The Ending of ‘Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,’ Explained

• Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is out now.
• The movie is historical fiction, not unlike Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained in spirit.
• You might be confused a little bit by the ending. That’s OK—we’ve got you covered.

Warning: this story includes spoilers for the ending of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. If you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, you should probably stop reading right now!

From promotion, interviews, and even trailers, the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s new filmOnce Upon a Time… In Hollywood was largely kept under wraps. We knew that Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt would be our leads, playing the fictional duo of actor Rick Dalton and his trusty stuntman/best friend Cliff Booth, respectively. We knew that Margot Robbie would also play a major role, as the very real Sharon Tate, and that several other real people, including, notably, The Manson Family, would factor in—but we didn’t know how, why, or in what capacity.

Now that the movie’s out, we finally know everything there is to know—who’s in the movie, what happens, when, and why. And hoo boy, it’s a doozy. While we’re not going to get into Tarantino rankings right now, it’s safe to say that Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood more than stands its own among the rest of the filmmaker’s celebrated catalogue.

The movie is not only an exploration of two lead characters unlike any others in Tarantino’s repertoire, but also a statement about violence, an era, movies, and Hollywood itself. Let’s get into it.

What set the stage?

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood takes place in three distinct time periods: the first, where we first meet Rick and Cliff, establishes the characters. Rick is a former TV star who’s foray into movies didn’t go as planned, and he’s desperately trying to make his way back, but having to settle for a series of TV guest spots, typically playing a villain. Cliff, who may or may not have killed his wife, is a cool breeze stuntman who drives Rick everywhere, and always has his back. Where Rick is an insecure mess, feeling older and with less of a place in the industry every day, Cliff carries an effortless confidence everywhere he goes. Sharon Tate, a breezy, kind-hearted up-and-coming actress keeps company with her husband, the director Roman Polanski (Rick lives next door to the couple, and desperately wants to work with Polanski), and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring.

The second time period finds Rick and Cliff separated, as Rick is filming a guest spot on a TV show and Cliff has blown his relationship with the show’s stunt coordinator in the past (a brilliant flashback sequence shows Cliff fighting a hyper-confident Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh). While Rick goes through the motions to get his TV part (on the real-life show Lancer) right, meanwhile Cliff picks up a hitchhiker named Pussycat who turns out to be a member of the Manson Family, who are squatting at Spahn Ranch. As Cliff used to film there with Rick, he heads there to check it out. He feels like something isn’t right, and after a few wild happenings, he flees. Sharon, meanwhile, spends the afternoon listening to music and heading to a screening of her own new release movie, The Wrecking Crew, alongside Dean Martin. She takes in the audience’s reaction to her work with much enjoyment.

So what actually happened in the Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood ending?

Columbia Pictures

The final timeframe is one that might ring a bell: August 8, 1969. In reality, this was the night when Manson’s crew—Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten—ransacked Tate’s house, brutally murdering her along with Sebring and three others, and writing on the walls in pig’s blood.

The movie’s depiction of this night, though, is significantly different—Rick and Cliff’s involvement, apparently, make a significant dent in the way things play out.

Following his role on Lancer in the last part of the movie, Rick got a number of opportunities to make Western films in Italy, where he’s spent the last six months, also marrying an Italian actress named, Francesca. Upon his return to Hollywood, he and Cliff come to a mutual agreement that they can’t continue to work together anymore, and plan to have one last night of heavy drinking together.

As we see their night, it’s presented parallel to the night of a very pregnant Tate, Sebring, and two of their other friends are having at a Mexican restaurant. As both parties return home, the lingering feeling establishes that Watson and the rest of the Manson crew will inevitably show up, and do what history knows they eventually did. But this is Tarantino. and, as fans of his past films know, he doesn’t play by those rules.

When Watson, Atkins, Van Houten, and Krenwinkel show up in Rick and Sharon Tate’s cul de sac, we see them lingering in the street in a car with a loud muffler. A very drunk and irate Rick goes out, margarita blender in hand, to chew them out. He yells at them to stay off his private road, and for a moment they’re stunned.

At this point, our twist hits: Manson told the four to ransack and destroy Tate’s house, as it was formerly the house that Terry Melcher, a music producer who refused to work with him, lived in. But when Atkins recognized Rick from his canceled Western, Bounty Law, the group changes their mind, deciding it would be more impactful if they murdered this actor they all of a sudden recognized.

They enter the house armed with guns and knives, planning to kill Rick and Cliff, but Cliff—who’s smoked a cigarette dipped in acid sold to him earlier—fights them off, killing Watson and Van Houten in brutal fashion with the help of his dog. Rick, meanwhile, is out back floating in the pool listening to his radio, when an injured Atkins flies through and lands into his pool screaming maniacally. He’s startled, and runs back into his house and grabs his flamethrower—established earlier as a prop that he learned to use for a movie role—and roasts her up.

As the movie ends, Jay Sebring asks Rick through the fence what in the world just happened. Rick, startled that he—and Sharon—know who he is, goes over next door for a drink, and all, seemingly, is well in Hollywood.

What it all means:

With the way Tarantino handled WWII in Inglorious Basterds—Hitler gunned down by a machine gun, and a Jewish woman whose family was killed by Nazis trapping the Third Reich in a movie theater and burning them to death—and slave plantations in Django Unchained—a former slave-turned-bounty hunter taking down an entire plantation—we should have seen the altered ending of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood coming.

Yet when Tarantino starts playing with history once again, it still plays as a shock—from the moment Watson, Atkins, and Van Houten enter Rick’s house, it still feels like they’ll return to what they ended up doing in reality—it all feels inevitable. But Tarantino’s revenge fantasy tendencies overrule the rest here, and about halfway through the scene we start realizing what’s happening. Rick and Cliff are our proxies—they’re Tarantino’s way to alter reality; everyone knows = what happened. What he’s interested in here is instead what could have happened.

Rick spends the entire movie feeling left behind by the industry, but it’s the fact that he’s recognized by these murderous young people that anything ends up changing for the better at all. If Tarantino is saying anything about the idea of feeling less important with every passing day, the idea that past accomplishments aren’t quickly forgotten is surely one that’s constantly present, and plays a key role in the end of the film. When it’s all said and done, Jay Sebring is the one who recognizes, and talks to, Rick, not the other way around. They’ve known him all along—he wasn’t as forgotten, or as washed up, as he had so thought.

What about Sharon Tate?

Columbia Pictures

Then there’s the Sharon Tate of it all. The movie makes sure to present her, as, almost the human personification of the goodness and innocence of the late ’60s. Margot Robbie doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, and maybe some will criticize that decision from Tarantino, but Robbie plays the part so strongly just with body language and facial expressions that we see everything she represents. There’s a lot of evil out there—we see that with Watson, and the rest of the family. But in keeping focus on Tate, we see the innocence, the talent, and the sheer love for the medium of film that existed too.

Tate’s legacy, in many ways, has been taken by Manson. By killing her, that has always been where her story has ended; rather than talking about her movies with Dean Martin, or her marriage to an acclaimed director, she’s forever been defined by the cult that took her life. Tarantino shows her life here for what it was, and what it could have been—someone who wants not only to bring happiness to friends and strangers alike (she even picks up a random hitchhiker just to be nice), but someone who can represent the joy of what film by and large can be, do, and represent. Just like Sharon, you can saunter into a movie theater on any given afternoon, and joy can come from that. It’s a reality that exists now, existed then, and will exist forever—no matter how hard they try, a murderous cult can’t take that away from anyone.

So when Tarantino presents this love letter to Hollywood, he shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. We see how the ups and downs of working in film affect Rick, how it affects Cliff, and how it affects Sharon. But we see, too, how it also links everyone at a deeper, core level. Sharon and Rick don’t know each other—but in the end, even though they haven’t met yet, they do. It’s not necessarily the traumatic experience that Rick’s just gone through, literally killing a home intruder with a flamethower that links them—it’s the fact that she recognizes him from a canceled TV western. Sharon has no idea that what alternate reality Tarantino’s Rick/Cliff timeline has spared her from, but her pure spirit greets him with a hug, inviting him in for a drink.

And that’s what Tarantino wants to do with the entirety of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. We know what really happened on that night in August, and so does everyone watching the movie—it’s why the ending plays so strongly. We hear ‘Charles Manson,’ and we even see him on screen for, what, 10 seconds? But we know what’s coming. Or so we think.

Which is why Tarantino’s revenge fantasy ending works so damn well here; it’s the ending that we truly can’t see coming, even though this director has shown us time and time again that he’s willing to go beyond reality to tell the story he wants to tell.

And just this time, for one night in Hollywood, that story had a happy ending.

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