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Film Review: Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood

Academy Award Best Picture Nominee: Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood

From Reservoir Dogs (1992) to The Hateful Eight (2015), Quentin Tarantino has directed  groundbreaking films, especially Pulp Fiction (1994).  Tarantino’s movies are not for everyone—they can be grating and offensive.  At their best, however, Tarantino’s films delight us in glorious ways, especially his 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, an epic tale that reminds us that movies can enchant us, make us laugh, and break our hearts, all at the same time.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood includes plot strands that gradually braid together.  We meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging Hollywood actor, whose roles as a television cowboy are waning in 1969.  He dreams about getting work through his new Brentwood neighbors Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Meanwhile, Rick’s long-time stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), lives in a trailer with his dog, works as Rick’s chauffer, handyman, and confidant, and drives around Los Angeles while Rick struggles to reinvent his career.  Cliff picks up a teenage hitchhiker named “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley), and drives her home to Spahn’s Ranch, a dilapidated movie production site where Pussycat lives among the clutter of Charlie Manson’s “family.”  The stories of these characters—Rick, Cliff, Pussycat, Sharon Tate, and more—weave through the months of 1969 Los Angeles toward August, where one night, while Rick is relaxing in his pool, the Manson Family arrives in his Brentwood neighborhood . . . .

Tarantino celebrates the legacy of 1960s Hollywood by including cinematic homages, among them wonderful cameos of Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker).  Even his title pays tribute to earlier iconic films:  Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); Once Upon a Time in America (1984); Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).  With a wonderful 1960s soundtrack, exceptional performances (Brad Pitt is a standout), and a superbly-crafted script, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represents not just Tarantino’s most thoughtful and mature movie to date, but an engaging, magical and bittersweet fairy tale not to be missed.


Written by Parley Ann Boswell, Emeritus Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, where she taught Film Studies and American Literature for 30 years.