What to Make of the 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Ending

Clone of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Still 7 - Publicity-h 2019
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
In some ways, this was the only way Quentin Tarantino’s L.A. revenge fantasy could end following his historical fantasies 'Django Unchained' and 'Inglourious Basterds'.

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

The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone, who dissect one new movie a month together. To set the scene: it’s 1969 again, and both almost-was utility actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stuntman companion/minder Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are trying to jump-start their respective mojos. Meanwhile, charming It Girl actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) watches her star rise as cult leader Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his Family bide their time at nearby Spahn Ranch, just months before they, in real life, took Tate’s life, as well as the lives of Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Gary Hinman, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring and Donald Shea.

Again, there are actual spoilers ahead, so prepare yourselves.

Simon Abrams: I don't know about you, Mr. Boone, but I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In a lot of ways, it's nothing unexpected, though that doesn't make its ballistic gore any less jarring. Hollywood’s manic ending seems to be, in many ways, the only way that Tarantino's L.A. revenge fantasy could end, especially given the sheer cynicism and opulence of his last few historical fantasies. And to his credit, Tarantino does a fine enough job of establishing how his daydream version of Hollywood was, based on the evidence of QT’s favorite pop artifacts, leaning more and more on exploitation and excess. 

What's weird to me is: I'm fine with the pitiless gallows humor of The Hateful Eight and even the bombastic score-settling of Django Unchained (I need to rewatch Inglourious Basterds before saying more about it). So I'm at a bit of a loss as to why a movie that, as Time Magazine's Stephanie Zacharek writes, is Tarantino's most “affectionate” since Jackie Brown, could leave me feeling so alienated. I enjoy spending time in the world that Hollywood evokes. I just don't know if I share Tarantino’s overwhelming need to revisit, revenge and then re-bury his version of that bygone era.

Hollywood’s finale grows more unsettling as I worry about it (and not always in a productive way). Like Zacharek, I love the concluding image of almost-was character actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) walking up to 1040 Cielo Drive. The green gates open and Emile Hirsch's Jay Sebring invites DiCaprio inside for a drink, like a hipper St. Peter. This scene has a calming effect, especially after Tarantino unleashes two barrels of righteous fury on the Manson Family (more on this shortly).

I'm eager to talk with you about Brad Pitt's chiseled, weathered stuntman Cliff. But first: I want to know how you found Hollywood, especially in relation to its conclusion.

Steven Boone: You mentioned at the film's "All Media" screening that, if the theater were to blow up, most of New York's film critics would be wiped out Inglourious Basterds-style. Perfectly apt for a film so obsessively concerned with the ticking time bomb of middle age and what-if scenarios. I found the ending to be as wonderfully irresponsible as Richard Dreyfuss, at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, abandoning his family to hang with extraterrestrials. "Halloween for grown-ups" is how one character describes UFO-chasing earlier in that film. Or, more aligned with the Jiminy Cricket song that ends Close Encounters: a fairy tale for grown-ups.

Your quip is also apt because professional film critics, like the late '60's B-list actors depicted in Once Upon Time..., have been facing their own industry sunset (and the personal questions of art vs. commerce and job vs. vocation that it provokes) over the past 20 years. This film is about a very specific scene and place in time, but I suspect it will mess with the emotions of anyone over 40 who has been up to anything in… America or its cultural colonies.

Even though it didn't dawn on me that, in the brutal climax just before the ending, Tarantino would go so far as to rewrite the Manson Family massacre as a giallo version of Straw Dogs/Dirty Harry/Carrie, I found it inevitable and thrilling as it unfolded. The flow of images and sounds — such fury, under such tight control! This is where Fred Raskin, his editor since Sally Menke passed away, matches her powerful use of restraint. 

With long, plotless stretches of characters driving cool cars, loitering at bus stops and strolling through shopping districts, Once Upon a Time might be the most accessible specimen of transcendental cinema yet, and the film's climax owes as much of its power to the preceding hours of calculated "boredom" as to the steadiness of Tarantino's visual construction.

It's as if stuntman Cliff, a serene Hollywood foot soldier who's seen and suffered it all, was the editor here, as his wry gravitas sets the pace and mood for any scene he's in, no matter how panicky and scattershot his screen companions. He's a Michael Madsen kinda Tarantino character, minus the psychopathy. I imagine the only reason Madsen didn't get the part (but did get a nice little cameo) is either that he'd make an unconvincing DiCaprio stunt double or his name just isn't big enough for top-billing on a $90 million flick.

As for the so-wrong-so-right ending, entering the gates of Cielo Drive's Hollywood heaven: I felt a chill of melancholy that (again!) Spielberg got out of me when the old game designer walked off into some kind of virtual afterlife hand-in-hand with his childhood self in Ready Player One.  Damn, too many Spielberg references for a movie that is more obsessed with the TV and international co-production workhorses that were active when Stevie was just crashing the Universal lot. Names like Sam Wanamaker, Andrew McLaglen, and your boy Sergio Corbucci are recited like baseball card all-stars.

Now tell me something about those directors, or that "world" of filmgeekdom, and about Cliff, a character who, alongside said geekdom, seems this film's reason for being.

Abrams: I don’t really disagree with most of your argument, though you — and several of our peers —seem to gloss over the part of Hollywood's finale that I find to be most unsettling: the scene where Cliff savagely bludgeons Manson's Family. The sheer gore quotient in this scene made me rush to IMDB to check if Greg Nicotero — the makeup/creature/practical effects wiz whose career enjoyed a huge breakthrough thanks to The Walking Dead — had worked on the film, as he did on The Hateful Eight. (He did: straight from the gore-horse's mouth!) 

That's the level of ghoulish savagery on display here: teeth, bone and muscle are pulped with “cartoonish” zeal (to use Stephanie’s apt description) in a climactic showdown that reveals why there's an ellipsis in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood's title: because fairy tales are often grim, and many begin with a Tay Zonday-like pause for breath.

Hollywood shifts tonal and stylistic gears in a number of key scenes, like when Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) boogie on down to the Playboy Mansion or whenever Cliff zips around Hollywood Boulevard in Rick's car. In these moments, Tarantino’s fantasy seems to be on rails, just as dynamic and precise as the scenes where cinematographer Robert Richardson's camera floats around Rick during the shooting of his Lancer episode. Responsibility be damned: this thing moves so well that I wanted (and still partly want) to muscle past all that disturbing back-matter. I mean, as previously wrote, I think Nicotero and Tarantino's collaboration on The Hateful Eight had the same effect as a beautiful, gruesome magic trick.

But for some reason, the misdirection that Tarantino employs through most of Hollywood gets to me. I suspect my reservations will settle down upon rewatch, but for now: Hollywood plays out like a disturbing What If corrective, as we see in the scene where Cliff, a Hal Needham-like stuntman, takes on Mike Moh's Bruce Lee right before Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell's characters break up the fight. Needham, a longtime stuntman to Burt Reynolds, helped inspire the key relationship in the film.

The Needham connection is tantalizing, especially since Burt Reynolds was cast before he died. The Needham/Reynolds connection has been well-covered by both men (check out Stuntman, Needham's riveting autobiography) and some others. But Tarantino's love for Cliff — played by Pitt with an infectious, understated Steve McQueen-like machismo — is, I think, what makes the film’s concluding violence so distressing to me, especially given the parallels between what happened with Uma Thurman and Tarantino on the set of Kill Bill and what happened with Needham and stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz during the making of Cannonball Run (Von Beltz became a quadriplegic after Needham and stunt coordinator Bobby Bass failed to ensure her safety during a car stunt). I know we're supposed to have mixed feelings about Cliff even as we root for him, a square-jawed, self-destructive jobber who's barely more antihero than hero. And I'm dying to hear more about what you dug about Hollywood. Because I suspect I'm going to come down positive on the film ... it's just taking me a moment.

Boone: I can already steal a line from writing (about The Hateful Eight) for my purposes here: "You get [Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood]; I don't claim to understand it better than you. I just found watching the film to be more pleasurable than you did." Once Upon a Time... was a pleasure for this writer, but with many hiccups and burps of the very hollowness you describe. That's been my experience of Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown films. As infectiously alive and clever each of them is, all contain passages where the author gets so drunk on his good-bad taste that he momentarily forgets we're in the room. In Kill Bill, it was crudely written scenes of Asian stereotype comic relief (not terribly offensive, just dead-obvious); in Death Proof, it was a full first act devoted to hanging out with barely developed female protagonists who are all defined by giddy, but empty-headed conversation; in his revisionist history films (Inglorious, Django, Hateful), it was the winks and nudges accompanying visual jokes and character tics that were already enough.

The crudeness gets a pass because, as you suggest, Tarantino's characters are  stylized archetypes. He's been an essay filmmaker since 2004, drawing the most visceral responses from viewers who are game to guess what pieces of film and pop culture history have gone into his characters — and why. Sounds like dry business, but there is more groove and sensuality in his rundown of faux-Spaghetti Western posters than in the glimpses he offers of the Polanski-Tate love affair.

And there tends to be more feverish excitement and tenderness in his depiction of violence and menace than in anything onscreen that passes between two friends or lovers. Tends to be, I say, because there is a wonderful blood-free sequence in the middle of this film that goes right to the heart of an artist-entertainer's vulnerability and hopes. Stephanie Zacharek might be right that the film belongs to Margot Robbie's idealized Sharon Tate, but in this passage, young Tate's delight at being in a silly-ass Dean Martin movie and aging Rick Dalton's determination to overcome his insecurities enough to nail a difficult scene are shown to be of the same pure impulse: to get good at something, to be confirmed and loved by an audience — even an audience of a few or one — as much as they love the movies. I felt like crying.

I did indeed shed a tear at the beautiful and gory denouement that gave you pause. It's where the film's cockeyed humanism, style and politics align in ways that might make Uma Thurman uncomfortable and has already sparked headlines about why it's time to cancel Tarantino.

Abrams: I have trouble accepting Hollywood’s finale, as a ruthless disruption of the End of an Era myth that Tarantino otherwise skillfully plays with, because I think the climax’s emotional overload is a cop-out. Hollywood is obviously a personal film for Tarantino, and it was fun to share that dream with him for a while, because the man and his collaborators are very good at what they do.

But: despite all the love Tarantino shows to his troubled protagonists, his tempting dismissal of the Manson Family feels grubby. I mean, with the exception of a few emotionally flat (and deliberately so) scenes, there’s nothing to the film’s version of the Manson Family beyond a general parasitic desire to consume, masked by a dissembling combo of pseudo-spirituality and real self-importance. Why do these guys need to be put down yet again and in such an explosive way? Why does Tarantino have to interrupt his dream so violently in order to give himself even more license to play around in his seemingly boundless sandbox? I don’t expect him to be a shrewd social critic or a warm humanist… I just wish the giddily destructive conclusion that he came to was both more and less of what it is.

Cancel Culture, pff.

Boone: I like how the tension suddenly escalated between us, like a Tarantino set piece.

Yes, the filmmaker treats the Manson kids the way he treated Nazis and slave masters, as cartoon villains to be blown up with Acme dynamite. The moral certainty that he'd abandoned for a more tangled, cynical view of human nature in The Hateful Eight is back with a, uh, vengeance.

The gore is hyper-real and (mostly through sound design) nasty but the cast iron construction of that climactic scene (and the absurd serenity of a central character) is where Tarantino sings out a lot of what he's been chewing on for the entire movie: It's a confrontation between those for whom life is a cheap commodity or political chip and those who live by the tried and true. Age, sex and political orientation be damned. There are a lot of wounded souls out there who will read the scene as a straight-forward attack on or defense of their values. I experienced it as an acid-dipped love letter to the good people we have lost, the ones who, in social media parlance, should have been "protected at all costs."

I agree that, despite how fussy and 'literary" his writing has become, Tarantino is not a terribly savvy social critic. He's still at the video store. His affection and attention are cruelly selective. But as a director he uses people, props and screen time to express a humanism so palpable its damn near a fetish.