'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Emotionally Reimagines Sharon Tate's Murder

Once again, Quentin Tarantino dramatically changes history with gleeful violence.

Once again, Quentin Tarantino is not afraid to change history. Just as his characters gleefully massacred Hitler at the end of Inglourious Basterds, they violently interfere with destiny in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

While those with knowledge of the real 1969 Manson murders know how the film departs from reality, there’s still more to understanding just how crazed of an ending Tarantino came up with in his revisionist fantasy, which is now showing theaters.

Here’s how the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood swerves from what actually happened on the night of August 8, 1969.

Spoilers ahead! 👉 And read our review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging Western TV star desperate to revive his career. Supported by his best friend/stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the two navigate late ‘60s Hollywood with only their wits — and Rick’s sweet Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

But as Rick struggles with his career whilst living next door to Hollywood power couple Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the Manson Family cult lurks just around the corner.

Here’s what happened in real life: Near midnight on August 8, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered 26-year-old Sharon Tate in her home, 10050 Cielo Drive, a luxury residence north of Beverly Hills. The three acted under orders from cult leader Charles Manson, who wanted to “totally destroy everyone in” the home, which previously belonged to a music producer who denied Manson a recording contract.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ending Explained
In 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in a Hollywood fairy tale that imagines a different ending to the infamous 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate.

Other victims included Jay Sebring, Tate’s ex and a hair stylist; screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski; Frykowski’s girlfriend, Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger’s coffee empire; and 18-year-old Steven Parent, a friend of the property’s caretaker William Garretson, who slept through the whole ordeal.

Quincy Jones and Steve McQueen were almost there that night, too. But Jones “forgot about” making plans, while McQueen cheated on his wife instead.

Here’s how much of that happens in the movie: None of it.

In the film, on the night of the murders, Cliff and Rick have mutually agreed to end their friendship and go out with one last night in Hollywood. When they return home to Rick’s pad, Cliff lights an acid cigarette he bought months ago with one of Manson’s followers, Pussycat. He smokes the cigarette as he takes his dog Brandy for a late-night walk in the neighborhood.

At the same time, that’s when the Manson Family pull up, unwittingly parking their noisy clunker on Rick’s cul-de-sac. Rick drunkenly yells at them for making such a racket at such a late hour. Offended (and starstruck) by Rick Dalton, the Mansons opt to kill everyone in his home, completely ignoring Sharon Tate just further up the driveway.

Who the Mansons don’t expect to find in the home are Cliff, who defeated the legendary Bruce Lee in a fist fight, and his loyal Brandy ready to pounce at his command. They also don’t expect Rick Dalton’s flamethrower, a working prop from one of his World War II movies. Yeah, it’s a completely bonkers scenario.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Margot Robbie Sharon Tate
Behind of the scenes of 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' with Margot Robbie, who plays a fictionalized version of Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino's film.

Together, Rick and Cliff brutally murder Manson’s followers as comeuppance for what their real-life counterparts did fifty years ago. It’s all self-defense of course, but for those still hurt by the crimes of the Mansons, it’s pure escapism to watch what could have been had the tables turned.

That’s why it’s so eerie, yet so warm, to watch Tate — totally saved from the Manson Family — invite Rick to her home and hang out with her surviving friends. To the characters, it’s just neighbors becoming friends. To us, the audience, it’s people saving innocent lives.

In Tarantino’s fairy tale of a Hollywood that never was, Sharon Tate and her friends are spared because of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. The two exist as the sole reason for this emotional and poignant “What if?” story, where the world not only gets to see the full career of one of its most promising talents, but innocent people (Sharon Tate had no history with the Mansons) get to live.

The case of the Manson murders is still among the most infamous celebrity true crime stories ever, even in the long, sordid history of Hollywood’s underbelly. There are Satanic cults, movie stars, hangers-on, and the viciousness of cold-blooded murder. Fresh from her roles in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, Tate was a starlet on the rise who was married to, and eight months pregnant with, film director Roman Polanski, who would later become the center of horrific crimes of his own.

Tarantino is clearly in love with Sharon Tate; Margot Robbie walks the streets of Los Angeles with an ethereal glow all throughout his movie. And he is clearly still furious that Tate never got to have a more fulfilling career and life all because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino playfully imagines what if the right people were at the right place instead.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.

Media via Sony Pictures