Once Upon A Time

Long before people walked into each other while looking at their phones, there were collisions on Hollywood Boulevard. On arguably the most famous street in America, pedestrians have an unfortunate habit of strolling along, then hitting the brakes without warning when they spot a name they idolise on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Thankfully, Neel Sodha of Downtown LA Walking Tours has developed a sixth sense for this very particular type of distraction, and as we walk westwards along the boulevard, he keeps me from bumping into anyone.

Over the months since the release of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Sodha has been busier than ever with visitors who want to come and see how much of the film exists in real life.

Before discussing the hazy depictions in the movie, the native Angelino seems determined to cram in as much of Hollywood’s factual history into our tour as possible. Starting in 1886 with the foundation of the new settlement near the Pacific Coast, he races through the various Golden Eras of film production, past the history of its famous sign (it was originally an ad for a real estate development) before finally getting to Tarantino’s semi-mythic account of Hollywood in 1969, set against the backdrop of the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Tarantino’s production was complex for a number of reasons, but perhaps its most ambitious shots come right at the start, with a sweeping drive along Hollywood Boulevard as it was 50 years ago. “It meant changing four whole blocks of the boulevard,” says Sodha, shepherding me out the way of two Puerto Rican fans trying to get a photo with Jennifer Lopez’s star. “Normally the city would reject that kind of thing because it’s so disruptive, but Mister Tarantino went down to the Chamber of Commerce in person and made a personal appeal. I think they appreciated that.”

Some of the film’s distinct look was achieved with CGI, but several old and sadly now defunct cinemas were revived or at least redressed for the film. There’s no more colourful an example than the Earl Carroll Theater which has remained the psychedelic Aquarius Theater since the shoot in 2018. It’s not currently operational, but its rainbow exterior has been deemed too pretty to whitewash. 

The film’s fingerprints are elsewhere, too, like in Chateau Marmont, the famously celebrity-friendly hotel on Sunset Boulevard that amplifies its own mythology with decadent post-Emmy and Oscar parties every year. Surprisingly, it isn’t featured in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but Tarantino is said to have moved up there for five weeks to write the bulk of the film. Some people claimed this was to channel the ghosts of greats who walked its august halls; others said his neighbours were having construction work done and he just needed to find somewhere quiet to write. 

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, the day following the walking tour, I visit the legendary Musso and Frank’s Grill. Like most places in Hollywood, it’s not slow to market itself. However, unlike many other establishments, this 100-year-old restaurant has some incontestably impressive credentials.

Many, if not most, of the names gilded onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame have eaten here at one time or another: there are anecdotes about visits from Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and, now, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. “Hollywood and Musso and Frank have a symbiotic history,” says manager Mark Echeverria when I corner him for five minutes during the restaurant’s ebullient centenary celebrations. “I would like to think that one wouldn’t still be here without the other.”

Echeverria is a fourth-generation custodian and great-grandson of one of the early owners of this unapologetically the old-fashioned Italian bar and restaurant. While the film industry can be notoriously fickle and fame finite, Musso and Frank’s offers a sense of permanence and class. Massive movie deals have been done here; others have doubtless fallen apart. The bar’s infamous martinis have probably caused as many collapses as they have congratulations and if these walls could talk, well, they’d almost certainly get sued.

It was inevitable that when trying to tell a classic Hollywood tale, Tarantino found himself here, as did his protagonists. Ordinarily, names like his – or Pitt or DiCaprio – would leave even experienced hosts star-struck, but in Musso and Frank’s there’s a far cooler air. In this restaurant, the master director is simply Quentin, a friend and regular customer, who dined and drank here long before he created this particular film. 

Still, the restaurant had to make an exception for the amount of filming, closing for five days to allow the team to shoot some of the movie’s opening scenes. Though it’s been on screen many times, it was the first time in a century that they shut for a picture.

“We did it for a few reasons,” explains Echeverria, pausing to say goodbye to an aunt leaving the party. After a big hug, he continues: “Quentin has been coming here for a very long time. There’s a mutual respect between him and us – we knew he was going to highlight the restaurant in the best way possible. We share his vision of what he wanted to do with the film, to tell the story of an older Hollywood. The fact he wanted us to be not just a set, but a character within the movie was important too.”

Echeverria tells me that since then, they’ve not really noticed a difference in footfall (it’s almost always busy anyway) but that they’ve certainly seen more sales of whisky sours and Bloody Marys, two of the many, many drinks enjoyed with abandon by DiCaprio’s dissolute lead. 

Unlike other Hollywood joints, Echeverria doesn’t expect there to now be a massive boost in tourists, despite its prominence within the film. “Around 85 percent of our customers are regular Angelinos,” he says. “LA is a city that evolves pretty fast, but there’s still a need for people to go somewhere that doesn’t change. Musso’s has always fit that niche.”

It may get the most screen time, but it’s not the only surviving restaurant featured in the film. A 20-minute cab ride away, Casa Vega has been open on Ventura Boulevard since 1956. Channelling my inner Rick Dalton, I take a seat at the bar and order a frozen margarita, the kind too frequently enjoyed by Tarantino’s lead man. 

It’s the middle of the afternoon, but in here it feels like it’s always night-time – there’s not a single window in the place, and only just enough light to pick out the table used by DiCaprio and Pitt.

While those particular actors may be long gone from here, The Industry never feels too far away. It’s hard not to eavesdrop in Tinsel Town, in part because people often talk so loudly, but also because if you listen in there’s a chance you’ll hear tales of fame and film. At Casa Vega’s bar, a histrionic man and a becalming woman take the stool next to me. “I’m worried they think I’m nothing more than a soap actor!” He cries. The lady, his agent and a sympathetic professional, reassures him that he’s much more than that. 

The line between imagination and reality blur in Hollywood all the time, just as they do in Tarantino’s epic, but when I visit El Coyote – the long-running Mexican restaurant where Sharon Tate and friends were fated to have her final meal – there’s a greater sense of authenticity. Dark tourists request to be sat in the same booth the victims were on that dreadful night in 1969, but most people are here to simply eat fistfuls of tortilla chips and chug yet more margaritas. 

The film’s fingerprints are still visible, though. At the reception, there are dozens of photos of celebrities who have eaten at El Coyote, including a signed headshot of “Your friend, Quentin Tarantino”. After a debilitatingly large burrito, and perhaps more booze too, I step back out into the warm Hollywood night to weigh up my options.

It’s almost midnight but a couple of blocks from here, the New Beverly cinema is still open. Once upon a time in Hollywood it was depicted as a porn theatre, spotted from a distance by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. In real life, things are less ambiguous. The name above the door reads Quentin Tarantino and the director’s cinema is showing just one film – his own.

A version of this piece was published in Virgin Atlantic in December 2019

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