Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Explained (2023)

Fact and fiction have a complicated relationship in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Invented characters rub shoulders with people who really lived (and live). Non-existent movies and genuine (cheekily re-cast) TV shows co-exist. And on at least one occasion, real-life history swerves off into an entirely fantastical alternate universe. Here's Empire's guide through the highways and byways of Tarantino's freewheeling imagination.

What is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino's ninth film (a number that counts both Kill Bill movies as one and doesn't include his contribution to Four Rooms). It's an ensemble drama with, even for Tarantino, an extraordinary cast. And it's a (largely) rose-tinted portrait of the Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s: a formative era for the maverick filmmaker's imagination. He worked on the screenplay for several years, he said, "as well as living in Los Angeles County most of my life, including in 1969, when I was seven years old. I’m very excited to tell this story of an LA and a Hollywood that don’t exist anymore."

In terms of story, it's about Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once successful actor who's now watching his star diminish, forced to take supporting roles against up-and-coming new talent. It's also about his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a former green beret in WWII whose Hollywood career is, naturally enough, declining in tandem with Dalton's. And to some extent – though perhaps not as much as you'd expect – it's about Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who, along with her husband Roman Polanski, moves in next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive, leading Dalton to hope that some networking with the new Hollywood generation might be possible to revive his flagging career. The meandering story leads all three inexorably towards the night of 8 August, 1969, when a violent confrontation with the Manson Family occurs.

When is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood set?

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Explained (1)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in 1969 between February and August. In the real world, this is the period that marked the dark end of the swinging '60s, leading up to the nights on which the Tate-LaBianca murders were committed.

What were the Tate-LaBianca murders?

(Video) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ENDING EXPLAINED! (Tarantino Timeline!)

The Tate-Labianca murders took place across two terrible LA nights in 1969. Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent were all brutally murdered in a home invasion by Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel at a house on Cielo Drive on 8 August. The killers were acting under the influence of self-styled counter-culture guru Charles Manson, leader of the so-called Manson Family. The following evening, six more Family members, this time actually accompanied by Manson himself, butchered Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary at their house on Waverly Drive.

Along with the infamous Altamont Free Festival the following December (a chaotic counter-cultural music event during which several deaths occurred), these events marked a sour endpoint to the swinging '60s, particularly since Manson and the Family seemed to be part inspired by lyrics from The Beatles' White Album (the Family were preparing for an apocalyptic scenario that Manson dubbed "Helter Skelter"). There's been a morbid fascination with Manson and his Family ever since.

Why do events not play out that way in the film?

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(Video) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ending Explained

The clue is in the "once upon a time" of the title. As well as tipping a stetson to Sergio Leone's equally mythic Once Upon a Time in The West and ...in America, Tarantino is presenting a version of Tate's tragic story with a fairytale happy ending. His fiction is a correction of the horrible reality: a fantasy in which Tate's murder is simultaneously avenged and averted. Tarantino's Manson family are stripped of any dark power they hold in the popular imagination, and reduced to gullible, pretentious fools who fail in their ghastly mission and are ridiculed while doing so. And very aggressively punished.

Cliff recognises Tex and asks to be reminded of his name. "I am the devil, and I come to do the devil's work," says Tex (Austin Butler): a famous line genuinely attributed to the killer. "No," says Cliff, "it was something dumber than that." That utterly unimpressed dismissal harks back to another Brad Pitt line in another serial killer film 22 years ago: "You're no messiah. You're a movie-of-the-week. You're a t-shirt at best." The message, not to put too fine a point on it, is "Fuck the Manson Family". The end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino putting reality to rights. This fiction, he's saying, is the true and correct version of events. If only.

Why is Sharon Tate sidelined in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Explained (4)

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, the actress who lives next door to Rick Dalton. Tate was, in real life, a model and actress who appeared in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Man From UNCLE, and in Roman Polanski's gothic horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967. Tate and Polanski married in 1968, the year she filmed the Dean Martin spy-comedy vehicle The Wrecking Crew. She was eight months pregnant when Manson's droogs murdered her on 8 August, 1969.

Some of the chatter about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, post-release, has included surprise and discomfort at Tate / Robbie’s relatively small amount of screen time and dialogue in the film, and the lack of significant event in her scenes. From a feminist point of view, she’s a jarringly inconsequential presence, effectively sidelined – almost removed entirely – from what’s ostensibly her own story. This is arguably completely true: we certainly don’t get to "know" Sharon Tate in the same detail as Rick and Cliff. But it’s also part of a deliberate point Tarantino is trying to make. In a world where Sharon Tate doesn’t die on August 8, 1969, it’s a day that’s completely inconsequential in Tate’s life.

Over the six-month timespan of the movie, we see her on any number of other completely ordinary days. She isn’t working; she’s home alone and not doing much; she’s dancing; she knocks around Hollywood a bit, does some shopping, meets up with some friends; huffs about pregnancy; goes to a screening of The Wrecking Crew and is pleased by the audience reaction. On the evening of August 8 there’s some trouble next door that she isn’t involved in. If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Sharon Tate in any sense, it’s about giving her that life back, and studiously not fixating on her death. To some extent, it’s actually about leaving her alone. Tate's sister Debra approved and endorsed both Robbie and the film as a whole.

Why is Bruce Lee portrayed so negatively in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

(Video) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Explained

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Explained (5)

This one’s trickier to justify. Multiple biographies and the anecdotes of people that knew him tell us that Bruce Lee was a pretty cool guy. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s a bit of a dickhead: a tiresome blow-hard that talks bollocks and seemingly can’t beat Cliff in a fight (although that fight is interrupted, so the issue is ultimately unresolved). Lee’s surviving family have been less than impressed with the scene's use of Lee purely as the "butt of a joke": a device to demonstrate Cliff’s tough-guy prowess.

Mike Moh, who plays Lee in the scene, has said that he felt "conflicted" about it, but that he was ultimately persuaded of the scene’s value (and that Lee would have won had the third of the three bouts actually played out). But Tarantino has remained unrepentant, insisting that his portrayal of Lee is accurate ("he was kind of an arrogant guy") and making the distinction between Lee’s martial arts skills and Cliff’s chops as a "warrior". "Cliff is a green beret. He isn’t part of a sport. He’s a combat person."

(Video) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) movie explained in tamil | Full story narration | Review

One thing that perhaps works in the scene's favour, however, is that it's actually a flashback, and specifically one that’s playing out in Cliff’s memory. So the Bruce Lee scene is not supposed to be an objective portrait of Lee: it’s Cliff’s perception of Lee. And Cliff didn’t like him, so that perception isn’t entirely flattering. Is Cliff a reliable narrator? That’s for the audience to decide.

Who else in the film is "real"

Like Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee, several other characters named in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are instantly recognisable as having been drawn from real life. Damian Lewis pops up as the iconic star Steve McQueen, for example, and we also meet Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and, briefly, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who also plays Charlie in the second season of David Fincher's Netflix series Mindhunter).

Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) was a Hollywood hairstylist, friend of Steve McQueen and former boyfriend of Sharon Tate. He was murdered at the same time as the actress, as were her friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin). In the film, they all live.

Of the Mansonites, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) is fictional, but "Tex" Watson (Austin Butler), Susan "Sexy Sadie" Atkins (Mikey Madison), Linda "Flower Child" Kasabien (Maya Hawke), Patricia "Katie" Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) and tyre-slasher "Clem" Grogan (James Landry Hebert) were all real, as were a dozen a more of the others. And George Spahn (Bruce Dern) really was a blind ranch owner who rented his land to studios for Western locations. Manson and the Family really did live on Spahn's property for a time.

Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry) was the real-life star of the real-life Western TV show Lancer, to which Tarantino actually bought the rights. James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) was also a real-life Lancer cast member. And Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) really did direct Lancer. The actor-turned-director mostly worked in the UK having fled America during the McCarthy hearings, but he undertook the Lancer gig during one of his occasional forays back to the US. He also directed Maunder in Custer.

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(Video) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - Ending Explained

And Al Pacino plays Marvin Schwarz, Rick Dalton's agent. This is seemingly a fictional character, but there was a real Marvin Schwartz (with a t) who produced some films at around the time of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, including Burt Reynolds' 100 Rifles. Interestingly, Schwarz/Pacino is careful to spell his name out loud on screen, as if to make sure the difference is clear.

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What was the meaning behind Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Sharon Tate in any sense, it's about giving her that life back, and studiously not fixating on her death. To some extent, it's actually about leaving her alone.

Why was the ending changed in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

However, the film ultimately cut to Dalton's focus on the Charles Manson murders instead. Tarantino explained his reasoning for the change in an interview with Empire, “There's a reason it's not in the movie. If you play that scene, that's the end. You almost have to start the movie all over again.”

Who is the killer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

So there you have it: In the novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Cliff Booth is unambiguously a murderer, and a misogynist to boot. In fact, he's a murderer four times over: The novel's Cliff Booth also shoots two mob henchmen at a pizzeria in Cleveland when they ask him to leave their boss's mistress alone.

Did the events in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood really happen? ›

While the plot of the story is fictional, there are big elements of real life events that happened in the 1960s, and includes some real people.

Why does Noodles smile at the end of Once Upon a Time in America? ›

Maybe it's inside that smile that Noodles imagines what we see in the movie, like an unconscious projection of his wish that his friend is still alive and he shouldn't have any remorse about his death. A riddle that is still not solved, for which no one ever provided the final solution.

Who was Brad Pitt based off in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

The duo is inspired by stuntman Hal Needham and actor Burt Reynolds, who had a long, wild friendship throughout their careers. In Once Upon a Time, Booth is like a '60s-hued Brad Pitt composite character, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: Never uncool, always hilarious, occasionally shirtless.

Who is Rick Dalton based on? ›

Dalton has a stutter which DiCaprio based on a friend of his.
Character biography and background.
Rick Dalton
Created byQuentin Tarantino
Portrayed byLeonardo DiCaprio
In-universe information
7 more rows

Who is Cliff Booth based on? ›

Cliff Booth was born on October 29, 1922 and is Rick Dalton stuntman and based on legendary stuntman Hal Needham.

What happens to Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Three members of Manson's cult crept up to 10050 Cielo Drive and brutally murdered Tate along with Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger.

What did Cliff Booth do to his wife? ›

An in-depth description of Billie's murder at the hands of her husband comes in chapter 10, titled “Misadventure.” Cliff shot his wife with a shark gun, the spear cutting her in half mid-torso, though he committed the savage act in an unplanned moment of rage.

Who was the girl who drove away in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

One of the Manson Family members depicted in the new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from Quentin Tarantino is a character named Flower Child, also known as Linda Kasabian, played by Stranger Things star Maya Hawke.

What happened to cliff at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Cliff's past is shrouded in mystery, as Tarantino never reveals if Booth killed his wife intentionally or if her departure is nothing more than an accident. Now that the novelization is published, all ambiguity is lost, for better or for worse.

Is Rick Dalton based on Clint Eastwood? ›

Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, a struggling actor with a fading career, is a fictional creation that bears some resemblance to several real-life figures. Clint Eastwood's career, for example, followed a very similar arc. He became famous as the star of the TV Western Rawhide in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Who are the hippies at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Four members of the Manson Family — Tex, Sadie, Flowerchild, and Katie (played by Austin Butler, Mikey Madison, Maya Hawke, and Madisen Beaty) — do end up on Cielo Drive, where Rick and Cliff are on a bender in Rick's house, next door to Tate and Polanski's.

Why did people not like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Most of them don't get this movie because they are uninformed about history. They don't know the background and story of the Charles Manson Family, Spahn Ranch, their connection to Sharon Tate and the location of where Sharon Tate lived which was the home of Terry Melcher prior to Sharon Tate living there.

How long did Noodles go to jail for? ›

After serving 12 years for the murder, Noodles is released from prison and picked up by Max. He returns to working with his gang.

What was Noodles doing for 35 years? ›

Plot holes

As the film moves through the years to 1933 then to 1968, several of the gang have been killed. After Max, Cockeye and Patsy are supposedly killed in the 1933 ambush, Noodles goes to the safety box to look for the money -- its not there. He spends 35 years in Buffalo trying to figure out what happened to it.

Was Bruce Lee story true in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Despite having some basis in reality, Once Upon a Time is a fictional work—its ending proves that much. But Lee, who died in 1973, was a real-life person, and is still beloved worldwide as the most influential martial artist ever, and as one of the most iconic Asian American movie stars.

Was there a real Rick Dalton? ›

While plenty of real-life figures, including Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen, and Bruce Lee are portrayed in Once Upon a Time, Rick Dalton is a fictional creation. Still, some of the character is inspired by real-life stars of the 1950s and '60s.

What did Sharon Tate's family think of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

One member of the Tate family who has spoken out about her impressions of the film is Sharon's sister, Debra Tate. And not surprisingly, she initially had some major issues with the movie, and other dramatizations of her sibling's death. "It's been exploitative since day one.

Why was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood controversial? ›

One stems from Tarantino's treatment of women in his movies. Another stems from his casual rewriting of historical events. The third has to do with his treatment of his very fictional version of the very real Asian American star Bruce Lee.

Who was Rick Dalton based on? ›

Dalton has a stutter which DiCaprio based on a friend of his.
Character biography and background.
Rick Dalton
Created byQuentin Tarantino
Portrayed byLeonardo DiCaprio
In-universe information
7 more rows

Who is the hippie girl in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

With her role as a hippie Manson girl in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Margaret Qualley steps into the big leagues.

How does Roman Polanski feel about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

According to Tarantino, Polanski felt much better about the project after hearing about the script. Despite Polanski being comfortable with “Hollywood,” that didn't stop his wife, the actress Emmanuelle Seigner, from criticizing Tarantino in May shortly after the “Hollywood” premiere at Cannes.

What's wrong with George in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

But George doesn't remember him or Rick at all. George is blind, can't remember anything from the past, can't see the hell he is living in now, and his future doesn't look good either.

Who does Leonardo DiCaprio represent in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

Ty Hardin. Like Dalton, Hardin is best known for his role in a TV western, and his show, Bronco, aired from 1958 to 1962. And just like the movie character he partially inspired, Dalton starred in spaghetti Westerns after the end of his show's television run.

Who was the stuntman that killed his wife? ›

The biggest example might be the true story of what really happened to the wife of stuntman Cliff Booth (played in the film by an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt). The movie reveals that Cliff's wife died after Cliff shot her with a spear gun on the couple's boat.

Is Cliff Booth based on Robert Wagner? ›

Cliff Booth & His Wife

This harkens back to the real life ordeal of actor Robert Wagner and his wife, Natalie Wood, who died as a result of, "drowning and other undetermined factors."

Why didn t Clint Eastwood do Once Upon a Time in the West? ›

Afraid of being typecast having made three spaghetti Westerns in a row with Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood declined the opportunity to appear in the film.

Was FBI a real show in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? ›

The F.B.I. was a crime themed TV series that aired from 1965-74 on ABC. It starred Efrem Zimbalist, Philip Abbott and William Reynolds. The Once Upon a Time in Hollywood character Rick Dalton appears in a 1969 season episode.

Was Bounty Law a real show? ›

'Bounty Law' was in the same vein as TV shows like 'The High Chaparral', 'Bonanza' and the like, but unlike those shows, it wasn't real.


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