[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel.]
One of the biggest mysteries of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is whether Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth murdered his wife, Billie. Rumors about his wife’s mysterious demise swirl around the stuntman, with Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee showing recognition when a crew member says Booth “killed his wife and got away with it.” But it’s only in Tarantino’s “Hollywood” novel, out now, which the director has described as a “complete rethinking of the movie,” that we get a definitive answer about what happened.
Cliff’s culpability for the crime has been hotly debated since the film was released in July 2019. Brad Pitt himself said he knew the definitive answer — that Tarantino had told him — and certainly characters in the world of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” believe Cliff is guilty. Husband and wife stunt coordinator team Randy and Janet Miller (Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell) won’t hire Cliff because they think he committed the crime. And a cryptic flashback shows Cliff on a boat with Billie (Rebecca Gayheart), handling a harpoon gun while his wife chews him out and calls him a “loser.” He pauses and it seems like something is going to happen.
Tarantino’s novel provided a chance for the director to expand the story of his film in ways only a novel could allow. And yes, he gives us an answer: Cliff did it.
In a startling confirmation of Cliff fans’ worst fears, the novel reveals Cliff to have murdered several people. And after so much fevered speculation about whether he did or didn’t do it, Tarantino first presents the answer in a surprisingly blunt, off-handed way. We learn about his third murder first, as part of a long story about how Cliff came into possession of his dog, Brandy. A fellow stuntman, Buster, owed Cliff money and decided to pay Cliff not in cash but in him becoming co-owner of the pitbull, who he was entering into bloody dogfighting bouts. When Buster decided that they should let Brandy die in the ring and make money by betting on her opponent instead, Cliff was so enraged that he killed the guy with his bare hands.
“This wasn’t the first time Cliff committed murder and got away with it,” Tarantino writes. “The first time was in Cleveland in the fifties. The second time was when Cliff killed his wife two years earlier. This was the third time, and Cliff got away with this one too.”
So there you have it.
In an eyebrow-raising move, Tarantino dedicates the book, in part, to 87-year-old actor Robert Blake, who was acquitted of the 2001 murder of his wife Bonnie Lee Bakley following a headline-making trial. Hard not to shake a connection between Blake and Pitt’s character.
An in-depth description of Billie’s murder at the hands of her husband comes in chapter 10, titled “Misadventure.” Cliff shot his wife with a shark gun, the spear cutting her in half mid-torso, though he committed the savage act in an unplanned moment of rage. “It wasn’t like he had plotted her murder,” Tarantino writes. “It was practically the accident he claimed it was. One, it was a hair trigger. Two, it was more instinct than a decision. Three, was it a pull, or was it closer to a twitch? Four, it wasn’t like anybody was gonna miss Billie Booth.” Regretting his act immediately, Cliff was able to press the two halves of her body together and keep her alive for seven hours before the Coast Guard arrived. When she died, he claimed shooting her with a shark gun had been an accident, and the authorities simply didn’t have enough evidence to prove otherwise, so they declared her death had been due to “misadventure.” But the stunt community remembered just how sour Billie and Cliff’s marriage had become…
We learn quite a bit about Cliff in the novel beyond that crime. In addition to the three people he murdered, he killed dozens in combat during World War II, including 16 Japanese soldiers he offed with nothing but a knife. In fact, Tarantino intersperses offhand glimpses of Cliff’s future throughout his narration.
We knew that Tom Laughlin’s character, Billy Jack, most famous from a 1971 film of the same name but actually introduced in 1967’s “The Born Losers,” was both Tarantino and Pitt’s primary inspiration for Booth — a crazy coincidence that both happened to be huge fans of the character — with the director even firing up a 35mm print of “Billy Jack” for the actor.
In the novel, it’s revealed Cliff worked on “The Born Losers,” and, Laughlin having little money to pay him, he was given an offer: $75 as his fee or the all-denim outfit worn by Billy Jack. Cliff opts for the latter, and so the denim outfit he wears in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is actually meant to be the costume Laughlin had worn onscreen for his movie. Once the more successful “Billy Jack” was released in 1971 — two years after the events of “Hollywood” — and that look became too popular, Cliff abandoned the outfit for fear of being labeled a copycat.
The novel also reveals just how much of a cinephile Cliff is, making it a habit to see a foreign film every Sunday. Lest you worry about Cliff’s life expectancy, in 1974 he enjoys Sonny Chiba’s “The Street Fighter” (Chiba would appear as master swordcrafter Hattori Hanzo in “Kill Bill Vol. 1”) and two years later he sees “In the Realm of the Senses,” which Tarantino calls “that wild, sexy Japanese movie where the chick cuts the guy’s dick off… he took a couple of different dates to that movie.”
In fact, Cliff’s love of international arthouse cinema seems to align with the premise of what fans assumed was a second novel Tarantino was planning: a book about a returning GI who, put through the ringer during World War II, no longer finds the fantasy factory of Hollywood movies appealing but discovers, through foreign films, a new lease on cinephilia. That’s exactly what happens to Cliff in the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel.