘Charlie’ Manson stops by the home of Polanski and Tate, looking for record producer Terry Melcher, who used to live there, but is turned away by Sebring, who does not like the ‘trespasser’.  

Later, while driving Dalton's car, Booth gives a lift to a young hitchhiker named Pussycat, who offers him oral sex and an acid dipped cigarette. He believes she is less than eighteen and turns down the sex offer, but keeps the cigarette. Later, he drops her off at Spahn Ranch, where Booth filmed Bounty Law, eight years earlier. Pussycat tries to persuade Booth to stay, but he is suspicious of the large number of Hippies squatting on the property, and suspects they are taking advantage of the owner, George Spahn. Booth insists on checking on Spahn, despite ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (his girl-friend)'s objections not to disturb the napping Spahn; Spahn does not recognise him but dismisses Booth's fears.

Returning to the car, Booth discovers that hippy Clem Grogan has slashed the front tyre of his car (actually Dalton’s); Booth brutally beats Grogan and forces him to change the tyre. One of the Manson girls goes to fetch Tex Watson, a strong-arm man in the cult, but by the time Watson arrives on horseback, Booth is driving away.

Sharon Tate goes for a walk and decides to stop at a movie theatre, to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin in the main role. Initially, the booking clerk and the manager do not recognise her, but her mention of Valley of the Dolls gradually sparks recognition, and she is given free entrance. The staff even clicks pictures with her, in a hark-back from these days of selfies. Seeing herself doing the fighting stunts, with Nancy Kwan, she is visibly moved.

That’s as pretty straight a narrative that you can expect from any conventional writer, and in as much as it goes, Quentin Tarantino has been conventional here. A couple of flashbacks do surface, but they are not difficult to decode. Having at least three-and-a-half parallel tracks is fine too, because Tarantino does not play with the time line. Problem is, we don’t know where it is all heading. And even that would be okay, if the film ended with the respective tracks either converging or reaching their logical conclusions or even forming concentric circles. They don’t.

Yes, the characters meet and interact, but their individual back-stories are never really explored. With nearly two hours and forty-five minutes at his disposal, Tarantino could have done much better characterisations than he has. Had fewer characters, for a start. We know almost nothing about Dalton, Manson, Pussycat, Tate, Sebring, eight year-old Trudi, or Lee, except what’s depicted in the current scenes being played out. In fact, Lee appears only in a flashback. We are told that Booth is a war veteran and a former member of a chain gang, but whether Booth killed his wife or not, we’ll never know. And who or what really was Dalton’s Italian wife remains unsaid.

Being writer and director, auteur Quentin Tarantino (Inglouriuos Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight) plays his usual moves and leaves signs: things and beings that have apparently been included just to let the narrative roll, will come back and be used again, to telling effect. Like the dog, the flame-thrower, the hippy visitor, the girl asking for a lift, the acid-dipped cigarette, the reference to Booth as a wife-killer, and more. One really interesting scene is where Steve McQueen explains, with a pointed finger and point-of-view camera, how Sharon ditched her American fiancé Sebring and married Polish director Roman Polanski in England, and after they came back, Sebring moved in with them as their best friend. Another one that stands out is Dalton’s first meeting with Trudi, which blends into their scene together, underscoring Dalton’s struggle with alcoholism.

Loneliness is something that he has vividly captured, especially that of Dalton, Booth and Tate. In such a mosaic, you also have several scenes that are downright comic, so, almost naturally, you feel guilty at laughing, because at the forefront is the human tragedy of success and failure, references to the Vietnam war, where US soldiers are dying in a 1:10 ratio, with the Vietcong. Only cocooned film stars can come up with lines like’ “Aww, what's the matter? You afraid I'll tell Jim Morrison you were dancing to Paul Revere & The Raiders? Are they not cool enough for you?” (Sharon Tate to Jay Sebring). Quentin Tarantino, who loves re-writing history (Americans eliminating the German war machine is a theme that recurs in Hollywood…, after Inglorious Basterds), gives us his version of six months in the film capital of the world when he was six years old. Autobiographical? Hardly. Inspired by TV, films and personalities of the 1950s and 60s? Most certainly.

Leonardo DiCaprio (44) as Rick Dalton is the right age when lead actors, especially action heroes, start losing their fan-base. His TV Western series Bounty Law was based on Wanted Dead or Alive (1958–1961). Actor Ty Hardin is said to have inspired the role of Dalton, while his relationship with Booth is modelled after that of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. It is a prize role. Whenever there is scope, DiCaprio is right up there, whether he slurring or forgetting his dialogue or seeing the reflection of his own life in a novel that he is reading.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth is the same height as DiCaprio, though he 11 years his senior. A stubble adds years to his youthful, handsome visage. Would a body-double be 11 years the star’s senior? Possible, but hardly likely. Pitt remains one the most under-rated actors, and takes off where he left in Inglourious Basterds. His role is as big as DiCaprio’s, and he gets to combat Bruce Lee, who died when Pitt was ten years old. Inspiration comes from Tom Laughlin (died 2013), Gary Kent (now 86) and Gene LeBell (now 86; on the set of the Green Hornet TV show, he developed a friendship with Bruce Lee. Lee was especially interested in exploring grappling with help from him and exchanged ideas).

Margot Robbie is cast as Sharon Tate, a real actress, who was murdered when she was barely 24. Robbie did read Polanski’s autobiography, in preparation for the role, but did not consult him about Sharon. Robbie brings out the private, shy, introverted character in fine detail. It was on account of this nature that Tate was labelled as snooty and pretentious. Julia Butters is the precocious child Trudi who gives Dalton an eye-opening mini lecture about professionalism in front of the camera, and does she deliver!

Bruce Dern has been retained after Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. At 83, he slips into the part of the blind and amnesiac George Spahn smoothly (Burt Reynolds was the first choice, but he passed away before his scenes could be shot). Though he has just one scene, he makes you laugh, in a guilty sort of way. Margaret Qualley is seen as ‘Pussycat’, the Manson family member who is given a lift by Boots, and who dresses to reveal more than conceal. She is a composite character, like many others, with her nickname based on that of Manson cult member Kathryn ‘Kitty’ Lutesinger, yet modelled after Ruth Ann Moorehouse, another Manson cult member, a Canadian.

Others in noticeable roles include Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, Kurt Russell, who is 68, appears as Randy, a stunt coordinator and the narrator, Zoë Bell is Janet, Randy's wife, also a stunt coordinator, Dakota Fanning as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, Manson Family member and Spahn’s girl-friend, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee (very near approximation), Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen (also a good approximation), Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarz, who becomes Dalton’s agent and who keeps correcting people who pronounce his name as Schwartz. It is always a delight to see him on screen, and we only wish he had something more to contribute. Rafał Zawierucha, 32 year-old Polish actor plays Roman Polanski, Lorenza Izzo as Francesca Capucci, an Italian actress and Dalton's snoring, bored wife (influenced by Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale), Damon Herriman as Charles Manson, James Landry Hébert as Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan, Manson Family member who flattens Booth’s tyre, Scoot McNairy as boastful and pompous ‘Business’ Bob Gilbert, a villain and Quentin Tarantino as the audible but unseen director of the Red Apple cigarettes ad (wait for it).

On various occasions, Tarantino has said that he will retire at the age of 60. He is 56. He would retire when 35 mm celluloid films could no more be made or exhibited. He is a stickler for using celluloid film for shooting when almost everybody in the world had turned to digital. He would retire after he had completed 10 films. Well, he has completed 10 films in 27 years, but he does not count; Kill Bill as two, though it was released as two features. Also not in his count is his contribution to the Grindhouse Project, Death Proof, which would make it 11. So, technically, he is still on nine, and his last is yet to come. And considering he takes on an average of three years to release a film, the next one will almost co-incide with his 60th birthday, making his pronouncements true. That would be fitting, I guess, with some signs of ‘losing touch’ becoming apparent in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Many have taken issue with this depiction of Bruce Lee as a loud-mouth braggart, and the protestors include Lee’s daughter Shannon. At a press conference in Moscow, Tarantino countered these protests. "Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy," he said. "The way he was talking, I didn't just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect."

Commenting on a specific a line from the film, in which Lee’s character says he could take legendary boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) in a fight. "People are saying, 'Well, he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali.' Uh, yeah he did," Tarantino insisted. He cited the biography ‘Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew’, written by Linda Lee, Bruce's wife. "She absolutely said it."

About the fight scene between Lee and Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth, which has also been a point of contention among audiences, Tarantino had this to say, "Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff, maybe, could. If you ask me the question, ‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character."

Rich and full colours and several gliding pans, top angle and trolley shots distinguish Robert Richardson’s camerawork. Editor Fred Raskin must have had a nightmare deleting entire roles and scenes and retaining the narrative, to manage length, but his cuts are smooth and without gimmickry.

For the maker of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the bar has to be raised a notch. Hence the conservative rating. But watch it, you must!

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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