The following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Please go see the movie before you read this. It’s literally about the ending, sooo… Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Quentin Tarantino’s last four movies, encompassing 10 years of movie making, have all been historical dramas that rewrite elements of history. Tarantino often says his characters never actually existed, but if they had, this is how history would have gone. That’s how you get an ending like Inglourious Basterds, in which *spoilers for a 10 year old movie* the Basterds and Shoshanna Dreyfus, independent of each other, kill Hitler and the whole Third Reich top brass. It’s a shocking ending for history buffs, but a fitting end to the movie at hand.
LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SPOILERS
With Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the entire movie is spent building up to the inevitable event–the true event–of members of the Manson Family murdering Sharon Tate, her unborn child, Jay Sebring, and their friends others. This really happened. Those people actually died and the murder changed history forever. And Tarantino knows this; he meticulously recreates moments and events from the last days and hours of Tate’s life. He clearly understands the facts, and then he chooses to upend them.
But I have a theory. Obviously this is just my own interpretation of the events in the final act of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. You can choose to believe or not believe this, because like all good art, it’s up for debate. We spend most of the movie with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) living their semi-loserly lives, and yet the end of the movie suddenly has everything turning out perfectly for them. Absurdly, unfathomably perfect. Not only didn’t it happen in real life, it barely makes sense to happen within the context of the movie. And that’s the point. It didn’t.
Earlier on in the movie Cliff has a memory of why he got fired off of the set of The Green Hornet. In the context of that scene, he picked a fight with Bruce Lee and would have probably beaten him if not for the intervening of Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell. So Cliff remembers this with a chuckle, as he does menial labor fixing his boss’ TV antenna. This is his twisted recollection of an event that probably didn’t happen. He’s glorified it in his own mind to such a degree that it’s laughable.
So that brings us to the ending. Cliff and Rick drink themselves silly at Casa Vega. Once home, Rick makes more drinks while Cliff smokes an acid-laced cigarette and walks his dog. Should we take any of the next things that happen as literal in the context of the movie? Do we really believe the Manson Family would stop to talk about recognizing Rick Dalton on the night they intend to kill whoever’s living in Terry Melcher’s old house. But instead they go try to kill Rick Dalton and get slaughtered by Cliff.
It’s one of the most insanely violent scenes in all of Tarantino’s cinema; even more so because the movie up to that point had been so light on violence. For a Tarantino movie, anyway. And it’s not fun to watch Cliff beat young women to death, but the reality wasn’t “fun” either. Watching Cliff’s dog tear the movie’s version of Susan Atkins to shreds before Rick blasts her with the flamethrower he just has lying around from a movie he made is over-the-top. And indeed so over-the-top that we can’t take it seriously.
After the carnage, Cliff is a hero. He saved his best friend and only received a leg wound in the process. Rick then gets to meet Jay Sebring–who of course knows who he is, and is a fan–and then Sharon Tate invites Rick up for a drink, at 1:00am, and she welcomes him with open arms. This isn’t just a dream of what might have happened, it’s Rick Dalton‘s dream of what might have happened. He’s as far on the outs as he could get; after four films in Europe, he barely has enough money to keep his home for a few more months. And yet by the end it seems the cool kids welcome him into the club; their life of extravagance and privilege he fetishizes since the beginning.
The camera then cranes up to the night sky as this very swoopy font write out the film’s title. It’s a fairy tale. It might be an idealized version of the Hollywood from Tarantino’s youth, but it’s also a troubling look at the fantasies of mediocre white men passed their prime. Cliff is a complete psychopath, Rick a washed-up loser. In their own minds, they’re the heroes of all time. They averted a history, saved several innocent people from grisly fates, made the name “Charles Manson” totally irrelevant, and got to live out their greatest dreams in the process.
As presented, it definitely seems like we’re watching another classic QT historical re-write, so much else of the movie feels so real, so slice-of-life, it can’t be a coincidence how insane the ending is. It makes the real life events even sadder, somehow. History marched on. Those events occurred and live in infamy. They terrified a generation of people. The only way Sharon Tate could have lived the happy life she should have is if it happened once upon a time.