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Brad Pitt knows what really happened to Cliff’s wife in ‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’

Brad Pitt stars in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.”
Brad Pitt stars in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper / Columbia Pictures)

Among the many enigmas, controversies and unexplained mysteries within Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is a bit of backstory about Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth. What happened to his late wife?

A stuntman and war veteran resigned that his best days are behind him, Booth works as a handyman, driver and general aide-de-camp for actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. But Pitt’s character also can’t escape the rumor that he killed his wife.

The exact circumstances of her death and its aftermath are never fully discussed — was Cliff charged or tried for any crime? — but a flashback reveals that Cliff and his wife, Billie, played by Rebecca Gayheart, were both drinking heavily and arguing while alone on a boat out at sea. Cliff, in a wetsuit and scuba mask, absently points a harpoon gun toward his wife. There’s the crash of a wave and the scene ends.

Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood”
Brad Pitt stars in Columbia Pictures’ “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures)

If the rumor that swirls around Cliff colors the response of others to him — “I don’t dig the vibe he brings on a set,” says a stunt coordinator played by Kurt Russell — it also partly explains the air of sad resignation that surrounds him, as Cliff lives somewhat in exile in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater in the Valley.

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In a recent interview with The Times, Pitt was asked the question directly: Did Cliff kill his wife?

“That, I will never tell,” Pitt said with a laugh.

Pitt confirmed that he had to answer that central question of Cliff’s guilt in constructing his performance, but he’s not interested in sharing.

Lena Dunham, left, Margaret Qualley and Brad Pitt star in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.”
Lena Dunham, left, Margaret Qualley and Brad Pitt star in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures)

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The movie does offer a few possible clues: At one point, Cliff says he spent time on a chain gang in Texas for hitting a police officer. He declines the advances of a young hitchhiker played by Margaret Qualley, noting that he has long avoided jail and that he isn’t going to be finally sent away over a potentially underage girl (using tangier language than that).

But the mystery of what happened to Cliff’s wife means that what could be the coolest, most heroic character in the movie is nevertheless left with this dark cloud hanging over him.

“Precisely,” said Pitt. “So why spoil that?”

The L.A. Times podcast “The Reel” discusses Quentin Tarantino’s highly personal historical epic “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.”


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