How the End of 'Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood' Reworks a Crucial Historical Moment
This piece contains major spoilers for the ending of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Quentin Tarantino loves a classic "what if?" scenario. What if a diamond heist went as wrong as it could possibly go? What if a bunch of Jewish American soldiers hatched a plot to murder Hitler? What if there was a retelling of Siegfried and Brunhilde, but set in the Antebellum South? Tarantino also loves to play: with genre, with character, with blood, and with the expectations of his audience. You may expect one thing, but what you're given is inevitably going to be a lot stranger. It's one of the many things that makes watching Tarantino's movies such a layered experience, and it's exactly what makes Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as good as it is.
The film, set in February and August of 1969, inches ever closer to the infamous murders of Sharon Tate and her friends on Cielo Drive perpetrated by three followers of Charles Manson's cult. At first, the movie doesn't have that much to do with Tate herself (played by Margot Robbie), choosing to focus more on Tarantino's fictional creations Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging star struggling to find the kind of work that makes him happy, and his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who spends his days driving his buddy around Los Angeles and fixing his TV antenna. Tate exists in liminal spaces, interwoven scenes, walking down a street to purchase a book, stopping by a movie theater to admire her own picture on the poster for The Wrecking Crew.
A significant amount of time is spent with Hollywood's version of Tate, though (and this has been a sticking point with a lot of fans) she really doesn't talk much. Instead, she's seen hanging out with friends, going about her errands, and sitting in a dark movie theater, feet -- it's a Tarantino movie -- propped on the seat back in front of her, listening delightedly to the rest of the audience laugh and cheer during her scenes. It's a representation of Tate the person, instead of an actor playing Tate the character. And it makes us love her, so that as the film nears its bloody end, we're dreading the inevitability of having to watch her die.
If you fall into that camp, I have great news for you. (This is your last spoiler warning.) The movie does indeed end with the murders of three people, but none of them are the people you might expect. Then again, if you've been asking around about the ending and maybe someone's told you to expect something like the history-warping inferno of Inglourious Basterds, you might be able to guess what Hollywood's heading towards. (Which may have been Tarantino's motivation behind sending out an open letter to Cannes Film Festival attendees this year, pleading against revealing any spoilers in their coverage.)
When we finally arrive at the night of August 8, 1969, we've watched Rick and Cliff fly back from their months-long stint making spaghetti westerns in Italy, readying themselves for a wild night before the two go their separate ways. Meanwhile, a very pregnant Sharon Tate and a few of her friends -- including two of the real murder victims, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) -- have been out to dinner and are settling in at the house on Cielo Drive to sleep off their drinks. Rick, who discovered a few months prior that he lived right next door to the Tate-Polanski rented residence, is chilling in his pool, and Cliff decides to indulge in an acid-dipped cigarette and walk his dog.
It's then that Tex (otherwise known as Tex Watson, played by Austin Butler) drives up with three Manson girls in his car, preparing to do the deed that "Charlie" bid them: kill everyone in the house on Cielo Drive that Manson's former friend used to live in, and make it "witchy." They thump up to the cul-de-sac, their car spewing fumes out of its exhaust pipe, and Rick immediately emerges from his house and shouts them down, telling them to take their loud car and get outta there or he'll call the police. Tex turns them around and slides back down the road, parking behind a hedge so they can chat.
The four of them quickly realize that the angry man was none other than Rick Dalton, former Bounty Law star, and one of the girls, Sadie -- interestingly, the Manson girls' names have been changed to Sadie (Mikey Madison), Katie (Madison Beaty), and Flower Child (Maya Hawke) -- suggests that they go to his house and murder him instead, after a long-winded stream-of-consciousness rant that boils down to, "TV stars taught us what blood and gore looks like, so let's mess them up for doing that."
Cliff has returned to the house and the acid is juuuust kicking in when the three Manson devotees arrive -- Maya Hawke's character has gotten cold feet and stolen their car. After a standoff during which Tex points his pistol at Cliff and Cliff points a finger gun back at Tex, Cliff uses his stuntman skills to wipe out all three of them, commanding his dog to clamp down on their arms and legs while he delivers the fatal blows. One of the girls manages to leap onto the backyard patio, where a shocked Rick finally does her in with a flamethrower he'd kept from a movie set.
Cliff, bloody but nowhere close to death, is taken to the hospital and Rick is spotted by Sebring, who chats with him about the crazy night through the driveway gate before Sharon, recognizing Rick's name, invites him up to the house for a drink. The Manson cult never made it to Polanski-Tate's doorsteps, never killed Sharon Tate, and, quite possibly, will never be heard from again.
In our version of reality, we know Sharon Tate as a Manson victim, the unwilling klaxon that signaled the end of the Summer of Love. But what if Tate never died? What if the wings of the Manson cult had been clipped right then and there, and it became nothing more than a bloody night where a far more devastating outcome had been narrowly avoided? What if Hollywood's decades-long Golden Age had never ended? It's remarkable, given the sudden scene of intense violence that it takes to get there, how funny and tender the very end of the movie actually is. Tarantino has always had a presence in all of his movies, whether its his distinct auteur style or actually putting himself in them through a small part, but it hasn't been until Hollywood that he's made something that feels this personal. Tarantino clearly loves this era of moviemaking; its tropes and influences are all over pretty much everything he's ever made. But never before has he put himself right inside, his affection fierce enough to attempt the futile task of changing history to save some small part of it.