Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not an homage to the Hollywood of the ‘60s but rather a paean to masculinity using Hollywood as a foil. This fairy tale was created not to praise Hollywood but to censure it.
What drives the movie and constitutes its backbone is the contrast and interplay between two conceptions of what it is to be manly, the one embodied by the mostly Western genre actor Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the other by his stunt man Cliff (Brad Pitt). Rick has been playacting killers and tough guys most of his career. As such he is gritty and fearless and highly skilled in the manly art of self-defense. But, of course, because he is an actor, it is all just an act. The real Rick, the Rick not in front of the cameras, is insecure, and given to weeping, self-loathing and childishness. On the studio grounds he is at one point lectured on the responsibilities of the actor by an eight-year-old girl actor. Later, after doing a scene together, it is the little girl who feels the need to encourage this man much her senior by whispering in his ear, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen.”
Cliff, by contrast, is fundamentally NOT an actor. He is in movies as a stuntman but his role isn’t to act. It is to fall off roofs and horses and generally help Rick “carry the load,” as Cliff modestly sums up his job the first time we see him. Indeed, Cliff’s modesty, which is fundamentally a self-assurance and far removed from humility, is one of the prominent characteristics that go into defining what it is for Cliff to be manly. The others we will shortly see illustrated: he is confident and exceedingly capable, as exemplified in his genuine ability to defend himself against real threats; he has a pronounced sense of responsibility for his fellow man, even those only distantly related to him, as when he persists at the risk of his own life to enquire about the well being of George Spann; and he is an adult, which is to say mature, not one to give in to the sexual enticements of a girl child. These are some of the jewels in Cliff’s manly crown.
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DeCaprio portray two contrasting types of masculinity in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.