The latest from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, is an ode to a changing film industry, one that by the end of the ‘60s and start of the ‘70s spawned classic films like True Grit and not-so-classic ones like Mandingo. Yet, another type of film—a genre in particular—lies straight in the middle of this historical fantasy, almost as if a part of the cast; a character in the movie. And that’s the spaghetti Western.
The ‘60s gave rise to Italian Westerns, establishing directors Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as pioneers of the genre with films like A Few Dollars More and The Great Silence, respectively. In Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, its main character Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a “has-been” actor whose path back to glory is costumed in cowboy hats and gun-slinging set props, much like some of the real-life actors of said genre films. While Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time takes this approach, it is much more a love letter to Hollywood and Los Angeles than a sole tribute to the cowboy movies of the past. The film screams nostalgia with a beautiful cry, making me long for a moment in time when not even my parents were as of yet born.
The Spaghetti Western is Itself a Character in the Film
This isn’t the first time that Tarantino has made genre a character in one of his films. Exploitation films like the aforementioned Mandigo encompasses works like Jackie Brown and Django Unchained. The genre has a kind of personality, which brings about certain traits from the characters in the films. When it comes to Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time, the spaghetti Western tacks on to him like Brad Pitt’s Cliff, Rick’s stunt double and driver.
The genre is famous for its themes on the new frontier as it pertains to the American West and for popularizing scholar Northrop Fyre’s five modes in defining a hero. Rick Dalton’s new frontier is the changing Hollywood landscape, now that his career has gone downhill. His forthcoming leap into the foreign film industry gives him new life. Because we can see how Rick is a result of his environment, from his reactions on set to his at times inferior perception of himself, Rick can be described as a hero inhabiting the high mimetic mode. In the words of film scholar Douglas Pye, “This is the mode of tragedy and most epic.”
And epic Rick is indeed. DiCaprio’s enthralling performance from Tarantino’s impeccable script produces this representation of a hero. Scenes like his brief conversation with 10-year-old Julia Butters’ character and his emotional breakdown after messing up a scene with Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy all attest to such conclusion.
Perhaps the biggest personification of the spaghetti Western in Once Upon a Time is Rick Dalton’s career’s uncanny resemblance to that of real-life Spaghetti Western legend Clint Eastwood. Much like Rick in the movie, Eastwood was once a star in a cowboy television show before his career took off doing Italian Westerns. Before Eastwood agreed to star in 1963’s A Fistful of Dollars he was a series regular on the show Rawhide. The show, much like the fictional Bounty Law in Once Upon a Time, was on the decline. Both Rick and Eastwood were in need of a serious change in public perception at the time that they embarked in foreign films and, as seen in the movie, Rick eventually prevailed akin to Eastwood.
So, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Rick holds such resemblance to the Western icon. Nevertheless, while these similarities are sound, there’s no doubt that Rick Dalton is nothing like any of the spaghetti Western characters played by Eastwood in the ‘60s. And he isn’t supposed to be. As much as Once Upon a Time utilizes the Western genre as a character within the narrative, the film is in fact in no way a Western like Tarantino’s Django or The Hateful Eight. Without question,Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Nostalgia film.
Setting a Mood: The Los Angeles Vibe à la Blade Runner
As you can see, the Western is a large part of Tarantino’s new film, but it’s its 1969 Hollywood setting that encapsulates the movie as a whole. While watching Once Upon a Time I had the same tranquil-almost serene-feeling I experienced while watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for the first time, and then again with Denis Villeneuve’s 2049. Once Upon a Time thrives in a fictional past while the two Blade Runners live in a fictional future, yet both evoke a sense of unlived nostalgia. This is achieved through a number of aspects, most prominently music and set design.
The original Blade Runner had the timeless, mysterious score of Vangelis and while Once Upon a Time doesn’t carry a traditional score, it’s era-specific music does the job to perfection. I’d go as far as naming Jose Feliciano’s rendition of California Dreamin’ the film’s theme song. Of course, the music only works in conjunction with the set design. Tarantino excels in such area. Besides stating how alive and ecstatic ‘69 Los Angeles felt in a theater full of millenials like myself that have only experienced such setting in films of the times, there’s really not much left to say than, “Bravo, Mr. Tarantino.”
If late ‘60s nostalgia is the soul of the movie, then there better be some period cameos. In more than just a cameo, characters based on real people like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) gave Once Upon a Time in Hollywood an added pinch of authenticity. Moh’s characterization of Lee in particular was an absolute delicacy to watch. Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate enamored the screen. Other characters based on real people made memorable appearances, like Damian Lewis’ Steve McQueen and the aforementioned Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy.
Now, before ending this piece, I’d like to briefly touch upon Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff. Pitt’s own style of charisma is on overdrive, with Cliff almost acting as some form of present-day superhero. That’s what makes the character, in all forms of the word, absolutely awesome. The ending of the movie is all I’ll say to support my claim, but there’s still a little something else that makes Cliff a terrific character. And that’s his relationship with Rick. Like stated in the movie, “He [Cliff] is more than a brother [to Rick], but less than a wife.” The scene where they are watching The FBI together while also critiquing Rick’s acting like online movie reviewers captures this dynamic beautifully.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is truly one of the best films of 2019. It’s use of the spaghetti Western as a character within the film helped expand upon the main character of Rick Dalton. Its ‘60s Hollywood setting emitted a kind of longing nostalgia reminiscent of films like Blade Runner. Magnificent indeed, this is a movie worth seeing time and time again.