A Theory About What’s Actually Happening In The Controversial Ending Of ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’

Cultural Critic


Before we begin, a few disclaimers.

Disclaimer no. 1: If you haven’t seen Once Upon A Time In Hollywood yet, stop reading. What follows is one long spoiler. Why did you click on a post that had the words “ending” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” in the headline in the first place? Go see the movie already and then come back.

Disclaimer no. 2: There might not be a worse sentence to see on the internet than “I have a theory about a Quentin Tarantino movie.” This is not an attempt to “solve” Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I am not suggesting that Quentin Tarantino necessarily intended any of this. I’m just saying that this is how I have chosen to interpret the movie. This interpretation has added to my enjoyment of the film, and I hope it does the same for you. If it doesn’t, by all means laugh it off and never think of it again. If it does add to your enjoyment, however, make sure to give me credit.

And … away we go.

Like a lot of people I know, I saw Once Upon A Time In Hollywood multiple times this weekend. I will likely see it again in the next week or so. The first time I saw it, I mostly liked it, but I left feeling a little unsatisfied. The second time, I flat-out loved it. This is not unusual for a Tarantino movie. But the pivotal difference between these viewings is that I perceived the ending of the movie a little differently the second time around.

As we all know — again, if you haven’t seen the movie, scram — Once Upon A Time ends with three members of the Manson Family invading the home of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and being viciously murdered by Rick and his loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The most spectacular death occurs in Rick’s swimming pool, when one of the hippie girls is incinerated by the same flame-thrower than Rick used in The 14 Fists of McClusky.

The first time I saw the movie, the audience cheered when Rick walked out with that flame thrower. As for me … I wasn’t so sure. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a movie about obsolescence brought on by middle age and the passing of the generational torch. It’s also about male friendship, a near-romantic coupling between a movie star and his gopher who is “more than a brother, but less than a wife.” The movie hinges largely on the easygoing chemistry between DiCaprio and Pitt, and Tarantino’s empathy for people (and the culture they represent) who can see themselves fade from the world in real-time, like Michael J. Fox starring at his disappearing hand in Back To The Future. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a charming, effervescent presence. But she’s kept mostly at arm’s length as a symbol of the forces that are putting these guys out to pasture.

Some critics have questioned why Tarantino chose to juxtapose this story of two fictional late-’60s show-biz lifers against the real-life Manson murders. Manson’s significance as an “end of the innocence” signpost for the ’60s is self-evident. And revisionist takes on historical tragedies are now part of Tarantino’s brand. But was inserting Manson in the mix really necessary?

As I watched Once Upon A Time In Hollywood for the first time, the ending didn’t quite land for me. This violent, unexpectedly comic climax felt incongruous with the meandering, melancholic movie that proceeded it. Tarantino seemed headed in a more thoughtful and less happy — is “happy” the right word? — direction. Before the Manson Family shows up, we see that Rick and Cliff have been set adrift as the 1970s loom. Rick will have to sell his house in the Hollywood Hills, and Cliff will be cut loose, without even his modest employment as Rick’s handler to keep him occupied and financially supported. It’s suggested that their friendship will also end, as most friendships do when two people are no longer in same proximity.

But then the Manson Family shows up and suddenly … everything seems better? Rick and Cliff get to feel useful again by dispatching with these dirty hippies. And then Rick, incredibly, sees a wish expressed at the start of the movie fulfilled: He’s invited to the Polanski residence for a meet-and-greet with rising star Sharon Tate. Surely, a career renaissance (perhaps a la old cowboy actor Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show) is just around the corner.

I didn’t hate that ending. But it was definitely the part of the movie I liked the least the first time I saw it. But then I watched Once Upon A Time In Hollywood a second time, and I saw the ending in a different light. And it made me love the movie unequivocally.

This time, I remembered Cliff’s acid cigarette.

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