Inside ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s’ Controversial Ending: Ingenious or Ineffective?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – allegedly Quentin Tarantino’s penultimate film — presents a dynamic duo in Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, leading viewers down Tarantino’s rabbit hole to indulge in his deft dialogue and signature cinematics once more.

Currently boasting an 84% critics score and a 72% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has been met, in large part, with positive reception. However, some viewers hold gripe with the ending (when the fairytale nature of the title takes center stage).

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ | Photo by BG010/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

*spoilers ahead*

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood traces the relationship between a fading Western star, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt). As hippy Hollywood takes over Tinseltown, Dalton and Booth struggle to find their footing in an LA they no longer recognize. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives next door to Dalton, has just begun to make her splash in the industry. 

Though the Manson family brutally murdered Sharon Tate on August 8-9, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood weaves a new narrative — a fairytale in essence — as the Manson Family chooses to attack Dalton’s home instead. With a great deal of help from Booth’s dog, he and Rick manage to kill the attackers, and Sharon Tate survives. 

The story of vengeance is quite familiar when it comes to Tarantino’s works; victims often get their revenge at the finish — reversing history to favor the beaten, tortured, killed, and mistreated, as was the case in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. However, some feel that this time around, the ending fell flat. 

Was the ending to ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ unfounded and sexist?

The Salon argues that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not “earn” its ending, as the film heavily focuses on Booth and Dalton, before deciding to reverse history with Sharon Tate’s survival in the final act (as if out of the blue).

In Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds, the stories revolve around slavery and nazism respectively; viewers witness the heinous acts the jews and slaves fell victim to before glorious vengeance is fulfilled. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tate exists on the film’s fringes, waiting by the sidelines until her narrative purpose is ultimately revealed. 

The Salon goes on to argue that, unlike in Tarantino’s previous works, the victim is not her own savior. In an arguably sexist fashion, Tate is saved by two men and has nothing to do with the history reversal. However, others argue that Tarantino’s narrative execution – in line with the historical zeitgeist – is a perfect fit.

Was the ending to ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” a perfect conclusion to a 1960s fairytale? 

Remember that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in its simplest form, is an ode to the Hollywood of yesteryear: the Hollywood that presented heroes and villains, damsels and danger, gunfights and cowboys. You get the idea. 

In line with the zeitgeist of a 1960s filmic landscape, Tarantino places the males front and center, as those who would struggle to find their way, yet ultimately save the day. Sharon Tate — taking over as a combat-ready heroine — would have been thematically anachronistic. Such a decision would not have fit within the time period (or within the world Tarantino recreated). If she saved herself, the film would have lost the tether binding it to the 1960s and would have gone on to sacrifice continuity as a result. 

The old-school fairytale essence that defines this film — that labels this film — is dependent on the ending; it serves to fortify the entire narrative the film has built up to that point.

The story was always about Booth and Dalton. This film was never pitched as a retelling of the Tate Murders; it was pitched as a story about Hollywood that so happened to include Charles Manson. 

In his approach, Tarantino creates a story about Hollywood, and reminds audiences, once upon a time it went down like this. Once upon a time, a fading movie star and his stunt double saved the day. Once upon a time, Sharon Tate became an even bigger movie star; however, just starting out in the industry, this fairytale was never her redemption story.