Tarantino starts out Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on the set of Bounty Law. Rick Fucking Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are being interviewed in black and white, the audience seeing Dalton's insincerity and Booth's rye sense of humor. Booth carries Dalton's load, we are told, and it sets the tone for the color film coming.
The rest of the run time tells a story that goes three ways. We see Dalton after Bounty Law has been cancelled. His career isn't the best: he's playing the bad guys in various television shows. In comes a hot studio producer telling him to go east where the Italians are making westerns. Booth sticks by his side while having his own adventures.
Booth is a bit of a character. A capable man. Pragmatic. He loves his dog. He does not take any more shit than necessary. He can hold his own in a fight with Bruce Lee and fix a tv antennae. We see Booth care for Dalton and get mixed up with some girls who might be a little dangerous.
Speaking of girls, Sharon Tate (Margot Robie) is our last point of view. She's newish in town with a couple of movies under her belt. Her new husband is a hot shit director and her house is gated. One of her most significant scenes shows her going to the theater where her movie is playing and be delighted by the audience laughing.
Watching Dalton, Booth, and Tate wander themselves around this story, Hollywood comes to the forefront. Sounds cliche, another story where a place is a character, but Tarantino fills in the story in four dimensions. Hollywood looks the part, all the right music comes out of the stereos. It feels like it should, and that might be the best lie of them all. The way things should be ain't always the way they are. That's how movies go, though, huh? Whole point of them is to present a lie, a facsimile of the truth, and tell everyone how things are. Think of all the things movies have made you believe: Moscow is always cold, cars explode when shot, the pyramids don't have a KFC beside them. Tarantino uses the fake and the real to carve out a story made of pure wish fulfilment.
Spoilers beyond: go watch it. ⭐⭐⭐⭐
How many wishes get granted in this little fabel? That's the why of starting out "Once upon a time…" right? Otherwise name the movie "Hollywood Shit-fits" and get on with your life. But this story has a few wishes granted, the big one coming at the end, one of Tarantino's big wishes. Tarantino uses the myth-making, wish-granting of Hollywood to make sure that Sharon Tate lives just as he did when he killed Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. By undoing the Tate murders, Tarantino's world exists with the sixties continuing past their expiration date. Tarantino's inner creative world is dependent on evil being stupid and punished in the most creative way possible.
Let's go back to Rick Fucking Dalton. As the story tracks, Dalton had a pretty good life until his show was cancelled. He keeps on, paying Cliff, and doing parts on television shows. Then comes along a fairy godmother in the form of Shwarz (Pacino) with a deal: Travel to Italy and be in a few movies and a star will be born. It's a chance, one that may not pay off, but a chance at a better and more creative life. Throughout most of the movie, we see Dalton in this limbo. Everyone around him tells him how good he is, from the eccentric director to his young co-star. We see him flip out when he can't remember lines; we understand that he cares about his craft and not become jaded and cynical. In the end, the gets a new career, wife, and relationship with Cliff, being invited up to the house of the young star and director he pined for early in the movie. Dalton's story is one of privileges much like many fairy tale subjects, the story of how a talented person got everything they ever dreamed.
To juxtapose Dalton we have Cliff Booth. If Dalton is Cinderella or Snow White, someone in the stardom who allows good things to happen and success blossom from who they are, then Cliff is Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood, a confident pragmatic creature on a path they will not be deviated from. Cliff works hard as a stuntman. You can see that with the many, many scars all over his body. He also has a bit of a moral code, one that does not allow him to listen to Bruce Lee shoot his mouth off or have a hippie cut his tire. Both of those examples prove Booth is not a man to be messed with as well as showing our own wish fulfillment as humans. Few people can say that beating up on Bruce Lee would be low on their list of capabilities as well as standing up to the Manson family if they were to attack your car.
Speaking of the Manson family, of course they are foiled at the end. The suspense leading up to the horror ending is masterful, but the fairy tale setting will not allow them to succeed. As monsters in stories are defeated, so must these stupid cultists. In the real world, the idiots of the Manson clan made their way around the gates and killed Sharon Tate. Tarantino has them connect their insane notions of race wars with television, jumping dozens of years ahead of Tipper Gore, and instead go after Rick Fucking Dalton. Unfortunately for them, Cliff Booth and his dog are making some food and proceed to destroy the stupid cultists. Sure, Dalton ends the violence with a flamethrower, but Booth had it all in hand.
The mix of truth and fiction creates a world Tarantino wants to live in. It creates a world where all the best songs are always on the radio, a world where good performers get the roles they deserve, and a world where strong men defeat bad people. This world is covered in orange and lime green and it thumps along on the muffler sound of a classic car. It creates Hollywood, the lie we all want to believe in. Otherwise why even write about it?