Did Once Upon A Time In Hollywood's Cliff Booth really kill his wife? Quentin Tarantino's 9th film largely ties things up quite neatly - and violently - at the end of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, with the Manson murders being avoided and Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) killing the members of the Manson Family who in real life murdered Sharon Tate (played here by Margot Robbie).
However, one of the biggest questions Once Upon A Time In Hollywood leaves behind is what really happened to Cliff Booth's wife? Throughout the first half of the movie, there are a number of allusions to Cliff killing his wife, which is somewhere between a dark rumor and a badly-kept secret on Hollywood lots, with various whispers going around about him and some people we meet believing he truly did it.
Tarantino isn't interested in providing an answer, preferring instead to let the mystery hang over the movie and color Cliff's actions, allowing audiences to make up their own minds. But while Once Upon A Time In Hollywood doesn't 100% confirm things either way, the clearest answer is that, no, Cliff Booth didn't kill his wife.
All Evidence Of Cliff Killing His Wife Is In A Weird Memory
We don't see Cliff Booth kill his wife in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and nor do we see her death presented in any other form, which means that we're instead left to draw our own conclusions based upon what else we see and hear in the movie. And in that regard, Tarantino frames the key mentions of the death in a flashback, and the circumstances ostensibly just before it happens as a flashback-within-a-flashback. It's a hazy memory, which is our first indicator that things aren't quite as they seem.
It comes when Cliff jumps up onto Rick's roof, and we go back to the set of The Green Hornet. First, we hear Rick trying to convince Randy (Kurt Russell) to hire Rick, and while Randy is unsure as to whether or not Cliff killed his wife, his own partner, Janet (Zoë Bell), totally is. So it's through Cliff's own flashback to those events we hear of it, and then within that he flashes back to the boat, where we see him arguing with his wife, Billie (Rebecca Gayheart), a harpoon gun sitting in his lap. There's no resolution to this moment: although things between the pair are clearly heated, and Billie is taunting him, Tarantino chooses to cut away before any violence (real or not) can take place.
The context of the memory, and the memory-in-a-memory, is important. This isn't a scene where a regretful Cliff is thinking about how he killed his wife, or at least it doesn't seem that way. It's instead him ruminating on how that ill-fated boating trip, where his wife did die in some way, has come to define his entire career, and that makes more sense if he didn't actually do it. We hear the waves at the end, which suggests this was an accident, albeit a suspicious one, and that makes the death of Billie a greater tragedy, but also makes Cliff's own story tragic as well.
The True Stories That Inspired Cliff "Killing" His Wife
While Cliff Booth is a fictional person, Tarantino does draw upon some real people for the character and his story in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Like much of Rick Dalton can be found in Burt Reynolds, so too can Cliff be seen in Reynolds' friend and stuntman Hal Needham. And like with Dalton/Reynolds, Tarantino very much wants to celebrate Needham's legendary accomplishments here, which is why Cliff is one of the heroes of the story (and would be very off if Cliff then did kill his wife).
Looking beyond that, however, there is an obvious and direct parallel to the death of Billie Booth in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and that's the tragic (and still mysterious) case of Natalie Wood. Wood, a Hollywood star through the 1950s and 60s, drowned on November 29, 1981, at the age of 43. The incident came after she had been on a yacht with her husband, Robert Wagner, and their friend Christopher Walken, but there were a number of conflicting statements and unknown factors around what happened. Wood's cause of death was later changed to "drowning and other undetermined factors", and in 2018 Wagner was named as a person of interesting into the investigation into her death. What happened remains heavily debated, but Wagner killing her is a common theory.
There are other cases Tarantino might have drawn from too: the director has mentioned a stuntman who got away with murder, although there's no clear record of who he means, while actor Robert Blake is another comparison. Blake was a former Western actor and army veteran, giving him a link to Booth, and was tried and acquitted for the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakely, but was later found liable of her wrongful death. All of these instances fit with not only Cliff, but Once Upon A Time In Hollywood's approach to history.
Tarantino's new film is about the mythologizing of the era and in many ways righting wrongs. It's a Hollywood fantasy where Sharon Tate can be saved. Another example is Cliff refusing to have sex with a minor, which feels like a commentary on Roman Polanski's sexual assault. In Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, these things don't happen. So if Tarantino is subscribing to the notion that Wood was killed by Wagner, then it wouldn't fit to have Cliff kill his own wife and get away with it. If Cliff killed his wife, it's more likely that Tarantino would show it, but instead this ties not only into his mythologizing of Hollywood's past, but touches on the idea of assumed guilt, and the way rumor can spread around the system. It's a delicate line to try and walk on, but given where Cliff's story goes, it only really works if he is innocent.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Doesn't Work If Cliff Killed His Wife
Leonardo DiCaprio is the defacto lead actor in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth is its biggest hero. Sure, he's not the traditional sort: he doesn't seem to care at all what people think of him, and he's not exactly a saint. There's a certain coldness behind his laidback charm which suggests that, yes, he has killed people and could do so again, but that comes from being a war veteran, not a wife-killer. Ultimately, while he's far from perfect, we're supposed to buy into the idea of Cliff as a good guy.
If Cliff did kill his wife, then that falls apart, and is even worse at the end of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. When he's so brutally murdering the members of Manson Family, which includes repeatedly smashing the head of Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) into just about anything he can find. If they're the actions of someone who murdered his wife, then it becomes less heroic and just more violence against women from a man with a history of it, and puts Tate's own survival on the actions of someone who did something truly terrible.
On the flip side, if Cliff didn't kill his wife, then his arc works much better. Cliff already seems like a tragic figure based on what we see of his life apart from this incident, but this is what really seals it: that he's a man haunted by those ghosts, and has been punished by Hollywood for a crime he didn't commit - and yet, in the end, finds a sense of redemption by becoming the hero, after so long just being the stunt double. It's also stronger for his and Rick's friendship, which is worse if Rick believes in him but he really is a killer. That's much more in fitting with the kind of fantasy story Tarantino is telling in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Cliff's actions throughout the film - and in particular his uses of violence - are typically justified within its internal logic. His wife dying was a tragic accident, which then loops into Once Upon A Time In Hollywood being the tragedy - and redemption - of Cliff Booth.