Popular culture has seemingly always been obsessed with murderers and serial killers. This holds true even today, as documentaries explore the minds of killers and shows like “Mindhunter” present a fictionalized glimpse into the psychology of murder. And while Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, doesn’t directly deal with the subject of serial killers, the Charles Manson killings of 1969 provide a context that reveals the film’s fairy-tale ending to be nothing more than a distraction from the frightening truth of real-world events. Spoilers for the film follow.
The film’s title takes inspiration not only from the stereotypical introduction of popular fairy tales, but from Western films directed by Sergio Leone, an inspiration of Tarantino’s. In this film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a once-famous struggling actor living in Hollywood who contemplates moving to Italy to star in Westerns. Rick bemoans this possibility as he views it as a failure of his career as an actor, ironically complaining that “nobody likes Spaghetti Westerns.” Brad Pitt plays Rick’s stunt double, Cliff Booth, who despite also being out of work and failing as a mainstream actor, has a calm, worry-free demeanor. Despite tensions between the characters relating to Rick’s concern for his future as an actor, the two maintain a strong friendship, owing in large part to Cliff’s emotional stability and support of Rick’s dwindling career.
As the film progresses, Cliff emerges as the film’s hero, inverting the expectations of both the film’s audience and of the traditional Hollywood dynamic between leading actor and stunt double. Alluding to this inversion, the film’s opening credits are mismatched, with Brad Pitt’s name appearing underneath Leonardo DiCaprio’s character and vice versa. By placing Cliff Booth at the forefront of the narrative, Tarantino pays homage to the stunt doubles of film history, who were responsible for putting themselves in harm’s way in order to skillfully perform the most visually striking scenes, while receiving none of the credit.
This theme of inverting expectations applies to other aspects of the film as well. For instance, Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, a Hollywood actress most well-known for having been killed by members of Charles Manson’s cult. As such, when we see Sharon Tate on-screen, we associate her character with the morbidity and doom associated with the public image of her created as a result of her murder. However, the film’s scenes featuring Tate are some of its most charming and lighthearted, as the audience is treated to lengthy depictions of the young actress’ idyllic Hollywood lifestyle, as she attends parties and enjoys going to a movie theater and watching a film in which she starred. As we watch Tate watch herself on-screen, it’s almost as though we are enjoying the movie-going experience alongside her, allowing us to feel a sort of connection with a movie star whose fame, in reality, was robbed from her by a murderous cult. In this way, Tarantino also pays tribute to Sharon Tate, depicting her as she really was during her life rather than as the victim she became known as.
The film’s theme of inverting expectations culminates in its ending sequence, in which three members of the Manson “family” head to Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, intent on killing Hollywood stars. Whereas in real life the murderers head to Sharon Tate’s residence, in the film they go to the house next door, where the fictional Rick Dalton happens to live and is being visited by Cliff Booth, who is taking care of the house. In the movie, Cliff Booth successfully thwarts the murder attempt by killing the would-be murderers in self-defense, despite hallucinating on LSD, and Rick Dalton defends himself with a flamethrower, resulting in a humorously over-the-top action sequence. In the aftermath, Rick Dalton is hailed as a hero by his neighbors Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, as the couple invite Rick into their house and get to know each other.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood presents an ironic, upside-down, funhouse mirror image of real life history. Whereas the night of August 9th, 1969 in Hollywood represents one of the country’s darkest moments, as the idealism and glamour of the 1960s was shattered, the film presents an alternate reality where these murders never took place for the audience to enjoy. In doing so, the film acts as a commentary on the film industry in general, highlighting how audiences use the movie-going experience as a form of escapism, allowing them to forget about their real-life worries for a short period of time. Though Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood has an ostensibly happy ending, where Sharon Tate is spared, Rick Dalton’s career seems to be revived, and Cliff Booth gets to be an action hero, the audience is left feeling somewhat melancholic, as they remember that the reality of the story around which the film is centered is much darker, and that the happy ending they were treated to is really just the product of a fairy tale.