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.
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
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 been 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 to Sharon Tate next door. 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.
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. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.