Set in the Los Angeles of 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time
in Hollywood” is a masterful fable combining wholly fabricated
characters and situations with real-life people and events.
For all its outlandish poetic license, “OUATIH” is bursting at the
seams with period-specific pop culture references, from movies to TV
shows to pop songs to restaurants and movie theaters to L.A. radio
stations to commercials for products such as Tanya tanning lotion and
Certs breath mints (“with a sparkling drop of Retsyn”) to some truly
deep drilling, e.g., a park bench ad touting a local news anchor from
the period.
From the leads to some key supporting players to some
don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameos, the cast is filled with veterans
of past Tarantino films.
We also get some nods to past QT works — including an “Easter Egg”
scene that pops up during the closing credits.
Which brings us to the moment when we must warn you the following
piece contains almost nothing BUT spoilers.
Last chance!
Now then: Here’s a look at many (but not even close to all) of the pop
culture nods and inside-reference treats sprinkled throughout “Once
Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Special guest stars. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a fictional
actor who starred on a fictional 1950s TV Western called “Bounty Law.”
By 1969, Rick has been reduced to guest-starring on single episodes of
actual TV shows from the time, such as “Land of the Giants” and “The
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” features four veteran actors who
actually guest-starred on “The F.B.I.” back in the day: Bruce Dern,
Kurt Russell, Clu Gulager and Brenda Vaccaro.
Playing at a theater near you. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s
longtime stuntman, best friend, assistant/driver/fix-it guy/you name
it. As Cliff enters his trailer in the shadows of the Van Nuys
Drive-In Theater, the TV is playing a clip of Robert Goulet delivering
an old-school rendition of the trippy pop hit “MacArthur Park” —
perfectly illustrating the sometimes ridiculous attempts by
establishment entertainers of the time to connect with “the kids.”
Heaven holds a place for those who pray. Cliff and Rick are stopped at
an intersection when the 45-ish Cliff has the first of many chance
encounters with Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a free-spirited hippie
chick who’s MAYBE 18. The song playing on the radio is Simon &
Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” from “The Graduate.” Ahem.
Legacy casting. Margaret Qualley, a brilliant actor and a star in the
making, is the daughter of Andie MacDowell. “OUATIH” also features
Rumer Willis (daughter of “Pulp Fiction” alum Bruce Willis and Demi
Moore); Maya Hawke (daughter of “Kill Bill” star Uma Thurman and Ethan
Hawke); and Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of Kevin Smith and Jennifer
Schwalbach Smith).
Years later, he would go by the name of Mr. Blonde. A clip from a
“Bounty Law” episode features Tarantino favorite Michael Madsen
(“Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill,” “The Hateful Eight”).
A tragedy foreshadowed. Rick plays the guest villain on a TV Western
called “Lancer,” starring James Stacy (Tim Olyphant). At the end of
the day’s filming, Stacy revs up his motorcycle and roars into the
night. It’s a fleeting, seemingly insignificant moment, but there’s a
poignancy attached, seeing as how just a few years later, Stacy and
his girlfriend, Claire Cox, were on his motorcycle when they were hit
by a drunk driver, killing Cox and resulting in the amputation of
Stacy’s left leg and arm.
What’s all the Hullabaloo about? We see a TV clip of Rick looking
painfully uncomfortable while doing a cheesy musical number on
“Hullabaloo,” an actual American variety program from the mid-1960s.
The Playboy scene. A sequence at the Playboy mansion kicks off with a
title card using the font of Playboy magazine. Sharon Tate (Margot
Robbie) greets Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), who is later referenced
when Rick tells a story about being on the shortlist to star in “The
Great Escape” when McQueen supposedly wavered about taking the role.
Sharon then joins Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Cass
Elliot (Rachel Redleaf) from The Mamas and the Papas on the outdoor
dance area.
Later in the film, we hear Jose Feliciano’s rendition of The Mamas and
the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” on the soundtrack.
More magazines. The mementos in Rick’s place include framed copies of
Rick on the covers of TV Guide and Mad Magazine — totally fictional,
of course, but expertly rendered.
Boss Radio! The voice we hear on the radio on numerous occasions
belongs to the legendary Robert W. Morgan of KHJ-AM, among other Los
Angeles stations.
The stuff that dreams are made of. When Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate
pops into a bookstore to pick up a copy of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”
as a present for her husband, Roman Polanski, she pauses to admire a
replica of the Maltese Falcon on the counter.
Supporting role. That same day, Sharon watches herself onscreen in a
theater showing “The Wrecking Crew,” the last in the Matt Helm
spy-spoof series starring Dean Martin as the title character. With her
bare feet propped up on the seat in front of her (one of the many
instances of Tarantino continuing his well-documented, um, interest,
in feet, e.g., the whole “foot massage” discussion in “Pulp Fiction”),
Sharon beams with joy as the crowd laughs at her comedic turn in the
Hot August Night. On a Sunday afternoon in February of 1969, Brad
Pitt’s Cliff once again crosses paths with Margaret Qualley’s
hitchhiking Pussycat. As Cliff pulls up, Neil Diamond’s “Brother
Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” is playing on the radio.
The opening lyrics:
“Hot August night
“And the leaves hanging down
“And the grass on the ground smelling sweet
“Move up the road
“To the outside of town …”
At this moment, Cliff has no idea Pussycat is a member of a cult-like
community slavishly devoted to Charles Manson.
Six months later, on Aug. 8, 1969 — the “hottest night of the year,”
according to the narrator of the film — a pack of Manson “family”
members will commit mass murder.
Preaching evil. As Cliff drives Pussycat to the Spahn Movie Ranch —
ad hoc headquarters for Manson and his zombie disciples — Diamond’s
song about a tent preacher is chillingly apropos:
“Eyes black as coal
“And when he lifts his face
“Every ear in the place is on him …”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. The Spahn Movie Ranch was an actual site
for TV Westerns such as “Bonanza” and B-movies dating back to “The
Outlaw” (1943), starring Jane Russell and directed by Howard Hughes —
who was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator.”
Bruce Dern (“The Hateful Eight”) plays George Spahn, who was 80 years
old and nearly blind when he allowed Manson and his followers to live
on his property. Dern replaced Burt Reynolds, who had been cast in the
role but died about a month before filming commenced.
Inspirations and influences: The relationship between Rick and Cliff
is inspired in part by the longtime friendship and professional
partnership of Burt Reynolds and stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham.
And as Tarantino told Jimmy Kimmel last week, he and Brad Pitt
independently thought of Tom Laughlin’s “Billy Jack” character as a
kind of kindred spirit to Cliff.
Less throat-burn than other brands. An end credits “cookie” scene
features DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton in his “Bounty Law” wardrobe, shooting
a commercial for Red Apple unfiltered cigarettes, which have appeared
in previous Tarantino-written and/or directed films including “Pulp
Fiction,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

Richard Roeper reviews movies for The Chicago Sun-Times. Distributed
by Universal Press Syndicate.