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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1950s commercial ad

1950s commercial

Here’s an example of why Lee Marvin hated working in TV. Having to do a 1950s commercial during the run of M Squad for the sponsor, Pall Mall cigarettes, was one of his greatest pet peeves as elaborated on at length in Lee Marvin Point Blank. One such example of his disdain was the following quote: “Creatively, an actor is limited in TV. The medium is geared for pushing goods. Sell the product, that’s the goal… But I’m not interested in pushing the products; I’m interested in Lee Marvin and where he’s going as an actor. There’s the rub. Lee Marvin was going nowhere creatively in the series.”

It probably did not help his cause very much that the president of the American Tobacco Company, maker of Pall Mall sponsoring the show, picked up the tab for M Squad mainly because of Marvin. After viewing the show’s pilot, the president allegedly responded, “That kid really smokes!” My, how things have changed since the days of the real Mad Men!
Personally, I think Lee Marvin makes a surprisingly decent pitchman.  I also do like the idea that there may have actually been somewhere a thing as the M Squad pistol range.
Here now are several examples of Lt. Frank Ballinger, aka Lee Marvin, hawking Pall Mall in three different commercials. It may come over as rather cringe worthy watching it now in these much more enlightened times, but he was not alone. In fact contractually speaking, Josh Randall, aka Steve McQueen did it for Wanted Dead Alive (1958) and was parodied by Leonard DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) as TV actor Rick Dalton. Yes, folks, they really did such ads and people really did smoke unfiltered cigarettes. My, how the world has changed. Enjoy!
– Dwayne Epstein


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