I have held off on writing about Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood for some time now, and I attribute that to the complexity of its story. I struggled for a long while trying to understand what message director Quentin Tarantino was trying to convey in his ninth film. I have always loved the movie; it creates a vivid portrayal of the California lifestyle and the aura around Hollywood, cinema, and celebrities; however, the film’s purpose never made itself directly apparent to me until very recently. Naturally, as the film is one of my favorites of all time, I feel it necessary to delve deep into the picture, what it means, and its relationship to the Hollywood of today.
For those who haven’t seen it, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood focuses on Rick Dalton, a washed-up television actor from the fifties who needs to come to terms with growing old and moving out of the spotlight. However, he still has big hopes of one day following in the shoes of actors such as Steve McQueen and becoming a leading man in Hollywood movies. While this never happens, he becomes a big star in Italian Spaghetti Westerns and comes to terms with his situation. Dalton is accompanied by his stunt double Cliff Booth and juxtaposed against a dramatized version of late actress Sharon Tate in the year leading up to her death. The film’s climax connects these threads bringing all characters together and rewriting history, providing a fairytale ending in which actress Sharon Tate is never killed in the Manson Family murders.
Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood, believe it or not, can be seen as a cautionary tale for today's cinematic landscape. The film takes a deep exploration of change in the film industry, whether it be Rick Dalton's career change from once famous tv actor to spaghetti western star, the change from Hollywood's golden age, or even Tarantino's own changing of historical events in the film's plot. As a central theme in the movie, naturally, parallels can be drawn to today. As Streaming Services rise in popularity and threaten the prominence of film stock and the theatrical experience, Tarantino warns us against moving away from traditional cinema. In multiple interviews, including interviews with Robert Rodriguez and at the Cannes film festival, Tarantino calls digital film and projection the death of movies as he knows it. He explores the introduction of digital projection and streaming through metaphor in his film, comparing it against similar movements in the late sixties, such as the end of Hollywood's golden age as was signified by the murder of Sharon Tate. Establishing a connection between the end of Hollywood's Golden age, also known as the era when studios ruled supreme, and the start of a new generation of streaming and home projection is essential as it signifies Tarantino's opinion regarding today's state of affairs. By keeping Sharon Tate alive and therefore removing the marker which indicated the end of Hollywood's golden age, Tarantino advocates in the very structure of his story that he would prefer we steer away from the age of digital cinema and streaming. However, other elements of the film's narrative may suggest Tarantino's coming to terms with the unfolding events of today.
Cinematography, Production Design, and Soundtrack
Vital to the film's central messaging is the use of elaborate production design, cinematography, and soundtrack, which are used strategically and extensively to create a romanticized view of the Hollywood landscape at the time the film takes place. In fact, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is often described as Tarantino's love letter to Los Angeles, Hollywood, and movies. Therefore, all elements of the film's production needed to enhance the feeling of the 1960s as well as evoke the same feelings as films made in that era. Cinematographer Robert Richardson accomplished this effect in several ways. Firstly, the film was shot on a variety of formats. Traditional, color 35mm negative stock was used for the majority of the picture; however, the use of 16mm stock was used for sequences of the film's fictional television shows as this is what these shows were shot on at the time; the use of 8mm film is implemented too during specific home video portions. Robert Richardson's traditional lighting style also serviced the film. His style is signified by the use of strong edge lighting, which can add an angelic glow to actors and therefore further romanticizes the settings and characters of the film. Finally, in an interview with ASC magazine, the film's colorist, Yvan Lucas, he reveals how the film negative was processed to finish the movie's iconic look. He mentions that while the idea was to stay as close to the films negative stock as possible, the use of the Kodak 2383 print stock was able to further separate colors into their primary channels, therefore, leading to enhanced saturation and a look that is reminiscent of the style present in films in the late sixties.
Similarly, the films Production Design and Soundtrack are used to enhance the film's realism and mise-en-scene. Production Designer Barbara Ling faced challenges involving redecorating Hollywood Boulevard to be identical to 1969, the year the film takes place, and the meticulous recreation of Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth. This attention to detail is translated to Tarantino's soundtrack, which used songs from the time period and a recreation of the LA KHJ radio station from 1960s Los Angeles.
Another element that enhances the film's message is how Tarantino writes his characters. Tarantino is known for a highly distinctive style of dialogue and structuring. It is why he has two academy awards for best original screenplay; therefore, at this point in his career, having established his style, Tarantino was able to use it, or rather the lack of it, to enhance characterization and messaging in the film. In several interviews about the film, Tarantino explains that Margo Robbie lacks so many lines because he explicitly wanted to make her feel real rather than a Tarantino Character and juxtapose that against his traditional style, which was used for other characters in the film. This strategy accomplishes making Tate not necessarily feel like a character central to the story's plot, but one that is an angelic string thematically tying the picture together. As a Hollywood celebrity who goes about a typical day living in Los Angeles, her presentation translates to the audience Tarantino's own romanticized view of the time period. As in real life, her death was directly tied to the end of Hollywood's golden age; in the film, her survival is tied to its longevity. Her flattering look is not only literally how Tarantino wants us to view her, but too, is symbolically how he wants us to see film and the theatrical experience.
Looking at the cinematic elements in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood provides a strong argument against the transition into the modern streaming age; however, there also happens to be suggestions that Tarantino is coming to terms with the changing landscape of today’s Hollywood. While it is true, that symbolically, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood suggests that we should stick with the ways of the past, there are elements of the films narrative that recommend otherwise. Once again, the film follows struggling actor Rick Dalton. It is early in the film’s runtime that Dalton is offered a career transition into spaghetti westerns; however, he refuses adamantly. It is later that he changes his mind and comes to terms with his situation. Allow us to compare this against Tarantino’s career and interests. He is a director who openly admires exploitation cinema and the spaghetti western genre; he is also a director who rose from the ashes of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Therefore, it would make no sense for Tarantino to advocate explicitly against the change that took place in the late sixties, as his success is directly attributed to it. I believe that the message, while being a love letter to old Hollywood, is also a welcoming of the next stage of cinema. Time and time again, Tarantino has said he will only make 10 films, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood being his ninth. He is, therefore, leaving the world of making movies soon and leaving his spot to be filmed by new young voices and filmmakers who too will be awarded opportunities as a result of streaming services. The film, while being a goodbye to old ways, is also a welcoming of new ones. As Brad Pitt said in the same ASC Magazine article mentioned before, “[The Film] really comes down to acceptance — acceptance of your place, your life, your surroundings, your challenges, your troubles.
B, Benjamin. “Back in Time: Making Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.” American Cinematographer, The American Society of Cinematographers, 14 Apr. 2021, ascmag.com/articles/back-in-time-making-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood.
“Quentin Tarantino Talks about the Death of Cinema as He Knows It, and His Forthcoming Project.” YouTube, Associated Press, 3 Aug. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZyjBhqIhhE.
Utichi, Joe. “Quentin Tarantino Digs Deep On 'Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood' As He Fears ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ For Filmmakers: Q&A.” Deadline, Deadline, 28 Jan. 2020, deadline.com/2019/12/quentin-tarantino-interview-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-indie-filmmaking-1202809425/.