If you have not seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and want to have an unspoiled experience, stop reading this now. However, if, like us, you have seen the film and found yourself reeling with complicated feelings and questions about the ending of the movie, please continue.
To be very clear, there are major, extreme spoilers ahead.
Though “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is made with a loving and exacting attention to period detail and the cultural ephemera of locations, movie posters, radio ads, cars, clothes and the like, Tarantino boldly turns history on its head. He disregards the truth of what happened to Sharon Tate to tell a different story.
In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, who was the star of a Western television series in the 1950s and early 1960s, but by the time of the movie in 1969 has seen his career diminish into a series of unfulfilling guest roles. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s longtime stunt double, friend, driver and general aide-de-camp. Where Rick expresses anxiety about his career and position in Hollywood, Cliff has largely resigned himself to the fact that his best days are behind him.
Margot Robbie plays Tate, an actress with a promising career on the rise, wife of director Roman Polanski and Rick’s next door neighbor on Cielo Drive. Lurking at the edges of the story are Charles Manson and his followers, living in Chatsworth at the dilapidated Spahn Movie Ranch.
On the fateful night of Aug. 8, 1969, four members of the Manson family arrive at Cielo Drive, planning to invade the Polanski-Tate home. They are sidetracked by an encounter with Rick in the street and eventually three of them make their way into the Dalton house instead. Cliff brutally fights them off, assisted by his dog, Brandy, and eventually Rick attacks one of them with a flamethrower, a prop from an old movie. Sharon is not murdered at home as she was in real life, but rather invites Rick inside for a drink after the mayhem.
To make sense of the ways that fact and fiction collide in the story and what it might mean, I sat down with my colleagues Kenneth Turan, Julia Turner, Jen Yamato and Justin Chang to work it all out. You can also hear more of this conversation about “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” on the L.A. Times entertainment podcast, “The Reel.”
Mark Olsen: Quentin Tarantino has done this sort of historical revisionism before, most famously in “Inglourious Basterds” where Adolf Hitler was shot in the face. There it felt cathartic, thrilling and a little subversive. Here, is there something different about the idea of saving Sharon versus the idea of killing Hitler?
Kenneth Turan: To me, it’s not that different actually. They’re both messing with history, they’re both changing history to a way that suits Tarantino. And in this case I think he wanted a sweeter ending. He didn’t want to have this very warm film and end it with a terrible scene of people we’ve come to like being massacred. And it’s his choice. I don’t know if I would’ve done the same thing in his shoes, but he makes the movie, he makes the choice. So I was not offended. I was not troubled. To me, messing with the life and death of Hitler is a bigger deal than messing with the life and death of Sharon Tate.
Jen Yamato: Do you think that’s the point of this movie? Could there have been a version of the story that Tarantino would tell where he doesn’t revise history?
Julia Turner: What does it mean? Why would Tarantino go back in time to save Sharon Tate, what is he saying with that? The difference in stakes that you flag, Kenny, between messing with Hitler and just saving the life of this one beautiful actress — who knows what her career might have amounted to or not amounted to – whose death happened to be particularly resonant at this particular moment in L.A. history. What is that about?
Turan: You can see it in the way she is portrayed in the film. She’s just like a classic blond goddess, especially in that scene with the white go-go boots and she goes to the [movie] theater. This is a fairy tale. It’s just a fantasy. This has “once upon a time” in the title, and I think this is the amalgam of all the women that Quentin Tarantino fell in love with onscreen when he was a little kid and he wants to save them. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them.
Yamato: Save the princess.
Justin Chang: The damsel in distress. It is interesting because the satisfaction, that kick you get from “Inglourious Basterds” with wiping out Hitler and the Third Reich or from “Django Unchained” where Jamie Foxx basically shoots up a plantation, those are largely about destroying something. Obviously salvation comes out of that, but it’s really about the pleasure of the violence. And you know Tarantino got a lot of flak for that as well as a lot of applause. And here the salvation element is just so much more personal and piercing and poignant.
But I think there’s a double edge to it, because the reason I found the ending so moving is it doesn’t compound the tragedy, but it reminds you of the tragedy. It’s like he’s able to have it both ways when he does this. He’s able to use the cinema, Tarantino is devoted to the cinema, he blows up a movie theater in “Inglourious Basterds,” so the cinema is actually what saves history or achieves this astonishing reversal. And here it is also the cinema, there’s this actor and his stunt double, these kind of nobodies who basically save Sharon Tate and destroy the Manson family, so I think there’s something where the screen provides this salvation, this immortality that real life of course sadly cannot.
Turner: The thing I loved about the way he does it in this film is that we really spend a lot of time in the hours that lead up to this final scene, and they are hours, exploring movie magic, like what is the craft that makes cinema so magical, that makes movies so magical. We get those resonant moments with Margot Robbie’s performance, with Leo DiCaprio’s performance where we get to see the sweat, the anxiety, the insecurity, the pride that actors take in performance, we really marinate in what it is to be an actor in a way that I haven’t really seen a ton onscreen. And then of course we’ve got Brad Pitt, the blessed golden magic boy who is the stuntman. He is the movie magic, he’s the thing that makes film be able to achieve the impossible, and he becomes our cowboy and he swaggers into Spahn Ranch and has his western-style showdown with the family prior to this climactic ending, and then it’s Brad Pitt, Mr. Movie Magic himself, and the magical prop from “The 14 Fists of McCluskey.” And it is movie magic itself that saves the day. There’s some way in which the wistfulness, the longing of the idea that cinema could really have that power, is part of what makes then the movie so powerful to me.
Chang: And then the ending, the actual last scene where the punchline or the upshot is Rick gets invited up to the Polanski-Tate house and presumably the beginning of a beautiful friendship and maybe even the beginning of a professional collaboration. So it’s as if Cliff Booth is shunted off to the side and the lead, the hero, now takes his place.
Yamato: Like he’s no longer relying on the support of Cliff, who is a figure of a different kind of hyper-masculinity than he is. And I think there’s a reading also where you can see the kind of man, the very macho, western hero that Rick was known for playing is now becoming more and more obsolete, which he’s feeling to his core as he sees what’s happening to his career. And he doesn’t want to go off and make spaghetti westerns but because he does and that’s a genre which Tarantino, we know he loves so purely, spaghetti westerns save Rick Dalton and therefore Rick Dalton and Co. are able to save Sharon Tate.
Olsen: I feel like part of what’s happening in that coda moment when Rick Dalton meets Jay Sebring, played by Emile Hirsch, and Sharon and is invited up to the house for a drink, to me it’s a reconciliation of the anxiety that Rick has had through the whole movie regarding young people, hippies, the future, in a way. And so he’s suddenly feeling better about himself and that farewell moment with Cliff sort of releases Rick to then go off and become a part of this next generation by joining Jay and Sharon and maybe be in a movie for Roman. And there is something really beautiful in that.
Turan: One of the leitmotifs in the film is that everybody knows who Rick Dalton is. He’s anxious, he worries about himself, but almost everyone they run into knows him and he gets a lot of validation. And I think one of the things that’s happening is that, again, this is a very personal film for Tarantino, and he’s saying basically this stuff I liked as a kid that no one liked, this is the important stuff, everyone knows and loves this stuff. You know the schlocky TV westerns that everyone dumped on, this was the great stuff. This is the stuff that saves the world.
Chang: Earlier in the film with Dakota Fanning’s character at the Spahn Movie Ranch, playing one of the Manson clan, she says, “We watch ‘The FBI.’ That’s what George and I do.” I’m very loosely paraphrasing. And later Tex Watson and the others are talking and one of the [Manson] girls says, ‘Hey guys, you know that’s Rick Dalton.’ And they start spouting this kind of encyclopedic knowledge, talking like Tarantino characters which is a thing that I’ve seen him do in his movies a lot where people always turn out to be way more cine-literate than they are. And that is kind of a utopian expression of the world Tarantino wishes we lived in where everyone is just spouting references 24/7.
Turner: And so that brings me back to my fundamental question of how should we feel morally about the idea of Quentin Tarantino reducing Sharon Tate to a princess who can be saved by the derring-do of his cinephilia and cinematic expertise. Is that an OK thing to do with the Sharon Tate story?
Olsen: One thing that I’ve been grappling with regarding the ending is not so much the idea of saving Sharon as much as the idea of defeating the Manson family. So many cultural depictions — Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album” being the No. 1 example of this — see the Manson family as this inevitable end to the 1960s. And so with Rick and Cliff being these guys we are feeling their time is done, it’s as if they’re fighting back the future when they defeat the Manson family. But I can’t help but keep wondering if for Tarantino in some way, and I know how this is going to sound, is the Manson family Netflix, is the Manson family everything that Tarantino doesn’t like about the modern age and where this industry is now? And so he’s going to go ahead and just set it on fire with a flamethrower.
Turner: I’m going to have to marinate on that, but to me what the Manson family represent in this film is the unruliness of narrative. They are not good versus evil and evil gets vanquished. They’re not even evil wins and evil makes sense. The thing that’s so destabilizing is that they’re an evil that although they’ve been narrativized and we like reading about the story because it is fascinating, it’s unruly, it feels unsafe. It is outside the constraints of white hat and black hat on the open plain and to me that uncertainty, that unruliness of the future — I mean maybe I’m talking myself into agreeing with you.
Olsen: And it doesn’t have to be Netflix specifically, but just the idea of modernity and the industry of today in relation to everything that Hollywood of 1969 may represent. I’m just grappling with the idea of what it means to have made this kind of nostalgia piece and what is its relationship to the future that we know is coming.
Turan: It may have no relation at all. I think it’s fascinating to spin these theories, but it doesn’t maybe even matter what’s on Tarantino’s mind because they exist in and of themselves and they’re fun to spin. But I think he’s not thinking these deep thoughts about the state of the industry. He likes these kind of stories and he’s feeling warm toward these characters and he kind of wants everything to work out OK in this film. And he made it work out OK.
Chang: When this movie was first announced and when they first announced Margot Robbie would be playing Sharon Tate, the outrage machine just kicked in immediately from there. People were sort of extrapolating based on Tarantino’s dubious record with depictions of violence and violence against women. The great kind of delight and surprise of this movie is that the treatment of Sharon Tate’s character, that I was dreading the most and expecting to cringe at, was actually to me the most exquisitely moving gesture about it.