We already know how Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is going to end before we watch it. Even if we are not aware of the details, Sharon Tate’s death (and the deaths of Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger) left an undeniable impression on Hollywood. The films got darker, both literally and narratively. It changed the way we understand film, and the way film understands itself as a medium. It is a traumatic mark which we keep returning to.
Just as the case captivated and disturbed the world, it continues to resonate in our contemporary media. There had always been violence, but after Sharon Tate, it was broadcast. That is where the genius of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lies. Its most violent scene never arrives but is gestured to throughout the film.
I was apprehensive when I first heard that Quentin Tarantino was doing a film about Tate. I assumed, given Tarantino’s legacy, the film’s extreme violence would simply recreate and glorify this horrible event. I felt like this was going to be a more violent version of the Bride’s death in Kill Bill. I don’t think I was alone in that assumption, and it is one of the reasons the film is so effective. The film relies on our recognition of the story and Tarantino’s style in order to trouble our expectation. Our knowledge is what builds suspense in the film, particularly when Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff, visits the cult. We know he is in danger long before he realizes.
Every moment seems to be leading towards the horrific night, even the ones which have nothing to do with Tate. The film is like a waiting game, as though all the characters are just moving towards where they were on the night of. This threat keeps building until something drastically changes.
Instead of attacking Tate and her friends, the cult attacks Old Hollywood and loses. The film humiliates the cult, as Cliff actively makes fun of them and their approach to killing. This, in addition to the extreme way in which each member dies, dismisses any glorification of the cult.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wants you to be satisfied by the violence done to the cult members. It fixates on their extreme deaths, not because of what they have done in the narrative, but because of what they did in real life. It gives us the opportunity to punish the cult and to finally save what they destroyed. The film is thus therapeutic because gives us a space to re-examine what happened and how it changed our culture.
The film’s most heartbreaking moment comes when Sharon invites Rick Dalton to her house. We know this never happened, but for a moment, the film asks us to reflect on what could have been. Old Hollywood saves New Hollywood, and the violence of this later period never happens. This scene is intentionally dream-like, as the good guys win, and the day is saved.
That should not suggest that the film dismisses the violence done to Tate and her friends. Although it never shows this violence, it still draws our attention to it by refusing to include it. We add it onto the narrative, one where the characters are blissfully unaware of what is coming. Its ending is thus heart wrenching because it juxtaposes real and unreal so well. We never see the violence, but it is always on our mind.
The film’s ending is equally poignant and sad because Tate’s final appearance refuses the violence which has become synonymous with her. She is more than that one moment, and that is what the film asks us to focus on. By readjusting our perspective on an all too familiar history, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood asks us to consider Tate in a new light. As a woman who enjoyed going to the movies, who had this career and life ahead. Not just what happened, but what could have happened and who she could have become.