This article contains major Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spoilers.
Joan Didion famously wrote in her 1979 collection of essays, The White Album, about the night Sharon Tate died.
“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969,” wrote Didion. “Ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
This is often the conventional wisdom about the era: Charles Manson’s so called Family brought an end to the Summer of Love, which also just happened to occur around the same time that the old Hollywood studio system finally collapsed, buried by its massive flops like Hello, Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon. Yet all these bad vibes tend to overlook the excitement of that era of transition, as well as the fact that Sharon Tate was more than the pregnant victim forced to beg for her child’s life. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not only a celebration of that era’s initially good vibrations, but also Quentin Tarantino’s most sophisticated rumination on movies, and the lives they can literally build up and destroy.
If you’re reading this, I can only assume you know the crux on which the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ending pivots. Taken aback by realizing that a TV star they all grew up with lives next door to the house they were targeting—the former residence of Terry Melcher, even though it was now the home of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha)—Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel decide to instead murder Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Little could they realize, however, that Rick’s stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and his adopted stunt dog were also staying there. Those two, along with eventually Rick, brutally kill the would-be murdering cultists.
This is obviously a wish fulfillment scenario not unlike seeing Adolf Hitler gunned down by Jewish men while the rest of the Third Reich is burned alive in a movie theater due to the action of a Jewish woman whose family was killed in the Holocaust. This is also quite similar to a former slave named Django taking out an entire Southern plantation on his own in Django Unchained. And yet, while both of those movies reveled in their historical revisionism, they were also primarily revenge fantasies that history denied us. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is something gentler and far more personal for Tarantino. Despite still ending in a bloodbath, it is quixotically Tarantino’s most sweetly intentioned movie.
When Rick Dalton strolls up that driveway with Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), it’s as much old school Hollywood fairy dust as Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in the closing shot of Casablanca. Yet the fairy tale this “Once Upon a Time” yarn is casting is more than just “wouldn’t it have been nice if Sharon Tate didn’t die?”
Working on several levels, the most obvious way to digest Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is as a love letter pastiche of late ‘60s Hollywood. Not unlike today, the industry was in a time of transition, except the square-jawed heroics of men like Rick Dalton in 1950s television Westerns were falling out of fashion (instead of reaching their zenith in caped and cowled descendants), and the genesis of New Hollywood was right around the corner. The changeover was already happening with counterculture movies like Easy Rider (1969) and The Graduate (1967). Notably Rick accuses one of Manson’s hippies of being Dennis Hopper, the star of the former, and Cliff Booth first lays eyes on “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley) to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a song written for The Graduate.
Cliff seems weary of the times changing given he is already a stuntman primarily out of work (deservedly so if he killed his wife), but more accepting of them than Rick who just cannot handle these hippies. He’s from a generation where starring in Westerns was a sure thing. By the end of the ‘60s though, it was primarily television work, and even then he was only getting cast as the villain of the week. Yet even if these were uncertain times for Rick and Cliff, they were vivacious for the industry which happily clang to counterculture and rock ‘n roll as the dinosaurs of the past, like Rick, died out. Thus Tarantino, who was only six-years-old in August of ’69, happily recaptures both sides of a Hollywood he barely knew beyond the films of his youth.
The clash between old and new, with both being celebrated, is found between how Rick’s waning star is contrasted with the rise of Sharon Tate’s effervescent one. It has already been well scrutinized that Sharon has few scenes and even fewer lines in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and this is not an unfounded criticism. For a movie that looks to rewrite the tragic fate of the young star, Tarantino’s picture does not give her much of a voice. However, she is clearly intended to be more than another character. She is presented as the spirit of ‘69 personified, and the idol of her age. Love it or hate it, Sharon is meant to embody the youthful power of this time period, which can too often be scolded into obscurity when juxtaposed with the Manson Family’s free love horror story.
More importantly though, Tarantino re-contextualizes Sharon as more than just the victim; she was a woman full of life and at the beginning of taking control of her career. Before she became a tragic figure and a symbol for gross internet conspiracy theorists, she was largely considered an enchanting presence her whole life, which is one of many reasons why Tate’s real-life sister has been so taken with this movie and Robbie’s performance. It gives her back her life. It also gives her that dawning sense of control over her destiny, which is crystallized when she decides to watch herself on the screen at a matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1968), an admittedly dippy James Bond knockoff starring Dean Martin. In that meta-funhouse of a film within a film, Robbie’s Tate watches the real-life Sharon engage some Bruce Lee-taught martial arts moves and be the butt of Martin’s unfunny jokes. Even so, Robbie’s Sharon is exhilarated by hearing the audience respond so well to the movie.
It is not hard to see that Tarantino sees a lot of himself in Rick Dalton, but it’s worth stressing he also sees himself in Sharon in this scene. In what might be one of the best meta uses of moviegoers-watch-moviegoers, the simple joy of moviemaking is expressed by Sharon’s infectious glee. Conversely, Rick Dalton is the fading has-been next door.
Theirs is the classic Hollywood fable. Ever since Hollywood discovered they could adapt the Svengali myth, throughout the decades it’s been a narrative told time and again by the studios, be it Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist, or literally every A Star is Born film, and the fourth one just got an Oscar last year. Tarantino is wading into traditional Hollywood legend about the aging star who gives his last bit of mansplaining radiance to the new, feminine supernova who is only beginning to glow. Yet Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not so cloying or on-the-nose in its variation.
Rick, thankfully, has no romance or even relationship with Sharon Tate. He is simply the envious neighbor who wishes he could attend the same Playboy parties she and the director of Rosemary’s Baby are invited to. In fact, the one scene where he accepts the mortality of his own career is among the best of the film, where he plays off a young child actor named Trudie (Julia Butters). She exemplifies, even more so than Tate, a future where he is totally irrelevant and his time is over. He cracks about her going through the same existential crisis by the time she’s 23, but the sad truth is that is fairly accurate of the standards by which Hollywood treats young women. She nonetheless forces him to recognize the reality another Tarantino character once uttered: “This profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine.”
Rick Dalton and Tarantino are now at the point in their careers where this tough love applies to them. Yet there is a lack of bitterness about it in Tarantino’s film. He does, after all, continue to claim he’ll retire after his next movie, and he knows the death of Rick’s world brought on the New Hollywood that Tarantino came of age in and devoured. That can be represented by Trudie and by Sharon as an innocent and joyous thing. As ultimately Tarantino’s most brooding and self-reflective movie, there is an acceptance that his time, as well as that for DiCaprio and Pitt star vehicles, is setting. That doesn’t mean it should be cut short any quicker than Sharon Tate’s journey.
Which brings us back to the very end. Cliff and Rick absolutely slaughter Tex (Austin Butler), Susan (Mikey Madisen Beaty), and Patricia (Madison Baily). The level of violence in the finale is meant to shock, and it does. After a fairly elegiac toast to times gone by, we return to the violence of Inglourious or Django. Also given Tarantino’s own besmirched history with Harvey Weinstein, the depiction of Pitt’s probable wife-killer beating Dunham’s Manson Girl to death will spark a thousand analyses. It is meant to provoke a pronounced reaction. That unto itself should make for an interesting dialogue since he used similarly exaggerated violence against Nazis and slave owners in recent films that were celebrated for their carnage—and these are women who did slaughter other men and women, one almost nine months pregnant. It seems to me Tarantino is trying to build a Gordian Knot for those eager to use the word “problematic.”
The violence though is not the point; the point is that for once, his giddy historical rewrite is not about the schadenfreude of seeing ostensible bad guys punished, but it is instead about creating a new world where the ‘60s did not end in violence and horror, and a woman’s life is not defined by how it ended.
Sharon Tate might not be the star of this movie, but her legacy is. And Tarantino restores to her the status of a face of the future, both in terms of Hollywood and pop culture at-large. If only for the purposes of a Tinseltown bedtime story, he is trying to move past the grisly death. She may have only a few scenes, but Charles Manson only has one, as the Boogeyman who first marked her for death (which did occur). The Manson Family has no discernable voice in this movie because Once Upon a Time deems them and Charles Manson’s cult of celebrity as being undeserving of a chance to make their case.
Meanwhile when Rick meets Sharon in the closing shot, we don’t see her face, but we do see his. He is completing the typical Hollywood fable of old star meeting new star, but it isn’t about one dying to help the other or anything so sordid; they can co-exist, the past and future. Unquestionably with history changed here, Rick can now theoretically enter the Hollywood upper-echelon that Polanski and Tate moved freely through in the ‘60s, and she can continue to be the spirit of ’69. One that spreads not “like a brushfire,” but the warmth felt by a storybook’s happy ending.