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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ending Explained

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie) has a wild ending that suggests movies can right historical wrongs. Why did Quentin do what he did? In this video, we take on how the movie’s surprise ending gets at the essential stories we tell ourselves.

TRANSCRIPT

Just as its title suggests, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a fairy tale. Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to 1960s Los Angeles takes one of the most horrific events in its history, the murders of actress Sharon Tate and others by followers of Charles Manson, and transposes it to the realm of Hollywood myth, where good guys always triumph. In Tarantino’s version of the night of August 8, 1969, it’s the Manson family members who meet their violent ends as brutal justice is doled out by Tate’s neighbor, aging cowboy star Rick Dalton, and his loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth. Sharon Tate is saved. And in the end, they all live happily ever after.

Tarantino has played fast and loose with history before, offering similarly revisionist, cathartic retributions in Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino once again gives us the Hollywood ending that only movies can provide. But does the director have more on his mind this time than simple wish-fulfillment or revenge fantasies?

Tarantino: “I don’t know if cinema can change history. I think it can influence history.”

What influence is he hoping to achieve by turning one of the most gruesome crimes in American history into the stuff of movie adventure? Here’s our take on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s wild ending, and how its fantasy gets at some essential truths about the stories we tell ourselves.

Reality vs. Fiction:

By setting his film in the Hollywood of 1969, loading it with references to real movies and TV shows, and including portrayals of some actual stars of the day, Tarantino creates the expectation that we’re witnessing a historical recreation. Making Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate a main character leads us to believe we know exactly where this story is going. So when Tarantino pleaded with the audience at its Cannes Film Festival premiere not to spoil the ending, it seemed like a strange request. The Manson murders have been explored across scores of books, documentaries, movies, and TV shows for over 50 years. What was there to spoil?

Tarantino uses our knowledge of the crime to build tension, hewing closely to many of the infamous details of the murders as he strings us along. Manson really did visit Tate’s home looking for its former owner, music producer Terry Melcher.

The Manson Family really did live on the old Spahn Movie Ranch, with its elderly, nearly blind owner, George Spahn. Characters we see there like Squeaky Fromme (who later tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford) are based on actual Manson family members. And on the night of August 8, 1969, a group of Manson’s followers, Tex Watson, Susie Atkins, and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel, really did pull up to 10050 Cielo Drive with the intention to murder everyone inside, targeting a group that included Tate, her ex-lover Jay Sebring, Folger’s coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and aspiring writer Wojciech Frykowski.

Susie: “What did Charlie say?”

Tex: “He said: Go to Terry’s old house and kill everybody in there. He said, Make it witchy.” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

But fact collides abruptly with fantasy the moment the group encounters Rick Dalton, who, in Tarantino’s story, lives next door to Tate. Angered by their intrusion, Rick confronts the group, inadvertently changing the course of history by redirecting their ire toward him. In this version, it’s Rick’s house they break into, where they come face to face with Cliff. And even as they say the same infamous lines the Manson family uttered before murdering Tate and her friends, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business,” this time, the outcome isn’t what they—or the audience—is expecting. Long before this fateful encounter, the film has already been blurring the lines separating fiction and reality. Rick and Cliff aren’t real. They’re Tarantino inventions—although they bear an authentic resemblance to Hollywood stars of the time. According to Tarantino, Rick Dalton is an amalgam of actors like Steve McQueen,

Ty Hardin, Edd Byrnes, Pete Duel, and Ralph Meeker—former cowboys who, like Rick, were forced to adapt to the changing times, when the era of tough guys was giving way to a new generation of films steeped in psychological drama and moral ambiguity.

Rick: “It’s official old buddy. I’m a has-been.” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Cliff’s symbiotic relationship with Rick is at least partially modeled after Burt Reynolds and his stuntman Hal Needham.

Interviewer: “Is that how you’d describe your job, Cliff?”

Cliff: “What, carrying his load? Yeah, that’s about right.” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

And the film adds another layer of subtext by casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two real-life leading men at a similar crossroads.

Brad Pitt: “When I asked Quentin how he wanted us to play two aging movie guys who were on their way out, he said, just be yourselves.”

Tarantino also toys with the fiction-reality continuum by casting actors who really were part of Hollywood in 1969—like Kurt Russell, who pulls double duty as the film’s narrator. Burt Reynolds himself was cast as George Spahn, but died during production. Instead, the role went to Bruce Dern, another veteran of classic TV Westerns who similarly struggled with the leap to movie stardom. These actors and the memories they stir subtly underscore the idea that all movies, even the very one you’re watching, are just artifice.

Tarantino expands on this idea by removing evidence of the cameras and crew during long sequences of Rick acting in the TV show Lancer, obscuring the line between his own fictional world and the one inside it. He lets us know we can never be sure where reality ends and fantasy begins—an uncertainty that directly feeds into the ending.

Cowboys vs. Hippies:

Metaphorically speaking, Tarantino’s film is about the clash between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. Rick, the fading TV cowboy, comes face to face with the next big thing, hotshot director, and Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski.

Rick Dalton: “Here I am flat on my ass, and who I got living next door to me? The director of Rosemary’s f***ing Baby, that’s who!” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

But in Tarantino’s version, Old Hollywood fights back against obsolescence. And in the end, it’s the ways of Old Hollywood that save the day the stuntman does all the hard work, while the movie star gets the big hero shot and all the accolades. As his reward, the gates are finally opened up to Rick, and he’s symbolically welcomed into the future

Sharon Tate: “Rick, would you like to come up to the house for a drink and meet my other friends?” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Throughout the film, Tarantino stages this confrontation between old-fashioned tough guys and the encroaching counterculture as a classic Western showdown, a standoff between cowboys and hippies. Tarantino even juxtaposes Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch with Rick’s day of shooting on Lancer, where the director dresses Rick in long hair and hippie clothes, implicitly linking his Western villain to Manson himself.

Costume Director: “I mean, nothing anachronistic, but where does 1869 and 1969 meet?”

Rick Dalton: “You want me to look like a hippie?”

Costume Designer: “Well, think less hippie and more Hell’s Angel!” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

More than a half-century on, hippies and the Manson family seem as distant now as cowboys were to the 1960s. They’ve entered the realm of myth, which allows Tarantino to treat them as such. Cliff is another near-mythical figure, a real-life white hat. We’re told he’s a war hero, and we see him as a cool and cocky gunslinger type, riding free across the valley. In real life, he’s everything that Rick pretends to be.

Tarantino: “The whole thing of their career is Rick is the one who pretends to be the badass cowboy, the guy who can do this and the guy who can do that, and Cliff is the guy who’s the badass who can do this and can do that.”

Cliff can even hold his own against Bruce Lee in his prime, a portrayal that was not without its controversy. But again here, Tarantino is playing with myth, using it not only to underline Cliff’s formidable fighting skills, but also to announce that he fully intends to rewrite history to suit whatever story he’s telling.

Tarantino: “If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up.”

Cliff’s trip to Spahn Ranch pits this white-hat hero against the black hat hippies

Pussycat: “So you used to make Westerns at the ranch back in the old-timey days?”

Cliff: “Well, if by the old-timey days, you mean television eight years ago, yeah.” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

and their symbolic culture clash plays out through familiar Western tropes. In a classic Western showdown, Cliff even gets revenge on Manson family member Clem Grogan, who, in real life, murdered stuntman Donald Shorty Shea.

By naming his film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino puts it in direct conversation with movies like Once Upon A Time In America and especially Once Upon A Time In The West, both from Italian director Sergio Leone. Released in 1968, Once Upon A Time In The West similarly remixed and subverted Western movie myths, even casting an aging cowboy hero, Henry Fonda, as the villain, much like Rick Dalton at this stage of his career. Rick Dalton is initially reluctant to take part in these so-called “Spaghetti Westerns,” but he eventually realizes that they’re the exact kinds of movies that allowed guys like him to reinvent themselves.

Here Tarantino casts Rick Dalton in his own Spaghetti Western, one that allows Rick to win the fight and rewrite his own story, and Hollywood history. Sergio Leone once called his films fairy tales for grown-ups—legends that allowed myth to invade everyday life. It’s a formula that Tarantino has followed across the whole of his filmography

Tarantino: “I love the operatic quality of it, I like the larger than life, the vague surrealism… The first book I ever read about spaghetti Westerns…it was called Spaghetti Westerns: The Opera Of Violence, and I think I’ve been trying to do the opera of violence my entire career.”

Tarantino vs. Reality:

Tarantino has described Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as probably his most personal film. He told Esquire, “I think of it like my memory piece… This is me, this is the year that formed me.”

In 1969, the director was 6 years old and living in Los Angeles, and the film is filled with homages to his formative years— the actual movies he watched and the movie stars that were living all around him, existing just on the other side of his reality. We see this world through his own eyes.

Tarantino: “My stepfather drove a Karmann Ghia like Cliff’s character drives. And even that whole shot where you see Cliff driving by those signs, well, that’s pretty much my view looking up at my stepfather in the Karmann Ghia as he drove around Los Angeles.”

Tarantino is showing us where his own fairy tales come from. The film is full of not-so-subtle nods to Tarantino’s past work, prominently featuring several actors who have worked with him before. So Tarantino implicitly ties his characters’ fears about the future of Hollywood to his own filmmaking career, which he’s suggested may be drawing to an end. He’s not the best anymore. In fact, far from it.

“And… he’s coming to terms with what it’s like to be slightly more…Slightly more useless each day.”

This self-reflection becomes even more explicit in the film’s commentaries on movie violence versus real-world violence—a subject that’s dogged Tarantino since he first started making movies.

Tarantino: “The reason I don’t want to talk about it is I’ve said everything I’ve had to say about it. If anyone cares what I have to say about it, they can Google me. And they can look for 20 years what I have to say about it. I haven’t changed my opinion one iota.”

Tarantino has expressed, time and again, that he does not believe movie violence and real-life violence are connected. The sinister hippies of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood seem to share the same attitudes as Tarantino’s critics. Their decision to go after Rick Dalton is even motivated by blaming the movies for instigating actual violence.

Susie: “We kill the people who taught us to kill. I mean, where the fuck are we, man? We are in f***ing Hollywood, man. The people an entire generation grew up watching kill people live here!” - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Ironically, it’s movie violence that vanquishes real-life violence, with Rick even turning one of his old war-movie props against them. And if anyone still wants to know Tarantino’s thoughts on the matter, this seems to be his final statement: By roasting the Manson family in a scene right out of one of Rick’s movies, he’s explicitly using the power of film to right a historical wrong, just as another of his fairy tales, Inglourious Basterds, has the Nazis meet their fiery end in the cinema, the movie screen looking down on them like a wrathful god. In this case, the “wrong” Tarantino’s undoing is a murder that many people believe changed everything.

Tarantino: “You could say I’m using the power of cinema to right wrongs or whatever… I mean, I think the sentence I would use is metaphorically saving Sharon.”

To understand why Tarantino chose the real-life tragedy of Sharon Tate as the subject of this revisionist fairy tale, it helps to look at how the film—and history—view Tate as a symbol. While the movie takes pains to show Tate as a real person going about her day, living the life that was denied her soon after these moments, we also don’t hear from her much, or really get to know her. Sharon is more of a presence—an angel of pure peace and love, diametrically opposed to the soured, evil hippies of the Manson family.

Margot Robbie: “Quentin said to me she’s the heartbeat of the story, and I just saw her as a ray of light.”

These inverses represent the positive and negative aspects of the ‘60s Free-Love spirit. Manson’s hippies take what Tate gives, hitching rides while she offers them, exploiting a near-stranger’s hospitality while she opens her house to a rotating group of friends and acquaintances.

These agents of darkness are framed as the other side of the coin to Sharon’s lightness, as the flipside to ‘60s freedom and openness was dangerous vulnerability to the unknown and the manipulation of lost or mentally ill young people by false prophets like Manson.

As the writer Joan Didion noted in her famed essay, “The White Album,” many people felt like “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” It was the end of the party—a bracing rejoinder to the aura of free love, innocence, and endless possibility that had defined the decade. By metaphorically saving Sharon Tate, Tarantino also saves this era of America and asks what might have happened if the party had never stopped.

Tarantino: “I see it as a rage against a loss of innocence.”

As Joan Didion wrote in the very first sentence of “The White Album,” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We attempt to draw connections and derive meaning from the most senseless events, just so we can keep going—even when we know there’s no real meaning to be found.

In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino tries to make sense of a tragedy that remains inconceivable.

Tarantino: “I think we’re fascinated by it because at the end of the day it almost seems unfathomable…Frankly, the more you learn about it and the more information you get and the more concrete it gets, it doesn’t make it any clearer.”

And he does it by telling us a story—the kind of reassuring fantasy we recognize from decades of watching movies. It’s a story that allows not only Sharon Tate to live, but us as well. This fairy-tale ending isn’t quite the cathartic triumph it first seems to be, though. After the violence is over, we’re left with a melancholic reflection on what could have been.

As Tarantino explained to Deadline, “When it was just an idea in my head for a story I was writing, it was like, Great, she’s saved, done. But in the movie… it was like, OK, she’s saved… Dot, dot, dot. Because no, she’s not. It’s that ellipsis where you have to realize, she’s not saved. Things did not happen this way.”

So ultimately, Tarantino’s Hollywood ending shows us the real-life limits of our fairy tales. When the lights come back up, we’re kicked out of the dream and back into grim reality— here, on the other side of the gates.