The swirling discourse around Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hasn’t stopped since its release last month. It’s been the source of controversy and conversation but it’s also a film that stood out in a dismal summer movie season, making a boatload of money and earning glowing reviews — not to mention showcasing two buzzy performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Pitt. The bromance between DiCaprio’s washed-up actor Rick Dalton and Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth is the pulsing heart of the movie, but while the duo may be the story’s bumbling heroes, they most certainly aren’t sinless themselves.
It’s revealed at one point in the film, that some of Cliff’s unhireable reputation hinges around some Hollywood lore about him, the queasy revelation that he may have murdered his wife on a boat. It’s a quick flashback, starring actress Rebecca Gayheart as the doomed Billie, and leaves the audience with a debate: Cliff’s primarily portrayed as not a bad guy in the film, so just what is the audience supposed to think about this man who possibly killed his wife?
Well, why not go to Billie Booth herself? When asked if she believes that Cliff killed Billie, Gayheart already knows. “Obviously we have an answer to that, but I don’t want to spoil it,” she tells EW. “I think the beauty of that question is that it’s a question that lingers and it colors how you feel about Cliff and the whole movie because is he the good guy that you think he is or isn’t he? And that was intentional.”
Gayheart’s sole scene in the film with Cliff is on a boat — where it’s hard to not think about the parallels to Natalie Wood’s tragic death where the actress drowned while on a weekend boat trip alongside husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken. It’s an old school Hollywood myth, one that has been reopened and recalibrated for decades to try to figure out what exactly happened to the starlet.
And that same type of myth making, specifically around Cliff’s character, is what Gayheart says they discussed. “There was definitely talk about, you know, what happens on the boat and what happened to Billie Booth and what did Cliff do and what didn’t Cliff do? I think he [Tarantino] made a really, really smart choice actually in giving the audience the opportunity to sort of decide for themselves based on how they see Cliff living in the film. He’s got a very humble existence with his dog and he kinda stays out of trouble. But then you have those moments where, I think it was Kurt Russell, was like, ‘I don’t want him on set, he’s a wife killer.’ There’s definitely doubt put in your head and that’s what makes the movie fun. If you didn’t have those questions, you know, would we be talking about it right now?”
Gayheart, who had previously taken time off to raise her two daughters, knows that the experience to get to be in potentially one of Tarantino’s final films is an experience and she said that the experience working with Pitt and Tarantino was “one for the books.” She and Pitt had a great time filming their scenes and she can’t call it anything but a “treat” to work with an actor and director who are both at the top of their games. And she owes taking the role to her daughter — because her name is Billie too. “When I read the script I told my daughter that the character is named Billie. And she was like, ‘Mama, you have to do it!’”
And while we might all be debating the fate of Billie Booth, analyzing her scene, and the later actions of Cliff for any smidge of information, Gayheart lets it slip that there’s definitely more to the Booth story than we saw onscreen. “There were lots of other scenes that were shot that didn’t make it in the movie. I don’t know if something will be a part of a director’s cut. I tend to believe that that question will be answered at some point.”