Hard to believe, but Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio have never been in a movie together before.
They certainly make up for lost time in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, spurring each other on to some of their career-best work, reminiscent of the greatest screen bromances, from Robert Redford and Paul Newman to Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. I guess there’s even a hint of Roy Rogers and Trigger, too.
Because Leo plays Rick Dalton, a TV cowboy and bit-part movie star approaching a career crossroads as the Hollywood of the 50s and 60s draws to a dusky end. Rick relies on his stunt double Cliff Booth to “carry his load” and Brad Pitt duly fulfils the task with a winning grin, despite the creaking of his own bones.
Cliff drives Rick around town, to bars and meeting and movie sets, because frozen margarita-loving Rick has lost his license. There’s a lot of driving in this film – as there always is in LA – and Tarantino shoots each journey the way a dance routine in a musical moves the story on, with period adverts on the car radio and cool 1969 music choices, from Jose Feliciano’s California Dreamin’ to Deep Purple’s Rush and Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Salvation Travelling Show.
It’s not just Rick and Cliff driving around Hollywood. Parking up in his driveway one night, the morose Rick is cheered to spot his new neighbour pulling up to the gate to the house above him: “That’s Roman Polanski, director of Rosemary’s Baby, one of the hottest film makers in the world,” gasps Rick, suddenly feeling that maybe he’s in the right place after all and that movie stardom is but a house visit away.
But it isn’t Polanski in whom the film takes an interest, but the beautiful girl in the seat beside him: Sharon Tate. She’s played with a honeyed gorgeousness by Margot Robbie, a young actress on the cusp of her own stardom after work in The Valley of the Dolls and a Dean Martin screwball comedy called The Wrecking Crew. There’s a delightful scene in which she sneaks into a cinema to watch herself and hear the audience react to her performance, cinema at its most delicious.
Tarantino plays with fact and fiction here, layers of reality. We all know this is building up to the night, in August 1969, of the infamous Manson murders, when the pregnant Tate was killed. But this film isn’t really about that.
It is long and detailed and indulgent, beautifully so. This is about textures and nuances, a play on getting the tiniest details right but then swinging into wild fantasy. Only Tarantino could get away with it and he does, he really does.
Every scene is a memorable set-piece of its own, a perfect creation of cinematic moments – it’s as if he’s straining for something iconographic in every shot. These moments creep up on you until you can’t forget them: on-set of a cowboy movie where Rick is struggling with his lines, or a night at the Playboy Mansion, or a haunting visit to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. Each shot melts into the build up of each scene and the scene then burns into you like a composed photograph.
All this allows Tarantino to revel in nostalgia and memorabilia, to fetishise it – neon signs, TV clips, denim outfits and logo T-shirts (the costume work by Arianne Phillips is outstanding – I want Brad’s all-white denim ensemble, his sunglasses, his Champion spark plug Tee – hell, I want his abs, too), film posters, cocktail lounges, even the made-up movie trailers for Italian westerns.
I’m not going to pretend that some of you won’t find all this tedious and self-indulgent; plenty will certainly object to the violence, particularly that of the climax, which blends gore with outrageousness. But I think Tarantino earns the extravagance – and our indulgence – by the painstaking reconstructionism that precedes it which brilliantly recreates the atmosphere and attitude of a Hollywood on the turn, of innocence about to be slashed.
On my first viewing, at Cannes, I was dubious about the ending. On second viewing in London, I couldn’t believe just how much of the movie I’d remembered as if by heart, so luxuriant are the details and the pure love of movie-making. I also felt – after discussion with my friend Spike Denton – that in fact the ending is the most Tarantino thing about the whole movie, pure rage, pure crazed wish-fulfilment fantasy. Pure rampant ego. Pure Hollywood, then.
But in the cigarette-fuelled performances of Brad and Leo, there is a great human quality to the characters, something not always to the fore with Tarantino. There is tenderness and melancholy in Rick and Cliff, as well as machismo and pure, sexy, iconic movie star power. I bet they both get Oscar nominations. Brad will even win. The fairytale always wins in Hollywood…