Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - My Spoilerific Fan Theory
Updated: Jul 9
I just got home from seeing this film and wanted to share my thoughts about it and my (some say insane) fan theory which has too many witness marks for me to not believe it evidenced. Please be aware I have seen the film once at the cinema at a preview screening so am working mostly from memory. I’ve used imdb to attempt to place the correct character names, let me know if there are any basic errors but I hope you will forgive these and try instead to grasp the gist of my theory.
I think that this film will be controversial for two key reasons. Firstly, it is NOT your average Tarantino outing, people who are expecting (and desperate for) another Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill full of Tarantino wit, cliché clipped dialogue, and stylistic violence, will be disappointed. Secondly, the finale is disturbing for reasons which I will explain at the very end of this post.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, please stop reading and go see it. It is a masterpiece and Tarantino is a master. Whatever the critics and user reviews say of this film, I would remind you: Nothing Tarantino does is unintentional. Nothing.
Okay now that is said, and (hopefully) you have already seen the movie: (spoilers galore ahead! You have been warned.)
The film is a metaphor for America and the split personality that America has become. Hollywood itself symbolizes the vision of America that America wishes to be, but can never achieve. Hollywood is a dream, a false construct, a façade. The two main themes of the film are Hollywood, and in particular Westerns, these are important as they are an echo chamber of the resounding metaphor.
The film centers around Rick (DiCaprio), a falling star of movies and TV. Past his prime, no longer the hero, he is now only, reluctantly, cast as the antagonist, foil to the hero, a villain. And Cliff (Pitt) who is his best friend, stunt double, and basically his PA, driver, and manservant. The two are two sides of the same character. Or what Stoppard would call ‘two sides of the same coin, or the same side of two coins.’ They are America.
One side (Rick) is full of emotion, empathy, self-loathing, and doubt. Striving, and falling short of a vision of himself which is idealistic and unachievable. The other side (Cliff) is strong, powerful, and delivers swift justice. Both characters are mutually exclusive but also are dependent upon each other. Rick fails to live up to the persona and the standards he has set for himself. Cliff is a blunt instrument, he is the muscle. He lives in the moment, seemingly without ambition, without motives, other than his own short-term amusement. They symbolize America, striving and failing to live up to a vision of itself, and its self-shaming co-dependent relationship with violence, war, and power.
Tarantino points at this several times. Firstly, as mentioned, the concept of Hollywood. Secondly the strong focus on the Western ‘cowboy’ film genre. The western genre symbolizes a nascent America, born out of revolution and war, from which emerges a ‘lone-ranger’ the idealistic hero, motivated by his principles and integrity and defending the weak and helpless.
Rick (DiCaprio) in character, inquires in the town bar of Maund's (Perry) limp, ‘whose side were you on?’ he asks. Clearly referencing the US Civil War, which further highlights the two distinct personalities of America. North vs. South, Red vs. Blue, Union vs. Confederacy, and by extension, Liberal vs. Conservative. He is subsequently surprised and amused by the ridiculousness that the Bostonian fought on the side of the British Imperialists in the invasion of India.
Cliff (Pitt) is a war vet, powerful, fearless, and hardened. One who, without conscience, carries out swift and final justice against a mocking wife, or just as readily, a weak hippie who slashes his tyres. The hitchhiking hippie Pussycat mentions Vietnam as a true example of brutality and murder, unaware that her ‘hippie’ sentiments might give offense.
The symbolism of Vietnam within the film made glaringly obvious when Cliff squares off against Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a film backlot. Moh, does an excellent portrayal of the great yet verbose poser Bruce Lee. Cliff in a display of arrogance and thinly veiled racism, is unable to hide his amusement and mocks Lee publicly. The two square off against one another, Cliff (symbolic of the USA) is initially over-confident and is surprised when Lee knocks him square on his ass. Cliff regroups and in a display of rage and unnecessary brute-force throws Lee into a Cadillac. The two are squaring off against each-other once more, this time with no clear winner when the fight is called of unexpectedly.
I feel that there might be a further, perhaps subtler, hint at Vietnam when Rick and Cliff go to Italy to film ‘spaghetti westerns’ (read: fight someone else’s war). When they return, Rick thinks that he doesn’t need Cliff anymore and is looking forward to a life of peace, but instead returns home to hippies mocking him and defying his authority.
Rick’s (read: America’s) identity crisis is further symbolized in his career, a former hero, reluctantly forced into playing the ‘bad guy’. Desperate for approval, mostly from himself.
It’s an analogy for the America that America wants to be, the construct, the poised and rehearsed version. Though both sides are deeply flawed, Rick and Cliff both subscribe to the vision. When they watch Rick’s performance in the ‘FBI’ show on television they are both pleased with, and proud of the result.
The ending has to be discussed, and this is Tarantino’s master stroke. This is where he flips the script on the audience, and turns the camera on us. He has been teasing us with the truth for over two hours, Charles Manson sauntering up the Polanski driveway, the long final embrace of the sweet and innocent Sharon Tate. By the finale of the film we have the taste in our mouth for tragedy. We are expecting (even perhaps guiltily anticipating) the slaughter of Tate, her friends, and her unborn baby. But he denies us that. Ironically we are disappointed when fiction replaces the truth, although the reality would have been more horrifying than the fiction.
The ending is an anticlimax of epic proportions (Kill Bill anyone?). But the film is a series of anti-climaxes, Tarantino lays the groundwork for the ending in the scene at the ranch where Cliff demands to see old George Spahn.
The hippies’ motive for murder is another hint at the purpose of the film. ‘They [Hollywood] taught us death and violence’ says Lulu, ‘let’s go kill the pigs who showed us how to kill.’ [paraphrased]. The irony of the false becoming reality for the actors about to be slain, contrasts what is about to happen in the film [reverse dramatic irony] where reality is about to become fiction.
Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) makes an appearance here at the finale. Viewers, especially Hollywood or Tarantino buffs, will view her entrance with some gravitas (given Uma and Tarantino’s long association, and Maya’s striking similarities to her mother in both voice and bearing). We expect ‘Flower Child’ to be an instrumental character in this final sequence, she has several lines of dialogue, more than Polanski or several other characters who receive more screen time than her, yet she disappears as suddenly as she came. This is somewhat confusing. Why does she go along with the group in the first place? What is the purpose of her character? Perhaps she is there to demonstrate that we always have a choice, that we always have free will? That the Manson Family were not mindless drones but are complicit in their crimes. She has no relationship with the central characters, perhaps she symbolizes an alternative to being either the hero or the villain: As if she is saying ‘I see what is going on here, and I want no part of it.’ I think that what Tarantino is trying to tell us is that we always have a choice for our actions.
The sudden brutality of the finale is shocking. Although less visually violent than any of Tarantino’s previous eight films, I personally found it more difficult to watch. This was not the villain carrying out heinous acts to be avenged by the protagonist at a later point. Nor was it the protagonist dealing out justice to the now reviled villain.
The brutality of the finale, after the slow paced tempo of the film, the seductive Tarantino dialogue, is sudden and shocking. Yes, they are in a home invasion scenario, but Cliff’s response is disproportionate. One might use the acid-trip as an excuse, but I think that the acid is just a device which makes his actions plausible. Consider: Gypsy’s knife is lodged in Cliff’s leg, in a non-mortal location, she is effectively disarmed, she does not further attack or provoke Cliff but looks up at him in doe-eyed fear and hesitation. What does Cliff do? Does he restrain this much weaker and mentally unstable woman? Does he disable her with a quick blow (which he easily could)? No, he repeatedly and forcefully smashes her face into the mantle piece, and then the coffee table. Pausing only to observe the gooey mush that his actions have created. His actions are unaffected by the acid trip, he moves reflexively, spontaneously and swiftly. He hits Lulu in the face with the can of dog food, and disarms and disables Tex with forceful precision. His head seems clouded by the acid, but not his muscle memory. I will be surprised if Tarantino doesn’t receive complaints from women’s rights advocates over the violence of this particular scene, where a powerful male brutally murders (yes a home invader but still) an unarmed, mentally unhinged, much smaller, woman.
Though technically less violent than many of Tarantino’s films I found this scene the most confronting, the most shocking, and the most disturbing. With this scene I think Tarantino is commenting on the new theatre of war, domestic terrorism. Rick has returned home from 'war' he feels safe. He steps outside and gives the hippies a stern talking to and goes off to lounge in his pool secure in his own blissful ignorance. Then both he, and the audience, are blindsided. We had anticipated, even presumed, that atrocities would take place 'next door'. But they invade Rick (and Cliff's) sanctuary, suddenly, and unexpectedly.
Cliff and later Rick's actions point towards America's two attitudes towards war. One is strike first, hard, decisively (though not without provocation or reason) but certainly with sudden and conclusive force (Pitt is once again Tyler Durden, the strong alter-ego of the thoughtful protagonist). The other reaction is Rick's reactive panicked response with the flamethrower in the pool. Tarantino has already layered the WW2 metaphor for us. Rick is America, off in his own little world in the pool while havoc plays out just next door. When confronted with the horror and violence, blindsided due to his own naivety, how does he react? When backed into a corner, he panics, he overreacts, he nukes her with a flamethrower.
Tarantino has always been unconventional. He does not avoid cliché as most filmmakers do, he embraces it. His dialogue is extraordinary. He can make two hitmen discussing hamburgers riveting to watch. However, this film is unconventional even for Tarantino, if that is possible to say for someone who defines himself as being unconventional.
Viewers expecting ‘another’ Tarantino genre film will not be pleased. Viewers expecting a retelling of the Mason Family, Tate, Polanski tragedy will likewise be disappointed.
DiCaprio’s performance deserves a special mention. (I’m tipping him for an Oscar). The scene in the bar with the hostage girl is an incredible performance. In a single shot he moves from in character as the villain, to the actor proudly being praised by his director, and finally devastated, moved to tears, by a simple compliment from his young female co-star. As if this was all he ever wanted, approval. This scene is the climax of the film for me, it's crucial to the sub-story. As if he is saying: 'There is greatness within you yet.'
Margot Robbie gets ample screen time as the naive and sweet Sharon Tate, though little depth to her character which is disappointing. Perhaps Tarantino deliberately leaves us disappointed. As with the real Sharon Tate, we are teased with so much potential and left unfulfilled.
Tarantino is commenting on the dichotomy of America, the yin and the yang. Hollywood symbolizes the American dream and evolving (through westerns, action TV shows, and evolving technology) theatres of war. Rick and Cliff need each other and neither could succeed, or probably even exist, without the other.