The Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novel, written by Quentin Tarantino himself, hits bookshelves today – and this is no simple movie novelization. Instead, Tarantino has put together a book that expands on practically everything we saw in the movie – and some stuff we didn’t see, too. It’s a completely new and separate experience from the film.
On top of all that, the book also provides answers to some lingering questions. The biggest example might be the true story of what really happened to the wife of stuntman Cliff Booth (played in the film by an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt). The movie reveals that Cliff’s wife died after Cliff shot her with a spear gun on the couple’s boat. But the shooting happens off-screen, and we’re never quite sure what really happened. Was it a tragic accident? Or did Cliff get away with murder?
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Cliff Booth is the stunt double and best buddy of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rick and Cliff work together constantly, but in one flashback sequence, we see Randy Miller (Kurt Russell), the stunt coordinator for The Green Hornet, telling Rick that he doesn’t want to work with Cliff. Why? Because Cliff has a reputation – his wife Billie (Rebecca Gayheart) is dead, and everyone thinks Cliff murdered her and got away with it.
In yet another flashback, we see a drunken Cliff and a belligerent Billie out at sea on a boat. Billie is berating Cliff, who is sitting in a chair and holding a harpoon gun. The boat rocks against the current, and just when it looks like the gun is about to go off, the scene cuts away. We know Billie is dead, but we don’t really know how she died. Rick insists that the death was an accident, and all that talk of murder is just gossip.
But is it? Did Cliff deliberately shoot Billie? Did the motion of the ocean accidentally make the gun go off? It’s an ambiguous moment, and how you read it goes a long way towards how you read Cliff Booth as a character. Sure, he’s a likable guy in the movie – but he could also be a guy who murdered his wife and got away with it. If you’re perfectly fine letting this scene remain ambiguous, you should probably stop reading right now. But if you want to know what really happened – at least according to the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novel – you’re about to find out.
What Really Happened to Cliff Booth’s Wife
So was it an accident or murder? While Tarantino hammers home the point that Cliff regrets what happened, he also makes it abundantly clear that this was no accident – Cliff Booth murdered his wife. In the book, Tarantino writes, “The minute Cliff shot his wife with the shark gun, he knew it was a bad idea.”
The book goes on to explain that the impact “hit her a little below the belly button, tearing her in half, both pieces hitting the deck of the boat with a splash.” Tarantino then explains that Cliff “had despised this woman for what seemed like years,” but “the moment he saw her ripped in two…years of ill will and resentment evaporated in an instant.”
Cliff rushes to his wife’s side and tries to hold her body together. In true ghoulish fashion, Billie is still alive despite being cut in half, and she remains alive for seven hours. Cliff is afraid to rush away to call for help so he keeps holding onto Billie and the two of them have a long conversation about their relationship. “In those seven hours, they recounted their whole life together,” Tarantino writes.
Eventually, the coast guard arrives, but when they try to transfer Billie to their boat her body falls apart and she finally dies. Cliff tells everyone it was an accident – “a tragic mishandling of diving equipment.” And while folks might not entirely believe that, he still gets away with the crime. “How did Cliff get away with it?” Tarantino writes. “Easy. His story was plausible and it couldn’t be disproven. Cliff felt really bad about what he did to Billie. But as much regret and remorse as he felt, it never occurred to him not to try to get away with murder.”
Personally, I prefer the ambiguous version of this story that the film presents, because it keeps Cliff a bit of an enigma – we never quite figure out what his deal is. But if you’re taking the novel as the definitive account of what really happened, it can no longer be denied: Cliff Booth bumped off his wife and then got away with murder.
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