Let’s Talk About the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ending

author img
BY October 4, 2019

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film has been controversial since it was announced. It quickly got an early reputation as Tarantino’s “Sharon Tate movie,” and that filled everyone with foreboding. After all, he’s a filmmaker who’s spilled more blood onscreen than some horror auteurs. It seemed reasonable to assume, especially after American Horror Story‘s particularly gruesome take, that Tarantino would bring us a glow-in-the-dark nightmare. But the movie and the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ending turned out different than most people expected. So let’s discuss it.

There will be spoilers below for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, including the ending.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ending
Image via screengrab

Who Was Sharon Tate?

Since there’s no possible way to talk about what the ending means without talking about Sharon Tate, it’s best we start with her. So if you didn’t know already, Sharon Tate was an American model and actress. By the late 60s, she’d had mostly smaller parts in unimpressive films, but there was a sense that her star was on the rise. For example, she placed high in trade paper polls about exciting newcomers.

Her personal life was also golden. According to anyone who ever knew her, she was kind–genuinely so. In fact, it’s that quality that people who knew her tend to remember best. They describe her almost like a boundless source of love. And speaking of love: in 1968, she married Roman Polanski, who’d directed her in The Fearless Vampire Killers. They epitomized a certain kind of swinging 60s celebrity couple, surrounded by friends and good times. She was looking at a bright future. And then it all turned to ashes.

Sometime during the late hours of August 8 and the early hours of the next day, four members of Charles Manson’s “family” invaded the Tate/Polanski home. They murdered Tate, pregnant with her unborn son, and family friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski. They also killed teenager Steven Parent, who was just leaving after visiting the property’s caretaker.

The Film Takes on History

When we meet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s February 1969. Even though Robbie’s performance shows the Tate her loved ones remember–bubbly, gentle, full of light–her mere appearance feels ominous. In the years since that hot night in 1969, she’s lost her identity as a real person, subsumed instead by an identity as a murder victim. The Manson family murders also, in hindsight at least, killed the spirit of hopefulness that persisted in the era of flower power, leading to the gritty pessimistic malaise of the 1970s. So when we see Tate, we can’t help but feel dread.

Tarantino knows this and he even makes fun of it a bit, in a scene where Tate spontaneously goes to a matinee of her movie The Wrecking Crew. When she tells the theater employees that she’s in the movie, they ask to take her picture. Kate Berlant, playing the ticket taker, poses her in front of the movie’s poster. You know, so people will know who she is.

In less than a year, of course, people across the country will know her name, reading about her murder in the morning paper. Then she’ll become a footnote in other people’s stories–her husband’s, her murderers’. But for a moment, we meet her, alive and anonymous in a theater, beaming with delight as the audience laughs at her character’s antics. We see her politely greet the scruffy man at her gate, who thinks record producer Terry Melcher still lives there. Sebring (Emile Hirsch) tells him Melcher moved and the man apologizes for disturbing her. We never learn his name, but it’s unmistakably Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). And we feel the weight of history in this moment, because only we know what’s to come.

And Then the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ending Changes It

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ending
Image via Sony

But as it turns out, we don’t. The movie skips forward to August 8th, with all the tension our knowledge brings. The movie has been filled to this point with the ambient noise of life in 1969 Los Angeles, like radio ads and TV commercials. As we watch two parallel nights unfold–one featuring Tate and friends and one featuring protagonist Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)–TV horror host Larry Vincent chimes in. It’s time for what “you’ve all been waiting for.” We assume, of course, that it’s time to watch it all crumble.

But Tarantino has dropping hints the entire movie that things aren’t going to go as we expect. All along we’ve been meeting members of the Manson family, and Tarantino has been steadily stripping them of their mystique. We always tend to remember murderers, rather than victims. In our obsession with true crime, they take on a kind of sick glamour. But Tarantino shows Manson’s flunkies for what they really were: dirty and dumb wastrels. They’re less fearless killers and more clown patrol.

So when they invade Dalton’s home and not Tate’s, it feels unsurprising at first. Like, of course these ding-dongs went to the wrong house. We quickly find out, though, that history is shifting. They’ll never make it next door to Sharon Tate. They’re dispatched in an orgy of violence by two middle-aged men, one angry Italian actress, and a very good girl (Brandy the pit bull). When the dust clears by morning, Dalton’s neighbors are quite shocked to hear what happened, but they’re alive. And we should have seen it coming.

Living Happily Ever After

After all, it’s all there in the title. It’s a fairy tale and it has a fairy-tale ending. Like Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds (“Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France”), Tarantino is rewriting history, but this time he’s not blowing it up. He’s saving something. Some critics have seen the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ending as reactionary, like it’s staving off the uncertain future aging actors like Rick Dalton face. You can certainly read it like that, but I see hope in it. As the movie ends, the future is still uncertain, but it’s nothing to fear. Instead, it’s exciting. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just stepped foot on a different world. The only hippie chaos that would make the news that summer would be Woodstock, a music festival.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Of course, it didn’t happen that way. But it should have. Sharon Tate and her house guests, along with Rosemary and Leno LaBianca–killed on August 10th–should have been able to go on living their lives. Debra Tate should have been able to spend her life with her sister, instead of fiercely guarding her memory. She’s spent years protecting Sharon’s image, which was the biggest clue to the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ending. After Debra read the script, she said she was “very happy” with it. And now we know why. Her sister got a happy ending. We don’t always get them when we deserve them in real life. But in movies we can.

MoviesPop Culture

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

Leave a comment

Related

MoviesPop Culture
I Just Watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the First Time: My Reaction and the Impact of the Film 51 Years Later

There are films out there that you never have to watch to feel like you know what they’re about. Whether it’s from parodies in other media, or word of mouth, movie-talk spreads. But, no matter how much you think you know about 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a good chance that you’re wrong. After spending my […]

BY Meghan Hale September 29, 2019
COMICSMarvelPop Culture
Best Run Ever: Spider-Man: Brand New Day Continues (Spidey Brain Trust Part 2)

Continuing our look at the most ambitious Spider-Man run in Marvel’s history, we go further into Brand New Day. Spider-Man: Death and Dating Writers: Mark Waid, Marc Guggenheim, Dan Slott, and Roger SternArtists: Marcos Martin, Mike McKone, Barry Kitson, and Lee WeeksCollecting issues #578-573 So, this isn’t the strongest volume of the brain trust run, […]

BY Roman Colombo August 2, 2019
Movies
The Live Action Aladdin Movie (2019) is, actually pretty good

So, we were all skeptical of the live action Aladdin remake to begin with. How can anyone else play the Genie? Robin Williams’s performance was brilliant in ways we can never imagine replicated by any actor. Then the casting started. We got an unknown male lead to play Aladdin, Mena Massoud, and a slightly unknown […]

BY Roman Colombo May 27, 2019
Fortnite Season 11 Darkness Sends Fans into Uproar

Ahead of Fortnite’s newest season, which is the game’s 11th if you’re keeping score at home, Epic Games raised the stakes. Rather than hype players up with a crazy loot drop, or new in-game features, the Fortnite map we all know and love disappeared. Literally, as there is currently no map to play Fortnite on. […]

BY Taylor Bauer October 14, 2019
Google Stadia Broadband Caps Cause Major Concern

There are a lot of changes coming to the video game industry. For starters, the major home console makers are setting the stage for a new generation. We’re expected to see the new PS5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Scarlett (name pending) next year for the holidays. Plus, the Switch Lite is now on shelves, providing a […]

BY Taylor Bauer October 14, 2019
Fortnite Profits Drop Steeply – Is the Fad Waning?

Flash back to the 2018 holiday season. Fortnite, a free to play multiplayer titan, seemed unstoppable. Like anything in pop culture, however, nothing lasts at its peak forever. Recent news that Fortnite profits drop steeply when you look at 2019 Q2 trends points to some positives and negatives for Epic Games moving forward. Why did […]

BY Taylor Bauer October 10, 2019
PS5 Confirmed by Sony, Release Date Holiday 2020

We’ve had a pretty good idea that 2020 would bring new Sony and Microsoft consoles. Still, there was also a lot we didn’t know. For example, a previous rumor suggested the PlayStation 5 would arrive at a Sony event in February. Now it’s all official. Sony announced their next console will be released in a […]

BY Taylor Bauer October 8, 2019

Trending

Fortnite Season 11 Darkness Sends Fans into Uproar

Ahead of Fortnite’s newest season, which is the game’s 11th if you’re keeping score at home, Epic Games raised the stakes. Rather than hype players up with a crazy loot drop, or new in-game features, the Fortnite map we all know and love disappeared. Literally, as there is currently no map to play Fortnite on. […]

BY Taylor Bauer October 14, 2019
Google Stadia Broadband Caps Cause Major Concern

There are a lot of changes coming to the video game industry. For starters, the major home console makers are setting the stage for a new generation. We’re expected to see the new PS5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Scarlett (name pending) next year for the holidays. Plus, the Switch Lite is now on shelves, providing a […]

BY Taylor Bauer October 14, 2019
Robert Downey Jr.’s Doolittle: Anyone Else Concerned By The New Trailer?

Robert Downey Jr’s Doolittle trailer finally debuts online. While the role seems suited for the actor, the new trailer raises concerns.

BY Shah Shahid October 14, 2019
Ghost Rider #1: Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch Equals Double the Vengeance

While Robbie Reyes, the newest Ghost Rider, is serving on the Avengers, Marvel hasn’t forgotten about two of the most popular Spirits of Vengeance in the 616, Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch. We’ve seen them pop up here and there, most recently during the Absolute Carnage event, but now they star in the new series, […]

BY Roman Colombo October 14, 2019