Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the latest opus from favorite contemporary filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, was anxiously awaited by yours truly like a kid awaits the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation. Seriously. Everything I had read and seen about it had me practically drooling in anticipation. Then I watched it.

(L-R) Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton leaning against the facade of Hollywood’s famed Egyptian Theater.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad picture, at all. It’s just that I guess my anticipation of it, had me expecting  more.
There’s also much to recommend. My family and I moved to California from New York in 1968 so I’m familiar with what the southern California scene of 1969 was like in those days. Tarantino’s re-creation of that time and place is something to marvel at throughout the film. Whether it’s the bus benches advertising Hobo Kelly, or the brief TV moment showing late night L.A. horror host Seymour, it brought back nostalgic childhood memories for yours truly.
Most of the performances in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood are also uniformly excellent. A true standout is Brad Pitt as the laconic stunt double and gopher to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading TV star.
I say ‘most’ performances as some of them are downright strange. The film is peppered with cameos of real-life individuals and some are just strange. An actor playing Bruce Lee challenges Pitt to a fight in one of my favorite scenes and one of the most controversial in its portrayal of the legendary martial artist.
In another sequence, British Actor Damian Lewis makes a brief appearance as Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion in a performance that can best be described as bizarre. While there is a resemblance, in speaking with McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, we both agreed that the speech pattern Lewis invokes is just plain weird. He may have been trying to mask his British accent but the result is nothing like McQueen. Bizarre.
So, what is it about the film that received a six minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film festival that I have a problem saying that it’s truly great? Simply put, the main character played by DiCaprio is just not worthy of much sympathy and being the central focus of the film, it’s the key factor keeping me from loving the film. Hate to say it but it’s true.
I won’t give away any more as I hate when writers do that sort of thing. Suffice to say, I’ll probably see it on DVD, if only to see again my Lee Marvin Point Blank interview subject, Clu Gulager as an aging Westwood bookstore owner. Until then, I wonder why such a big Lee Marvin fan as Tarantino left Lee Marvin out of the film when he was big box office in 1969. How big?  Check out Lee Marvin Point Blank to find that out. In the mean time….
-Dwayne Epstein

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  1. Hmm, very interesting to get your take on this film.

    I agree strongly that the whole film is much diminished by centering on a character (Rick Dalton) who wasn’t respectable or enjoyable or interesting enough to be the focus of our attention for so much screen time.
    I don’t recall seeing/reading anyone else expressing this view.

    Agreed, hearing the way Damian Lewis spoke unlike Steve McQueen was disappointing. Talking like McQueen is a pretty easy impression to do.

    The narrative is so slow, meandering, self-indulgent, self-satisfied, etc.
    Seems to me that a viewer will enjoy this film (or not) to the extent that he enjoys seeing 1969 Hollywood & LA recreated in a movie.
    One might say this film reveals that QT is extremely sentimental about his childhood memories, which is an interesting contrast to his badass facade.

    I hated seeing that false fantasy scene featuring Bruce Lee.
    I trained with Lee’s first two students, who trained with BL for years.
    Years before Green Hornet, BL’s ability was such that the Brad Pitt character would have been helpless and hopeless in a “fight” with Bruce Lee — which BL would’ve won (indisputably) just as quickly as he chose. In a ‘real fight’, BL would never do that fancy flying kick we see in the QT movie.
    The defense (explanation of, excuse for)
    of this false characterization is inadequate.

    Very good acting by Pitt & DiCaprio.
    PItt’s character was far more enjoyable to watch.

    Your point — that the film could’ve included Lee Marvin — leads to intriguing thoughts about such possibilities… Lee Marvin in the 60’s & 70’s — could be a cool movie!

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