45 pages 1 hour read

Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2021, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino is a novelization of his 2019 film of the same name. Tarantino’s debut novel, it mixes elements of historical fiction and the thriller genre. The story follows the career of Rick Dalton, a struggling actor, and his stuntman, Cliff Booth, as they navigate the shifting industry of 1969 Hollywood. As a director and script writer, Tarantino mixes historical characters and events with fictional ones to explore the inner workings of the film industry, the difficulties in adapting to new life transitions, and the interpolation of reality and fiction in films.

This study guide refers to the 2021 Harper Collins print edition.

Content Warning: The source material contains racist, antisemitic, antigay, and misogynistic language, which this guide replicates through direct quotations. In addition, the novel describes graphic violence, alcohol and drug misuse, death by suicide, and discussions of statutory rape, all of which this guide discusses.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with a meeting between Rick Dalton, a struggling actor, and Marvin Schwarz, a talent agent. Rick has had trouble obtaining roles after his success as the lead actor on the Western series Bounty Law. Marvin pitches the idea that Rick should star in “spaghetti westerns,” which is Hollywood’s nickname for Italian Westerns. This suggestion upsets Rick because he believes that his career is a failure. Marvin comforts him, telling him that this doesn’t mark the end of his career.

Rick Dalton’s friend Cliff Booth, who is also Rick’s stuntman, drives him home from his meeting with Marvin. Cliff, a war hero who fought in World War II, loves foreign films more than Hollywood films because he thinks foreign films are more realistic. Just after Rick and Cliff arrive at Rick’s home, his new neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, pull into their driveway next door. Rick tells Cliff that he hopes to meet Polanski, a well-known film director, and perhaps could star in one of his films.

In the middle of the night, Charles Manson takes a few members of his “Family” to a house in suburban Los Angeles. He instructs Debra Jo, one of the youngest members, to break into the house. Debra Jo obeys him and breaks into the house, frightening the elderly owners.

Rick wakes up hungover. It’s the first day of filming the pilot for a new series called Lancer. The text flashes forward six months to when Rick returns home from filming spaghetti Westerns in Italy. After his trip, a few members of the Manson Family break into his house and attack Rick, Cliff, and Rick’s new wife, a young Italian woman he met in Italy. Cliff and Rick kill the hippies in self-defense. This event launches Rick’s career in a new direction because Hollywood romanticizes the story and Rick’s role in it.

The narrative returns to 1969. While Rick’s on the set of Lancer, he sits with Trudi Frazer, a child actor who plays Mirabella in the show. She takes her job more seriously than Rick does. Rick tells Trudi about the book he’s reading, in which the main character must face the fact that he’s past the prime of his life. This upsets Rick because he feels that the story mirrors his own, and Trudi comforts him.

While Cliff waits for Rick to finish his day at work, he goes to the movies. Although Cliff is Rick’s stuntman, Hollywood has “blacklisted” him because he got in a fight with Bruce Lee several years earlier. In addition, Hollywood knows that Cliff killed his wife, so the networks don’t want to give him work. After the movie, Cliff picks up a girl he has seen around town named Debra Jo, who is hitchhiking to Spahn Ranch. Cliff’s real reason for giving Debra Jo a ride is that he and Rick used to work at Spahn Ranch, and Cliff worries that the hippies living there have taken advantage of George Spahn. At Spahn Ranch, Cliff wakes George up, but George doesn’t remember him or Rick.

When Rick arrives home, he calls Marvin, who tells him that he got Rick a meeting with an Italian director who is considering him for the leading role in Nebraska Jim. Rick tells Marvin that he doesn’t think he wants to do spaghetti Westerns and that he’d like to try another season in Hollywood to see if he can still make it. Marvin tells Rick that he can continue to do that, or he can swallow his pride and choose to be a movie star in Italy. After Rick gets off the phone with Marvin, Trudi calls him. They run lines together over the phone for their scene the next day. Trudi tells Rick that she thinks they’re the luckiest people in the world to have such wonderful jobs. Her words make Rick realize how lucky he is to be an actor and to make a career out of it, no matter what people in Hollywood say about him. The next day, Rick and Trudi are fantastic in the scene that they practiced together.

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