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The Art of the Casting Flex

Quentin Tarantino has always been known for putting big actors in bit parts, but ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ takes the practice to a new level. Here’s what it says about the director—and what other casting flexes say about his colleagues.

Ringer illustration

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio were starstruck. “Luke Perry!” DiCaprio exclaimed, deep into May’s daffy Esquire cover-story chat with Pitt and Quentin Tarantino to promote their new movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the great many famous people who would appear therein. “I remember my friend Vinny, who is in the film as well, we walked in, and we both had this butterfly moment of like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Luke Perry over there!’”

So: Brad Pitt, Leonard DiCaprio, and Vinny were starstruck. “‘That’s Luke fucking Perry!’” Pitt echoed. “We were like kids in the candy shop, because I remember going to the studios, and [Beverly Hills, 90210] was going on, and he was that icon of coolness for us as teenagers.”

Perry, of course, had died in March, at 52; Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood turned out to be his final film role, a perfect epitaph for an icon of coolness and a new pinnacle for the very notion of famous actors getting super psyched about hanging out with other famous actors. “It was this strange burst of excitement that I had, to be able to act with him,” Pitt enthused. “Man, he was so incredibly humble and amazing and absolutely committed. He couldn’t have been a more friendly, wonderful guy to spend time with. I got to sit down and have some wonderful conversations with him. It was really special.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an alluringly chill bromance, a vengeance-minded demystification of the Manson family, and a love letter to ’50s and ’60s Hollywood so painstakingly detailed (what with the billboards and marquees and radio stations and whatnot) that it basically functions as a Grand Theft Auto sequel you get to watch Pitt and DiCaprio play in real time. It is also, eventually, an ultraviolent spectacle so queasy that I winced when the rest of the people in my theater lustily cheered the late-game reappearance of, uh, the flamethrower. (It’s maybe the first movie I’ve ever seen in a theater that I kind of wish I hadn’t seen in a theater.)

But above and beyond all that, Tarantino’s ninth film is an ungodly brash Casting Flex, an Avengers-style battalion of marquee superstars for a modern age in which the real Avengers, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe from which they sprang, have both cultivated a new crop of marquee superstars and paradoxically rendered the very idea of a marquee superstar close to irrelevant. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a throwback within a throwback, one last triumph of pure star power over intellectual property, individual charisma over corporate-franchise might, who over what.

It’s a losing battle. Look at the Avengers: Endgame poster again. Look at it. Twelve legit stars ranging from moderately to extremely famous (plus a raccoon voiced by another extremely famous person), and at that point, half the people in the movie, including the super-famous ones, are still dead. That Endgame functions as a teary farewell to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is no accident; the MCU didn’t need him anymore, and doesn’t need any one person at all, having gobbled up so many Hollywood A-listers that they’ve all blurred gorgeously together. (Mahershala Ali is the latest young titan to be absorbed.) The colons and roman numerals in a marquee title are now more important than the marquee actors, the mask more important than the man, the character more important than the human playing that character, the cinematic universe more important than the beautiful bodies fueling it. (Yes, even the body that graced us with “America’s ass.”)

Whereas the initial poster for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood contented itself with flaunting perhaps the two biggest male movie stars of the past 30 years. Tarantino’s film expertly leverages both what Pitt and DiCaprio have in common (charisma beyond imagining, fame beyond enduring) and what sets their respective illustrious careers apart. (DiCaprio’s big moment as fading actor Rick Dalton comes when he freaks out after forgetting his lines; Pitt’s big moment as jocular stuntman Cliff Booth comes when he brutalizes three humans without freaking out in the slightest.) But Once Upon a Time is, from its first minute to its 161st, from its two megawatt leads to its humblest bit players, a tribute to star power in all its various wattages, a master class in casting as an art form every bit as vital as, well, acting.

There is Al Pacino, your first big surprise semi-cameo, as an oily producer channeling Mel Brooks in Spaceballs. (The highest possible compliment, so long as I’m alive.) There is Timothy Olyphant as the young-buck lead in a new TV Western, a fitting tribute given that in real life he toplined two of the best TV Westerns of all time. (The other one is Justified, friends.) There is the 83-year-old and immortal Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the dessicated owner of the Spahn Ranch where the Manson family hid in plain sight. (Dern reportedly replaced the late, great Burt Reynolds in the role; also, James Marsden was originally supposed to play, uh, Burt Reynolds.)

There is Damian Lewis, in a brief but vividly melancholy turn as marquee idol Steve McQueen. There are Margaret Qualley and Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning and Maya Hawke (she of Stranger Things) and Mikey Madison (she of Better Things) as various Manson Girls, the smoldering banes of Hollywood and all it stands for. There is virtual newcomer and actual 10-year-old Julia Butters, as the dead-serious child actor who almost steals the movie from everybody. There is, somewhere in there, Leonardo DiCaprio’s friend Vinny.

And finally, there is the movie’s actual third lead, Margot Robbie, as the bubbly and beautiful and doomed young starlet Sharon Tate, who has very little to do onscreen other than look bubbly and beautiful and doomed, except Once Upon a Time in the end reveals itself as Tarantino’s lurid and queasy and still somehow deeply sentimental attempt to protect her, to shield both Sharon Tate the woman and, more importantly, Sharon Tate the marquee starlet she was destined to be, and to remain.

It’s a metaphor, dude. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood luxuriates in every face that appears onscreen, from the ubiquitous to the relatively obscure, harnessing the star power of the actor to power the effortless mystique of the character. (Up to and including, yes, Luke fucking Perry as an iconically cool glowerer in a TV Western.) It is a celebration of the humans who appear in movies, even as the movies themselves have long ago entered an inhuman, or at least superhuman, era. We don’t get too many bona fide Casting Flexes these days. This movie might, in fact, be among the last. Take solace in the fact that it’s also among the best.

The difference between a true Casting Flex and a mere Movie Featuring a Bunch of Famous People is the difference, to be blunt, between George Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven and Sandra Bullock’s Ocean’s 8. Way back in 2001, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven was a bacchanal of matinee idolatry (Clooney! Pitt! Damon! Garcia! Cheadle! Gould! Topher Grace!) so comically overstuffed it could make an “introducing Julia Roberts” joke in the end credits. Everyone, no matter how meager his or her screen time, got a personality, which is to say a genuine character to play. Fast-forward to 2018 and Gary Ross’s quite disappointing Ocean’s 8, in which a cast nearly as fearsome (Bullock! Blanchett! Hathaway! Kaling! Rihanna!) settled for roles half as vivid, at best. The sum total of a second-billed Cate Blanchett’s character is [rides a motorcycle]. It’s a galling misuse of that year’s most fearsome cast; it’s the movie’s only truly memorable crime.

Take a quick spin through the past 30 years and pick your favorite, whether it’s Saving Private Ryan (Hanks, Damon, Giamatti, Danson, Diesel) or Boogie Nights (Wahlberg, Moore, Reynolds, Graham, Cheadle, and Philip Seymour Hoffman) or JFK (Costner, Bacon, Oldman, Spacek, Lemmon, Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, and like 12 more). The Departed is a casting peak for both Casting Flex maestro Martin Scorsese and The Movies as an institution, DiCaprio to Damon, Nicholson to Baldwin, Wahlberg to Sheen. As a pared-down quartet goes, American Hustle (Lawrence, Cooper, Adams, and Bale) might sneak off with the crown, or maybe something even weirder like Closer (Roberts, Portman, Owens, Law). You get the point; you glimpse the depth and appealing darkness of this particular rabbit hole.

These prestige plays have always been easier to distinguish from mere celebrity cattle calls, be they knuckleheaded action flicks (shout-out The Expendables) or even more knuckleheaded rom-coms (shout-out Valentine’s Day). The line between capital-C Cinema and mere quality trash barely exists these days, of course: I laughed when the Zombieland 2: Double Tap trailer led off with the fact that it stars four Academy Award nominees (Harrelson, Eisenberg, Breslin, and a victorious Emma Stone). But that movie, like the original Zombieland (and its famous shock cameo), knew what it wanted to be and delivered on that promise.

Tarantino remains, however, the premiere casting artiste of his generation, whether he’s restoring bygone idols to their deserved glory (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; Pam Grier in Jackie Brown) or mingling A-listers with team players. (Pitt and a newly ascendant Christoph Waltz carry much of the weight in Inglourious Basterds, but the far motlier crew of basterds are just as memorable.) Say what you will about The Hateful Eight as a (stupendously grueling) cinematic experience, but it’s another sort of Casting Flex entirely when your first teaser trailer teases not the quite impressive cast, but the characters, from “The Confederate” to “The Prisoner” to “The Mexican.”

But Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is another beast entirely, an easy take-my-money proposition simply by giving us the first feature-length face-off between Pitt and DiCaprio (shout-out Scorsese’s very weird 2015 short The Audition), but immediately surrounding them with big stars in tiny roles and stars-to-be in even tinier ones, plus a raft of sterling medium stars who can balloon to marquee size with a single line delivery. (“I never stood a chance,” sighs Lewis-as-McQueen.) The spectacle that powers a Quentin Tarantino film—the grisly violence, the pulverizing self-regard, the unparalleled period detail, aching hipness, the feet—constitutes, of course, a franchise all its own, a shaggier sort of cinematic universe arguably more important than any one star shining in it. But he specializes in movies greater than the sum of their parts that still honor the dignity and singularity of the parts themselves.

The alternate universe Tarantino sketches here ends with Sharon Tate still alive, snatched from the jaws of history and free now to flourish as a both a human and, well, a celebrity. God bless her, and, yes, sure, god bless QT for granting it to her, and us. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is not, at times, to put it mildly, a very nice movie, but it is tender and kind beyond imagining in allowing everyone onscreen to be both their best selves and the best movie-poster versions of themselves. Even Luke Perry. Even Vinny.