Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Ian Hunter saw Quentin Tarantino’s bravura “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” on Saturday at the motion picture academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater, making it into the 1,000-seat venue before it filled to capacity and a hundred or so people had to be turned away.
Hunter returned to the Goldwyn on Thursday, wanting to revel again in what he calls the “ultimate L.A. movie.” He invited two friends for a showing that Sony Pictures agreed to schedule after the lines for Saturday’s screening wrapped around the side streets of Beverly Hills.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and the movie really captures what makes the city – and the industry – special,” says Hunter, who won Oscars for his work on “Interstellar” and “First Man.”
Hunter was one of many members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who found themselves drawn back to the film, filling the Goldwyn to about a quarter of its capacity on Thursday, a strong showing for a weeknight screening that Sony, the film’s financier and distributor, couldn’t publicize, per academy rules.
But then, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is the kind of movie that doesn’t need much publicity. The film opened last week to stellar reviews and great business. Its $41 million weekend box office gross ranked as the highest in Tarantino’s career and the best weekend take of any original summer movie in two years.
The critical and commercial success, coupled with the strong academy turnout, suggests that “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is the year’s first surefire best picture Oscar nominee, which would make it the fourth Tarantino movie to earn that honor. (“Pulp Fiction,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” are the others.)
Academy members have always been partial to movies celebrating the film industry and, with Tarantino’s film, they have an entry that resonates on many levels.
“Once Upon a Time” tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is a past-his-peak actor relegated to guest spots playing heavies on TV crime shows and westerns. Cliff has worked as Rick’s stunt double for years, though he’s now mostly a gofer, driver and sounding board. Rick lives in Benedict Canyon on Cielo Drive. Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, are renting the house next door. It’s 1969.
As the film’s title implies, the movie functions as a fairy tale. It’s also a wistful elegy to a bygone era, a western in which Hollywood cowboys save the day and a pinpoint examination of a time in which guys like Rick and Cliff are about to be swept aside by a future they can’t comprehend. “Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time,” Mick Jagger sings as the film’s final act begins. Tarantino creates an edgy tension from that feeling, as the clock is ticking in so many ways.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” received a rapturous response when it premiered at Cannes in May. Shortly afterward, Sony hired veteran Oscar strategist Cynthia Swartz, who helped Marvel Studios secure its first best picture nomination last year for “Black Panther.” Swartz worked with Tarantino on his 1994 breakout “Pulp Fiction,” which received seven Oscar nominations and earned the filmmaker his first of two screenplay trophies. (Tarantino also won for writing “Django Unchained.”)
Swartz declined to comment for this story. But a source close to the studio, not authorized to speak on the record, outlined the particulars of the coming Oscar campaign, saying it would lean into the emotional response the movie engenders.
“When you know the story of Sharon Tate – and I would say just about every academy member does – the ending of this movie really hits you hard,” the studio source says. “You don’t expect to leave a Quentin Tarantino movie feeling so melancholy, and I think that emotion really affects people.”
The response to the film on social media indicates Swartz and her team might be on the right track. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro took to Twitter after seeing the movie at the New Beverly Cinema, the historic Los Angeles theater Tarantino owns and programs. Del Toro called “Once Upon a Time” beautifully crafted and poignant, full of yearning, a “tale of a time that probably never was, but still feels like a memory.”
Writer-director Ari Aster (“Midsommar,” “Hereditary”) called the film “achingly good.” “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz went one better, labeling it a “masterpiece.” Actor-writer Mindy Kaling, who joined the academy last year, liked it so much, she went twice over the weekend, tweeting Sunday: “Twice Upon a Time and ain’t got no regrets. I talk like Rick Dalton now you hippies.”
Screenwriter Paul Schrader, who earned the first Oscar nomination of his long career last year for “First Reformed,” gave a special shout-out to Pitt in a Facebook post, saying he had “entered the pantheon of American actors. By that I mean Grant, Clift and Newman not Brando or Dean.”
Whether Pitt will be campaigned as a lead or supporting actor is up to the actor, says the studio source. The preferred choice would be supporting, clearing the lead category for DiCaprio, who has more screen time. The lead actor race is shaping up as the year’s most competitive category, what with Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), Robert De Niro reuniting with Martin Scorsese in a mob movie (“The Irishman”) and a bevy of strong indie contenders like Adam Driver (“The Report”), Daniel Kaluuya (“Queen & Slim”) and Antonio Banderas (“Pain and Glory”).
DiCaprio’s performance in “Once Upon a Time” might have a special resonance with voters though. Playing an actor facing obsolescence is a circumstance that almost everyone in Hollywood faces, and DiCaprio trashing his trailer after blowing a scene while shooting a guest spot on the CBS western “Lancer” is a tour-de-force of self-flagellation.
“It’s just devastating,” says the studio source, working on the campaign. “We’ll be touting that scene throughout awards season.”
Beyond the best picture nomination and consideration for the actors (and how about a campaign for Julia Butters, playing the budding Method child actress costarring with Rick?), another original screenplay nomination for Tarantino (he did say he wanted to win four and have the category renamed “the Quentin”), as well as costume and production design nods seem assured. The film will also be competitive in the director, cinematography, editing and sound categories.
But it will also likely face obstacles. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” has already weathered small rumpuses about its brief portrayal of Bruce Lee, its violence toward women and, yes, even its depiction of hippies. And with Tarantino involved, you don’t have to smoke an acid-doused cigarette to imagine a future in which the sparks of another controversy engulf the film.
For now, though, everyone’s feeling as good as DiCaprio’s Rick, floating in a backyard swimming pool with a blender of margaritas in hand.
“This movie makes driving in Los Angeles look like a beautiful experience,” Hunter says, before going into the Goldwyn. “Who doesn’t want to bask in that fantasy?”