Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Here’s a complete breakdown of every Once Upon a Time in Hollywood controversy. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, the 161-minute film uses real people and celebrities from the 1960s to drive a storyline about two fictional characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The overall mashup of reality and fantasy has rubbed some people the wrong way for various reasons.
Tarantino has been one of cinema’s most controversial filmmakers for nearly 30 years. His 1992 feature debut, Reservoir Dogs, breaks from traditional storytelling and stylizes the inherent violence. With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s 1994 follow-up, he pushed harder across the board via more violence, more cinematic style, and more challenging dialogue. Over the years, Tarantino’s trademark style has continuously polarized viewers, as some people love his creative vision and cinematic references, while others take offense to what they see on the surface, and also for what the subtext appears to imply.
When news first broke about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s storyline, rumors created a false narrative about how Charles Manson would be incorporated. Since then, Tarantino has often stated that filmmakers should be free to follow their creative vision, rather than focusing on what modern moviegoers expect and want. Here’s a timeline for all the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood controversies.
Cannes Backlash And Sharon Tate Representation
In May 2019, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Early reviews praised the film, but some critics questioned Margot Robbie’s lack of screen time as Sharon Tate, who - in real life - was murdered by Manson Family members in August 1969. When questioned about Robbie’s role, or lack thereof, Tarantino said that he rejected the reporter's “hypothesis.” Unsurprisingly, this news spread quickly on social media, which made Tarantino appear like he was more interested in telling stories about fictional men rather than highlighting the tragic tale of a real-life female actress and murder victim. At this point, only a select group of people had actually seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood released to the masses in July 2019, American moviegoers received clarity about the storyline. The film isn’t about the Manson Family murders, nor does the film re-create Tate’s death. Instead, Tarantino uses Los Angeles as a backdrop for a commentary about Old Hollywood ideals and the rise of the counterculture movement. Both Rick and Cliff try to find their place in Hollywood as trends change. Still, the Robbie controversy didn’t fade away, though Tarantino did indeed add two extra minutes of screen time for the actress.
Explaining Robbie's role in the movie, Tarantino said that he wanted to celebrate Tate existing in the world, just living her life as a young Hollywood starlet:
“I thought it would both be touching and pleasurable and also sad and melancholy to just spend a little time with her, just existing. I didn't come up with a big story and have her work into the story so now she has to talk to other characters and move a story along. It was just a day in the life. It's a day in the life of all three of them, that Saturday in February. A day in the life, driving around, running errands, doing this, doing that, and just being with her. I thought that could be special and meaningful. I wanted you to see Sharon a lot, see her living life. Not following some story, just see her living, see her being.”
The Twist Ending And Manson Family Portrayal
Tarantino subverts expectations with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s ending. Most viewers know what transpired on Cielo Drive during the late hours of August 8, 1969. The Manson Family murdered Tate and four others. But in Tarantino’s alternate history, the Manson Family members are killed by Rick and Cliff (mostly by the latter character). The film builds towards the real-life Cielo Drive tragedy and then refuses to provide audiences with the dark ending they expected.
The Manson Family members target Rick’s home because they identify him as the former star of “Bounty Law” (a fictional TV show), and decide to kill the man who introduced them to violence. Their plan backfires, and Old Hollywood essentially wins. Rick and Cliff save the ‘60s lifestyle. Meanwhile, Tate remains next door, free from harm, and she invites Rick over for a drink. The title card then appears, reminding viewers that what they’ve just seen is indeed a fairy tale: “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.”
The main criticism of the movie's ending has been that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has a lot of fun showing Rick and Cliff kill the female members of the Manson Family - similar to the gratuitously gory death of Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. The Hollywood Reporter published an op-ed on a pattern of violence against women being used as a "punchline" in Tarantino movies, making the case that the "so-called Manson girls had been brainwashed by a madman," and that it "seems short-sighted to mark them strictly as villains worthy of slaughter."
The Bruce Lee Depiction
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the iconic Bruce Lee appears during a flashback sequence, portrayed by Mike Moh. On the set of The Green Hornet, an ABC television series that aired from 1966-1967, Lee displays his famous bravado prior to a friendly fight with Cliff, who doesn't seem impressed by the actor's heightened sense of self. For historical context, the scene in question takes place before Lee's most iconic films like Fist of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1975). Overall, Lee comes across as incredibly arrogant, and his mannerisms are used as a source of comedy, evidenced by a moment when Cliff mimics a sound made by Lee.
One aspect of the fictional Lee's portrayal that sparked a particular backlash was his boast that he could "cripple" Muhammad Ali. Lee's protégé, Dan Inosanto, told Variety, "Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshipped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on." Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, was also unhappy with Tarantino's interpretation of her father:
“I have always suspected that [Tarantino] is a fan of the kung-fu genre and a fan of things that kick ass in cool and stylish ways, which my father certainly did. But whether he really knows anything about Bruce Lee as a human being, whether he’s interested in who Bruce Lee was as a human being, whether he admires who Bruce Lee was as a human being, I’m not really sure that I have any evidence to support that that would be true... [Lee] was continuously marginalized and treated like kind of a nuisance of a human being by white Hollywood, which is how he’s treated in the film by Quentin Tarantino."
On Twitter, film critic Walter Chaw posted an extensive thread about the portrayal of Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, stating "If it's a 'white boy fantasy' that a white guy could best Bruce Lee, it's the same kind of fantasy that would posit Lee as the ultimate test of fighting ability for a fictional white guy. Your racism is either bigoted or paternalistic. Who would win? Bruce or imaginary guy?" Just days later, Chaw further addressed Tarantino's version of Lee with a Vulture essay entitled "Why Are You Laughing at Bruce Lee?":
"Growing up as a Chinese kid in a predominantly white area, one of the most common ways people mocked me was by mimicking the noises Lee made. The reaction to Moh’s performance — the chuckles that followed his impression of Lee — felt like a similarly racist gesture. In truth, until very recently, the vast majority of appearances by Asian characters in mainstream American films carried with them the same potential for unintended, racially motivated laughter."
From Tarantino's perspective, he believes that his depiction of Lee wasn't inaccurate. He addressed the controversy at a press junket in Moscow, as reported by Variety:
“The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that, to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that."
The Cliff Booth Mystery
Moviegoers can have wildly different viewing experiences based on their interpretation of Cliff. Here are the facts: he’s an aging stuntman who’s loyal to Rick. The two men drive around Hollywood together, and Cliff mostly appears pleasant, calm, and balanced. By himself, Cliff appears a little more prickly: he beats up a hippie at Spahn Ranch, he beats up Bruce Lee during a flashback sequence, and he ultimately kills Manson Family members while tripping on acid. From the beginning in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino sets a narrative hook for the audience: Cliff may be a bad dude, and he just might've killed his wife.
But, no - Cliff did not kill his wife, at least there’s no evidence of that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s a brilliant strategic move by Tarantino, one that was clearly inspired by the mystery surround Natalie Wood’s tragic death in 1981. Once again, Tarantino uses Hollywood lore to keep the audience off-kilter. He creates a myth through character dialogue, and then subverts expectations by not showing what viewers expect. Cliff never kills his wife in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
A brief Twitter search reveals that many people fully believe that Cliff is a wife-killer, which fundamentally changes how one views Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Through Tarantino’s cinematic magic, people believe that they saw a murder take place. But here’s what actually happens: Cliff remembers being on a boat, and his wife complaining. There’s a harpoon gun on his lap, and it seems that he’s contemplating, well, homicide. But Tarantino then cuts away. In terms of storytelling, the moment represents another Cliff memory. And the narrative implications are directly connected to a famous Hollywood myth.
In November 1981, the aforementioned Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina Island near Los Angeles. Earlier that night, she’d been drinking heavily with husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken. All three were on board Wagner's yacht when Wood suddenly disappeared and was ultimately found dead. For years, people have speculated that Wagner killed Wood. At this point, it doesn’t necessarily matter why (drunken rage, jealousy, an accident), but rather that people simply believe that Wagner did indeed kill his wife. As for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the speculation is what’s crucial. Nobody is right or wrong, because nobody can know for sure what happened. It’s simply more Hollywood lore, courtesy of Tarantino, designed to keep viewers discussing the film.
Boots Riley's Criticism
In August 2019, director Boots Riley criticized Once Upon a Time a Hollywood on Twitter. Whereas some viewers don't like Tarantino's portrayal of hippies, the Sorry to Bother You filmmaker believes that Tarantino badly misrepresented Charles Manson and his clan:
“The Manson Family were overt white supremacists who tried to start a race war with the goal of killing black folks… They weren’t ‘hippies’ spouting left critiques of media. They were rightwingers. This fact flips Tarantino’s allegory on its head.”
Manson did indeed reportedly plan to start a race war, and was known to be a manipulative individual who used drugs and slick rhetoric to influence vulnerable young men and women. Because of this, there has been debate over the extent to which the Manson Family killers Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel should be blamed for their terrible crimes, and how much responsibility should be laid at Manson's feet for brainwashing them. This controversial topic was also raised in the second season of Mindhunter, and interestingly actor Damon Herriman played Manson both in Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Though the movie received overwhelmingly positive reviews, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has already proven to be one of the most divisive issues of the year when it comes to its take on 1960s Hollywood and real-life personalities who were around at the time. Still, it's not the first time that a Tarantino movie has been the topic of fierce discussion, and it probably won't be the last.