Critic's Notebook: In 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' Tarantino Creates an Indelible Time Capsule

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The filmmaker’s latest movie brings the viewer inside a crucial transitional moment that altered Hollywood — both the town and the industry — for good.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Hollywood in 1969, that is. The old studio system, as it had been known for a half-century, was definitively crumbling, and long-haired, dope-smoking hippies were turning up both in front of and behind the cameras, some of them making films that would usher in one of American cinema's most exciting periods.

It was a moment when no one had any idea what would work with audiences and what wouldn't. The most popular pictures that year were an impossibly schizophrenic lot; it's a reflection of the massive cultural divide at the time that the ten top grossers included The Love Bug, Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon and Cactus Flower on the one hand, and Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice on the other. Standing tall at number 12 for the year was a somber black-and-white Swedish film with hard-core sex, I Am Curious (Yellow).

Plunged into this heady mix at a very early age was a kid named Quentin Tarantino, who as a precocious sprig was often driven up from the South Bay on weekends by his stepfather to take in a bunch of movies on Hollywood Boulevard. Said stepfather was a parent who paid no heed to the recently invented MPAA ratings system, so the pre-pubescent lad had options of everything from the heaving Krakatoa, East of Java at the Cinerama Dome (“Where Movie-Going Is an Event!” the promos promised) and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (might this have represented QT's first exposure to his future musical collaborator Ennio Morricone?) to the cheapo motorcycle exploitation quickies The Cycle Savages and Angel, Angel, Down We Go. Whatever it was, little Quentin gobbled it up with gusto.

At the time, Hollywood Boulevard itself was well on the way down its slippery slide toward seediness and utter disreputability; as I recall from my early visits around this time, there was little to do or see other than to take a look at the footprints and signatures in front of Grauman's Chinese (no berobed cartoon action heroes on the sidewalks in those days), pop into Larry Edmunds Bookshop and grab a meal at Musso & Frank (which turned 50 that year, and where I was charmed by the fact that most of the waiters at that time had previously worked for the Cunard steamship line). The very next year, Paul Mazursky turned Hollywood Boulevard into a battlefield in his eccentric Hollywood film Alex in Wonderland. This was not an entirely implausible conjecture.

What Hollywood Boulevard did have in those days was movie theaters, and lots of them. In fact, there were movie houses all over town — maybe a couple of twins here and there, but no multiplexes yet. The great old palaces downtown had become rundown grind houses that serviced winos and derelicts with triple bills at a time when no one went to downtown L.A. for any reason other than to alight at the Music Center and then escape west again. The UCLA crowd in Westwood enjoyed a handful of nice theaters, including the Bruin, where, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate slips in alone for a matinee to watch herself in the Dean Martin-as-Matt Helm spy romp The Wrecking Crew (which was actually released in February 1969, six months before her murder). Beverly Hills could boast a couple of great roadshow theaters, the Laemmles ruled the art house realm, and there were still several dozen drive-ins in the immediate L.A. area; Peter Bogdanovich shot the climax of his first feature, Targets, at one of them in 1967, and in July of 1969, the World War II drama Where Eagles Dare, starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, played simultaneously at the World on Hollywood Boulevard (later to become a grind house) and the late, lamented Gilmore Drive-In at 3rd and Fairfax, where the Grove now stands adjacent to the Farmers' Market.

But Hollywood Boulevard was still the main place to see new movies. During the summer of '69 period, 2001: A Space Odyssey was continuing its long run at Pacific's Hollywood Cinerama (the space still exists inside a closed-off building near Cahuenga owned by Scientology) and Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity played the Pantages before it was transformed from a movie palace into a legit theater.  The Wild Bunch was the attraction at the Pix on Hollywood near Vine, and a far less remembered Western, McKenna's Gold, was relegated to Lowe's on Hollywood Boulevard near Highland, while Midnight Cowboy, the eventual Oscar winner for best picture of 1969, opened exclusively at the Bruin in Westwood.

As we have very recently been reminded, the summer of '69 marked the extraordinary achievement of men landing on the moon, an event not mentioned in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, while Woodstock took place in mid-August. The killings of Sharon Tate and her friends came a week earlier, on the night of August 8-9, and I won't spoil how Tarantino deals with that.

What I will say is that his new film for me was total bliss, a fabulous full immersion in Hollywood life and lore, and of how things both were and should have been. (Full disclosure: My son worked as a production assistant on the shoot.) It's a re-adjustment of real life that represents wish fulfillment in a way that's clear-headed and unsentimental, realistic in some ways, fantastical in others. It is, fundamentally, how things ought to have been in a manner that I find more dramatically acceptable than I did the pivotal, and equally fairy tale-ish, central event in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. This is a more human, and humane, film centering on altered history, incipient tragedy turned on its head.

Some charter member Tarantino fans, of whom I am one, might complain that he's gone a bit soft. I say he's maturing. I also suggest that he should abandon his announced plans to soon call it a career. Real artists are driven to create and almost never retire. Out to pasture is one place I don't want to imagine Quentin Tarantino.