SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains massive spoilers about the ending of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. If you have not yet seen the film, proceed at your own risk!
While Quentin Tarantino’s early career primarily centered on contemporary crime movies, his more recent work has been much more about rewriting history. It began when he brought the Nazis down in his own way with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and since then has also explored slavery in the Deep South with Django Unchained, and the period following the Civil War in The Hateful Eight. His most recent work, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, is yet another example of this trend, as the film’s ending proposes the existence of another universe where Sharon Tate and her friends weren’t murdered by members of the Manson Family.
The chaos that unfolds in the third act of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is very closely based on the actual events that occurred in our reality, but Quentin Tarantino operates as a revisionist with the film by factoring in two new key players: aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). In this feature, we’ll dive deep into the ending that plays out in the movie, what happened in real life, and why Tarantino decided he wanted to tell his version of the story. So let’s dive into it, shall we?
What Happens At The End Of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a rare film that very clearly establishes the beginning of its end, namely by picking up with its main characters following a six month time jump from early February 1969 to August 8, 1969 – a day very familiar to true crime aficionados who have researched the Manson Family.
Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, along with Rick’s new wife Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo), fly back from Italy following a successful run of film productions that kept the duo busier than they’d been in a long time. While they are still the best of friends, they have also come to an understanding together that their partnership must come to an end, and that they have to go their separate ways.
Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who is now very pregnant, spends her day with her two houseguests – Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) and Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) – as well as her ex/best friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) while her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), is out of town. At night they go out for dinner at the Mexican restaurant El Coyote, though it’s not a long evening given that Sharon experiences some pregnancy-induced melancholy, and discomfort due to the hot weather.
After getting back to the house from the airport, picking up Cliff’s dog Brandy, and putting Francesca to bed to due to jetlag, Rick and Cliff also head out to a Mexican restaurant, though they choose Casa Vega, a good distance away from where Sharon is having dinner. Recognizing that it’s their last big night out together, the two friends drink heavily, and wind up taking a taxi to get back to Rick’s house on Cielo Drive.
Around 10pm, Sharon and her group make it back to her place next door to Rick’s, where the Wrecking Crew actress hangs out with her guests for a while, listening to Abigail play the piano and sing before changing to get more comfortable. It’s around the time that they all start getting settled for the night – around 11:45pm – that Rick and Cliff arrive home from Casa Vega.
Settling in, Rick decides to keep the drinking binge going by preparing some frozen margaritas, but Cliff opts to go in a more trippy direction. As the stuntman prepares to take Brandy out for a walk, he rediscovers the acid-dipped cigarette he had purchased a few months prior, and decides to give it a whirl.
As Cliff and Brandy head away from the house and down the road, trouble starts. Four members of the Manson Family – Tex (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison), Katie (Madisen Beaty), and Flowerchild (Maya Hawke) – pass him and pull into the cul-de-sac, and it’s their intention, on orders from cult leader Charlie Manson, to invade the house owned by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and kill everyone inside. This plan is disrupted, however, when Rick experiences a fit of rage hearing their junker car idle outside.
After Rick goes outside and thoroughly screams at them to leave his neighborhood, Tex drives away and parks down at the base of the hilly Cielo Drive, and it’s there that the entire mission changes. Katie realizes that the man who was screaming at them is former Bounty Law star Rick Dalton, and the would-be killers are inspired to act on a fresh idea: murder the television stars whose violent actions on-screen taught them to be violent. This new goal in mind, they start to head back to Rick’s house on foot – though they wind up being abandoned by Flowerchild as she gets cold feet and tricks Tex into giving her the car keys.
It’s at this time that Once Upon A Time In Hollywood reaches its big climax. Extremely high, Cliff beats the killers back to the house, and while Rick relaxes on a raft in the pool listening to headphones, he takes out some dog food to feed Brandy. It’s at this time that the trio busts in through the doors… though Cliff isn’t entirely sure what to make of the situation given the dose of LSD he took. Francesca is brought out to the living room by Katie, and things look dire.
When the situation reaches a fever pitch, and Tex is prepared to shoot Cliff in the face, the stuntman clicks his tongue and gets Brandy to launch at the gunman, first biting his arm, then his leg, and then his crotch. Chaos ensues as Cliff, Brandy, and Francesca fight the home invaders, and both Tex and Katie are killed – the former with a boot to the face, and the latter by getting her head slammed into multiple hard surfaces.
Eventually Sadie is the lone survivor, though her face is crushed due to a can of dog food, and her body is torn apart by Brandy’s bites. She gets away from the canine by grabbing Tex’s gun and firing a shot in the air (causing Cliff to pass out), but she then runs screaming into the house’s glass sliding door leading to the pool. Rick, totally oblivious to the madness that’s been unfolding, is startled to see Sadie, who screams while falling into the pool still holding the gun. His response is to get out of the pool, grab the flamethrower he got from the set of The 14 Fists of McCluskey, and kill her with fire.
The authorities are called, Cliff is taken to the hospital for a stab wound, and eventually Rick is left alone in his driveway. Having heard all of the ruckus, Jay Sebring walks down the driveway from Sharon’s house and asks about what happened, leading Rick to quickly recount the events of the night. Sharon buzzes in through an intercom to check on things, and is relieved to hear that everything is okay. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood then ends with Rick being given the chance he’s been waiting for, invited by Sharon to go up to her house.
It’s a very happy and exciting ending… though sadly also very different than what happened in real life.
What Really Happened To Sharon Tate
Both Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are loosely based on an amalgam of various figures from the era in which Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is set, but sadly they are fictional in all of the ways that matter in regards to the true story that the film is based on. The real Sharon Tate didn’t have neighbors that interceded when the Manson Family killers arrived in front of her house, and the real events are extremely tragic.
As alluded to early in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood when Charles Manson himself (Damon Herriman) visits the Polanski/Tate household, and later in the film when discussed by Tex in the car, the cult leader targeted the residence because it had previously belonged to record producer Terry Melcher, who had apparently insulted Manson when he was trying to get into the music business. Manson knew that Melcher no longer lived at the Cielo Drive home, but wanted everyone inside killed.
Tex, Sadie, Katie, and Flowerchild are based on Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian, who were the cult members that attacked Sharon Tate and her houseguests in the early hours of August 9, 1969. As seen in the movie, Tate was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and had spent the night out with Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, and Abigail Folger at the El Coyote restaurant. They arrived back at Cielo Drive after 10pm, and it was about two hours later that they were attacked.
The only disruption during the murders was when 18-year-old Steven Parent was driving away from a neighbor’s house as the killers were approaching their target. Watson had Parent step out of his car at gunpoint, and after slashing at him with a knife Watson then shot him four times in the chest, killing him.
Somewhat similar to the actions taken by Flowerchild in the film, Linda Kasabian wasn’t actually in the house when the Tate murders occurred – instructed by Watson to wait by the car. Losing her nerve after hearing horrific screams, she tried to run up the hill and stop the other cult members, and wound up witnessing Watson kill Frykowski as the houseguest tried to escape out the front door. Kasabian later testified that she ran back to the car and considered driving away, but didn’t due to concerns for her young daughter, who was with the rest of the Manson Family at Spahn Ranch.
Multiple lines of dialogue in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood are based on details from reports about the Tate murders, such as Charles Manson’s request to add “something witchy” to the crime scene, and Tex introducing himself by saying “I'm the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's business.”
The crime scene was discovered the next day by a housekeeper, and the LAPD arrested Charles Manson and 25 others on August 16 during a raid on Spahn Ranch. They were all quickly let go due to a misdated warrant, but a few months later, on December 1, 1969, Tex Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel were arrested as suspects in the Tate murders (Charles Manson and Susan Atkins were already in custody), and Linda Kasabian turned herself in a day later. Kasabian was ultimately given immunity for her role as a key witness, and on January 25, 1971, after a lengthy trial, Watson, Krenwinkel, and Atkins were convicted on all 27 counts against them. Manson’s conviction came later that year.
Why Quentin Tarantino Decided To Rewrite History
Being the immensely creative and incredible filmmaker that he is, Quentin Tarantino could have told an infinite number of stories with his ninth feature effort, which raises a natural question: why tell the story of Sharon Tate with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood? Evidently, the answer comes down to both the writer/director’s appreciation of the actress’ humanity, and his desire to have the general population see her in a different light than we are accustomed.
Speaking with EW, Quentin Tarantino explained that he had done a lot of research into the life of Sharon Tate, and was surprised by what he had discovered while reading accounts of what she was like. While he entirely recognized the influence a person’s death can have on the perception of their life, he found himself totally believing in Tate’s innate goodness, and felt the desire to tell her story with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Said Tarantino,
Of course, Sharon Tate is a name that a great number of people already recognized prior to the release of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but Quentin Tarantino continued by pointing out that most people are really only aware of her as a murder victim. Rather than having that be the defining part of her story in the new film, he wanted to depict her as the good and decent person living her life as an up-and-coming actress in Los Angeles:
So now one can argue that Sharon Tate’s pop culture legacy has been changed. Quentin Tarantino exacted serious and brutal revenge on her killers in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and instead of thinking about her death, we can all now instead instantly envision her sitting in a theater appreciating and being humbled by the crowd’s laughter at her antics in The Wrecking Crew. The ending is not reality, but one could make a strong argument that it’s better.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.