What’s Real and What’s Tarantino? The Facts Behind That Jarring 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Ending

The filmmaker’s latest piece of historical fiction recreates a 1969 night that shook the nation.
'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'   |   Photofest
The filmmaker’s latest piece of historical fiction recreates a 1969 night that shook the nation.

[This story contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.]

The wild conclusion of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is vastly different from the horrifying event that shook the nation on Aug. 9, 1969 — but numerous pieces of the Quentin Tarantino story are true.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, the ninth film by the Oscar-winning writer/director is set over a span of months in 1969 Hollywood. It follows the lives of multiple actors, including the fictitious Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), his stunt double, the fictitious Cliff Booth (Pitt), and Robbie's Sharon Tate.

The film concludes in a bloodbath that most Tarantino fans have come to expect, but for those who know the history of the Manson Family murders, that ending was even more shocking. (To repeat the above warning: If you haven't seen the movie, don't read on.)

Essentially, in the Sony film, three of Manson's followers (a fourth gets cold feet and flees) go to kill everyone in the Tate home on Manson's orders, but their plans alter when they are confronted by a drunk, angry Dalton, Tate's neighbor. Those who have seen the movie know the ultimate outcome.

The reality is much sadder.

Actress Sharon Tate, hairstylist Jay Sebring, Folger's coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent were brutally murdered at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon by three followers of Charles Manson — Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, who went by Katie. The 26-year-old Tate, married to director Roman Polanski (out of town at the time of the attack), was eight months pregnant (as depicted in the film). 

While Tarantino's ending is a revision of history, there are multiple accurate elements.

First, Manson and his followers or "family" really did live on the Spahn Ranch, owned by George Spahn, played in the film by Bruce Dern. Manson did order the women to have relations with the nearly blind Spahn as part of their deal to stay on the property. It is at the ranch that the group planned their attacks, which Manson hoped would spark a race war that he dubbed "Helter Skelter." 

As depicted in the film, Manson actually did visit the Tate home looking for its former renter, record producer Terry Melcher, months before the attack. 

The night of the Tate murders, Watson (currently incarcerated), Atkins (who died in 2009) and Krenwinkel (currently incarcerated) parked at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Tate home, as depicted in the film. They were ordered to kill everyone inside, but the Valley of the Dolls actress was not specifically targeted beforehand. Watson did have a gun, and the women were armed with knives. The trio went directly to the Tate home, never visiting any others. 

Perhaps the most chilling fact included in the film: Watson really did say, "I am the devil. I am here to do the devil’s business," when he was asked by the victims why the intruders broke into the home. 

In reality, the murder spree would continue into the next night when supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, would be slain in their Los Feliz home. That same house is currently on the market. 

Staff writer Katie Kilkenny contributed to this report.