If Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood winds up taking the Best Picture Oscar on 2.9.20, it’ll be for a simple, sensible reason. Everybody likes it. I haven’t spoken to anyone who’s had anything negative to say about it. Not the slightest, most insignificant thing…zip. I shared a few mild gripes after catching it during last May’s Cannes Film Festival, but they’ve all pretty much evaporated. I’ve seen it three or four times since. I’ve become a follower.
To paraphrase the late Samuel Goldwyn, “If people like a movie, you can’t stop ’em.”
A Once Upon A Time in Hollywood win would also be an historical achievement of sorts. It would be the first time that an amiable, relatively plot-free, character-driven, laid-back attitude flick wins the big prize. Or, to put it more simply and given the fact that Tarantino’s film is about the B-movie realm of 1969 Hollywood, it would be the first “drive-in movie” to win this honor.
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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is not highly poised. It’s not “okay boomer” or high falutin’. It’s not a Stanley Kramer or Tom Hooper or a Baz Luhrman film. It’s a hang movie about nervous cats vs. psycho cats plus one supremely cool cat. It’s almost Cormanesque.
The Academy is a different deliberative body than it was ten or even five years ago. The New Academy Kidz, or the more diverse members who were invited to join the Academy over the last three years and who constitute roughly 20% of the present membership, are much more supportive of genre-type films (Get Out, The Shape of Water). This sensibility is a door-opener in terms of OUATIH‘s Best Picture worthiness.
The other fundamental thing is that Once (as some prefer to call it) probably wouldn’t be a Best Picture contender if it was entirely about Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Rick Dalton, an insecure, downswirling TV actor who’s terrified that his career on the verge of flatlining. He’s all nerves and cigarettes and too many slurps of booze.
The joy of this film, in fact, is all about Brad Pitt‘s Cliff Booth, the Zen counterweight who slips the film into cruising gear. Cliff is Mr. Alpha Cool. His mantra is “I got this, don’t sweat it.” Unlike Leo, Pitt doesn’t strenuously “act” all over the place. His is a very settled and relaxing and old-fashioned vibe, and Once is Pitt’s moment…right here, right now, age 55, prime of his life. He’s gone beyond acting at this stage. He’s become a kind of…I don’t know, mystical presence or something. You don’t say “Brad Pitt” — you hum it.
One of the reasons Pitt is going to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is because the Academy membership understands that it needs to offer a make-up for not giving him the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Moneyball. Pitt’s performance as Billy Beane was easily the best of the five nominated performances from 2011, and…I don’t want to talk about who won. But it was wrong.
Cannes flashback: If you want a fast-and-hard assessment of Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, it goes like this: Four-fifths of this half-century-old Hollywood fantasy is lightly amusing, flavorful, decent and diverting as far as it goes.
But the final fifth is payoff time — a taut, time-clocky, here-we-go, edge-of-the-seat LSD finale that is absolutely insane, exuberant, take-charge, fucking-ass nuts.
I could boil it all down and call the last half-hour a “happy” ending, except the craziness is so balls-out unhinged. I have my tastes and standards and you all have yours, but by the measuring stick of Hollywood Elsewhere the finale is really, really great. As in laugh-out-loud, hard-thigh-slap, whoo-whoo satisfying.
But most of the film (the aforementioned 80%) is what most of us would call a good-enough wallow in the world of B-level Hollywood at the dawn of the Nixon administration.
Who are these guys? And how will Dalton, a fading TV actor with a backpack full of fear and trepidation, find a way out of the thicket? And what role, if any, will Booth, Rick’s sidekick, stunt man and best bruh, play in turning things around, if in fact that is in the cards?
And what about those motley, zombie-like hippie weirdos encamped at the dusty Spahn Movie Ranch out in Chatsworth, whom Cliff immediately recognizes as bad ones? And how, if at all, will Rick ever break into A-level movies and thereby rub shoulders with the likes of Roman Polanski, aka Mr. Rosemary’s Baby, and his dishy wife Sharon Tate?
I was fine with Once Upon A Time in Hollywood being a clever, wise-assed, sometimes hugely enjoyable attitude and atmosphere smorgasbord of period aroma, jokes, flip humor, character-building, asides and “those were the days.”
It’s not really Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, of course, but Once Upon A Time in Quentin’s Non-Historical Hollywood Memory Kit Bag.
We’ve all understood and accepted for the last 16 years (or starting with Kill Bill: Volume 1) that Tarantino Land is all about revelling in the realm of B-movie grindhouse exploitation (bang-bang, muscle cars, street shit-talk, hot chicks, martial arts, kick-splatter, baseball bats, samurai swords).
QT isn’t the least bit interested in the 1969 Hollywood world of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Fellini Satyricon, The Arrangement, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Z, Woman in Love, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Take The Money and Run, Medium Cool and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
No, this is the realm of B-level popcorn programmers like Three in the Attic, Dean Martin‘s The Silencers, Krakatoa: East of Java and the like, not to mention shit-level TV westerns and Italian-made spaghetti westerns.
Take it or leave it, but Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is squarely on the side of late ’60s drive-in cinema. It doesn’t just offer wall-poster and marquee tributes to this aesthetic arena, but actually is one of these films.
I respect or at least “understand” Tarantino’s relentless affection for this sub-strata, which of course has always been a form of half-sophisticated, half-nerd snobbery on his part.