Back in the Fall of 1992, I was a thoroughly cinema-obsessed young man. That May, I graduated from the four-year undergraduate program at NYU Film School and planned to move to Hollywood.
I was in the habit of watching as many films as I possibly could. I did so to broaden my knowledge of the history of cinema and observe how other directors handled dramatic scenarios I might deal with in my movies.
I heard scuttlebutt regarding a film that debuted at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. Apparently it blew the minds of attendees. In October, when it was theatrically released, I excitedly went to a theater on Broadway with a film school buddy. For two hours, I was set alight by what I saw.
That movie was Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature film – Reservoir Dogs.
What a film it was! Amazingly rendered characters spouting witty and ironic dialogue, gratuitous violence, an intricate plot that relied extensively on flashbacks and flashforwards, and a production value that maximized a low budget by putting all the money on-screen. It was everything drilled into us students to aspire to by our NYU professors.
Later, Pulp Fiction was released. Quentin’s sophomore effort proved to be brilliant as well. Quickly, Tarantino had risen in my ranks as one of the great American storytellers.
Then a funny thing happened…
Jackie Brown came out, but frankly, I kind of thought it was a bore. The Kill Bill twins were released, and I felt as if Quentin had fallen in love with his own wit and style.
While I enjoyed his subsequent movies Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, and so on, none of them came near the exalted cinematic heights of his early work.
These days, I go into Tarantino releases with equal parts eagerness and trepidation – hoping I will love it but worried I won’t.
When I became aware that his next film would deal with Hollywood, the ’60s, and the Manson Family, I was enthralled. I have long been deeply interested in all three topics. When I saw teaser clips of the movie that showed it to be chock full of vintage muscle, sports, and luxury cars, that just about did it for me!
Of course, you know the film I’m talking about is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (OUATIH). So without wasting any more time, I’ll launch into a review of it – with equal parts eagerness and trepidation.
OUATIH was released in July of 2019 by Columbia Pictures. The film is a co-production of Bona Film Group and Heyday Films, and features a cast of mega-stars and notable actors, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Madsen, James Remar, and Luke Perry in his final role.
In part, the film is a buddy movie, focusing on the friendship between fading actor, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt). The two negotiate a changing Hollywood landscape at the end of the industry’s Golden Era.
Middle-aged stars like Rick are beginning to fall by the wayside, and are being replaced by a newer younger breed of actors such as his new next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Robbie). Adding to the main characters’ concern is Cliff’s chance meeting with a young hippy girl who happens to be a member of the Manson Family, and who attempts to recruit Cliff into the group’s madness.
To my disappointment, my fear of going into a theater to see a Tarantino movie was once again justified. The performances were stunning across the board – the film’s milieu and production value were excellent, the soundtrack was superb, and all the technical aspects were top-notch. But, I found something lacking in the movie.
For all its rich characters, sprawling narrative, and too-long 161-minute running time, the movie says absolutely nothing. It exists purely as a character study. While that’s fine, I was hoping for something more for my two-and-a-half hours.
Lovers of this film may eviscerate me if they please, but only after they ask themselves what the movie was about and give me a concise explanation, because I don’t have one, and I bet they can’t come up with one either. For me, OUATIH is another example of Mr. Tarantino falling in love with his writing and witticisms, and expecting that this is enough of a treat for the film to not have a point or statement.
Well, I don’t jibe with that. I know the director is more than capable of writing a saga that makes you think at the same time you are being entertained. Don’t get me wrong – I was entertained – as the film is immensely watchable, just not thought-provoking, and its contents not likely to last in my memory.
Having gotten that off my chest, let’s turn to the cars of the movie, which are, in a word, splendid.
Rick Dalton’s ’66 Cadillac Coupe De Ville:
In terms of screen-time, the four-wheeled star of the film is Rick’s yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe De Ville. It is an iconic symbol of wealth and style during the time of the film’s plot. The De Ville looks cool with its white vinyl Landau roof and creamy, white leather interior.
As an interesting side note, the Caddy in the movie is the exact one that Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde character drove in Reservoir Dogs. The actor apparently kept the car in storage, and this film’s picture car manager fixed it up and created a stunt double for it as well.
Cliff Booth’s ’64 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia:
Cliff’s car, when he is not gently cruising Rick around in the Caddy, is a 1964 Karmann Ghia. In his own vehicle, Cliff drives like a maniac and luxuriates in rowing gears and drifting around corners. While not a powerful car by any means, the Ghia was a beautiful one with flowing lines and sensual hips. The make was apparently chosen for the film, as it was in Kill Bill, Volume II, because the director’s father drove one when Quentin was a kid.
A Ghia equipped with a more powerful Subaru engine was used for filming the sequences where Cliff gives the car the spurs.
Roman Polanski’s ’52 MG TD Sports Roadster:
Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate, and her husband Roman Polanski, are repeatedly seen flying around in a Green 1952 MG TD Sports Roadster. This unusual choice of a car has a long cinematic history. It figured in the Jacques Demy film Model Shop, Monkey Business starring Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, and was Ryan O’Neal’s ride in Love Story.
Sharon Tate’s ’69 Porsche 911L Sportomatic:
When out on her own, Tate speeds around in a fabulous black 1969 Porsche 911L Sportomatic.
Other vehicles appearing in the film include various Ford Mustangs, C2 and C3 Corvettes, Camaros, and a glorious Rosso Corsa Red 1962 Ferrari California Spyder SWB, which happens to be my favorite car of all time.
In total, a reported 2,000 vintage cars were used during the production of the film. So many, in fact, you would have to watch the movie again and ignore everything but the vehicles to take them all in.
In today’s age of one mediocre film after another, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stands head-and-shoulders over such fare. For me though, it ranks somewhere in the middle of Tarantino’s library. While good, it is certainly not great. For gearheads, though, there’s plenty to enjoy. Watch it, and ogle all the glorious rides. You won’t be disappointed with that facet of the movie.
I give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seven out of ten pistons.