Every so often I am reminded of why I love the job – and this was one of those nights. How else would I have gotten to sit in the 7th row for a Q & A after a screening of the best film of Quentin Tarantino’s career, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Unless I was an actor, there is no way I’d have gotten the opportunity to listen to Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Bruce Dern, the delightful Julia Butters, Margaret Qually, the scene stealing Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Mike Moh and Zoe Bell, along with casting director Victoria Thomas.
Yes, it’s one of the many SAG screenings that have been hosted all over town since SAG voting got underway. The nom com is roughly 2000 randomly selected SAG voters whose choices then are voted on by the 150,000 or so SAG/AFTRA members. This is why last night had three of these – this one at the DGA, Dolemite is My Name at the Ross House, and Marriage Story at the AFI Film Fest. So many actors, so little time.
Last night was a reminder of the exceptional work done by both DiCaprio and Pitt in this fine, fine ensemble in a year packed full of them. The second time through, knowing how the film ends, and eagerly anticipating how the crowd would react to it, the film flows confidently as we spend time with each of these nutty storylines once upon a time in Hollywood.
Nobody can make movies like Tarantino.
Julia Butters admitted she didn’t know much about DiCaprio’s work but was embarrassed enough about that she couldn’t look at him. Bruce Dern talked about how “behavior” is what acting is. And how someone told him long ago to bring himself to the work. “We cast you,” he said. All of the actors credited Tarantino as a director who gives them “room to play” and doesn’t try to control that exploration. Thomas spoke about closely she worked with Tarantino in finding just the right person for each of these notorious roles, and that when Dakota Fanning came in to read Tarantino read with her and she “scared the shit out of him.”
What struck me about this movie is how good DiCaprio and Pitt are in light of everything we’ve now seen — with only 1917 left. They do really stand out as two of the very best performances of the year. The film itself stands out as being one of the few purely enjoyable cinematic experiences, along with Dolemite is My Name, Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, The Two Popes, and Pain and Glory, amid the much darker but equally powerful fare like The Irishman, Joker, Bombshell, Judy, Marriage Story. I feel fairly confident that Once Upon a Time’s frontrunner status is well earned, whether it makes it to the finish or not.
DiCaprio builds such a deep and affecting portrait of an actor in a time of crisis. Nothing works anymore, and times are changing. Boy, are they ever. It’s 1969 and Nixon just took office. This story, like the city it’s centered on, takes place as one culture is coming to an end and another about to take its place. The Manson murders, along with other horrors like the murders at Kent State, partly ended the 1960s. People might not realize this but we’re living through exactly the same kind of pendulum shift right now.
Tarantino gives us the chance to wonder – what if the Manson murders never happened? What if instead those drugged up brainwashed twisted psychopaths had met a different fate, like say — a stunt man and his dog? A washed up actor and his flame thrower? Would the trajectories have still gone on the same way? Would Polanski’s life have spiraled out of control? Would the idea of hippies and free love and the possibility of a different kind of American future have continued? Manson and his followers confirmed the fears of the silent majority of what the protest generation, the hippies, the free love and the Woodstock era was all about – yeah they are all just a bunch of cult murderers. Imagine what THAT would do to a society in the midst of change? Now imagine it never happened.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood made me cry the second time through. It happened during the scene towards the end, where Tarantino lights up the town with Neon, where Sharon Tate heads to El Coyote for her last meal – in another story she is brutally murdered. In this story we imagine a world alive with the right kind of people there to protect her. And of course, the right kind of dog.
Yes, it’s great. Yes, it deserves every honor it has coming, whatever those may be.