While very much a buddy movie, thrilling potboiler and rambling revisionist period piece, at its core Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a modern(ish) urban fairy tale with its focus squarely on one man: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). We know as much since the start of the film is a 2 minute slow pan-out on Rick’s illustrated face as it appears on a movie poster for Comanche Uprising. The facial features are somewhat contorted indicating pain or discomfort and the scene is shot in deep hues of crimson.
We see this same image at various intervals throughout the film as it’s plastered on what looks like a mini billboard in the driveway of Rick’s Hollywood home, conveniently located (for this story at least) on Cielo Drive. Whether this was a common prop used by egocentric actors of the time and why Rick would want this particular image to greet him each time his yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville ambles up the drive is a mystery, but in the context of story, it seems clear that the image is alluding to the state of Rick’s career at the start of the movie.
Although cropped to feature solely his head and tilted 90 degrees anti-clockwise in an attempt to create a more courageous pose, the image as seen on the full poster is of Rick’s head pinned to the ground by a ‘savage’ Indian’s foot. The artwork is a direct homage to the 1966 film poster for Navajo Joe, starring Burt Reynolds and illustrated by the legendary Renato Casaro, with changes made from the original that pits Indians as the villainous replacements for Mexican bandits and what looks like a Comanche Indian’s deer-skinned moccasin in place of a cowboy boot.
A look through the various fake movie posters created specifically for the film by artists Steven Chorney, Martin Duhovic and the aforementioned Renato Casaro show Rick Dalton striking far more heroic and domineering poses in fictional films such as Operazione Dyn-o-mite!, Tanner and Nebraska Jim, so it’s telling that the image we keep returning to is that of Rick ‘under the cosh’ as it were.
While the film charts the LA wanderings of Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in the wake of a dark chapter in Hollywood history (although Tarantino plays fast and loose with events), it’s Rick’s career crisis that is the fulcrum from which the story pivots and revolves. Just as Sharon Tate’s star is on the rise when we first meet her in 1969, Dalton’s is edging closer to an abyss of anonymity which every actor fears, full of bit-part roles offered as bitter consolation for ‘time served’ and from where there is seemingly no return.
Yes, the driveway billboard could have nostalgic value to Rick – a constant reminder of better days at the zenith of his celebrity status – but it seems far more likely its placement is an effective narrative ploy, reminding both the viewer and our ‘hero’ that in Hollywood, nobody stays on top forever.
Read more about the fake posters created for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood here: