'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Gives Showbiz Much-Needed Summer Fairy Tale

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July 29, 2019

What does a movie need to do to stand out in an age of super-sized sequels, digitized warthogs, and apocalyptic headlines for the film industry?

Turning to two of the biggest movie stars on the planet is a good place to start.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt helped deliver Quentin Tarantino the biggest opening of his career over the weekend, as "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" debuted to $40 million at the domestic box office.

The movie follows the fading TV star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stuntman/driver/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Pitt) as they drive their way through 1969 Los Angeles, navigating a city and an industry on the precipice of generational and societal upheaval.

At the same time, Tarantino stays hot on the trail of Charles Manson and his "family" of impressionable young hippies, as they set their sights on director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate (played by Rafal Zawierucha and Margot Robbie) as the looming historical horror of August 1969 creeps in on Pitt's and DiCaprio's buddy comedy.

Much will be and has already been written about the movie's controversial ending, but for a director who's already set Adolf Hitler aflame in a French movie theater and put an Antebellum slave on the winning end of one of the decade's bloodiest big-screen shootouts, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Tarantino views historical accuracy as mere suggestion.

But "Once Upon a Time" includes a twist even more shocking than its already divisive ending: The age of the movie star is still very much alive.

Today, audiences rarely descend on theaters based on star-power alone. In 2019, top billing is almost always reserved for the intellectual property; audiences come to see Spider-Man and stay to meet Tom Holland, the living, breathing actor behind the web slinging. The same applies to the rest of the familiar source material advertised on marquees around the world: "Men In Black," "X-Men," "Mister Rogers," and even "The Lion King," (sure Beyonce helped attract the massive stampedes of moviegoers, but Simba and Nala had just as big of a pull.)

But casting the two signature A-listers of a generation alongside one another proved high-wattage enough to give the summer box office a much-needed boost. It's even more impressive considering the movie faced two significant roadblocks: its runtime (almost three hours) and rating (R — it is Tarantino, after all.)

But any naysayers who feared audiences would rather spend their summer days in the sun with their children have clearly never had to resist the pull of Brad Pitt standing shirtless on a roof overlooking the Hollywood Hills (as he is sure to remain in meme immortality.)

You wouldn't expect this year's newest and freshest script to be about the industry's bygone glory days — but Hollywood is a town of fairy tale logic and contradiction. Despite its better-than-expected opening haul, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" still opened at No. 2, failing to beat Disney's "The Lion King" as it inched closer to the billion-dollar club in just its second weekend in theaters. (Thanks to "The Lion King," Disney just set the global box office's all-time record for ticket sales in a single year — and it's only July.)

Bob Iger and Co. won't be slowing down anytime soon, with sequels to "Frozen," "Maleficent," and "Star Wars" all due out before the end of the year. But in a year that's seen Disney push box-office dominance to newer heights every week, it's refreshing to know that not even the most cynical moviegoers are immune to Hollywood's oldest charms and newest stories.