Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, taciturn Hollywood stuntman and personal “gofer”
Los Angeles, February 1969
Film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Costume Designer: Arianne Phillips
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
This summer’s Car Week posts are likely to be more embraced than usual as many are enthusiastically embracing the open road after months of global lockdown and road trips emerging as safer alternatives for summer travel.
My first official Car Week post of the year was an obvious one for me. I went into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood last year knowing I’d be entertained, but the absolute immersion into 1969 Southern California far exceeded my expectations. By the time we were joining Brad Pitt as he worked the gears of his sporty Karmann Ghia through the streets of L.A. to the shifting sounds of Billy Stewart’s “Summertime”, Joe Cocker’s “The Letter”, The Bob Seger System’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”, and Aretha Franklin’s “The House That Jack Built”, I was hooked. It’s hardly two minutes of screen time, but the kinetic energy, superb soundtrack (how much did it cost to license music for this scene alone?), and electrifying sense of place made it one of the most memorable sequences I’d seen on the big screen in years and gave me a sense of the entertainment that was to follow.
“The whole sequence feels gloriously pointless,” wrote Sebatian Smee for the Washington Post, adding “but the pointlessness is exactly what makes it so wonderful,” and I know exactly what he means. All that really happens during this expository section of screen time is that both Cliff Booth and his famous friend Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) have made it safely to their respective homes, where each will be relaxing with their respective libations and entertainment for the evening, eight whiskey sours and learning lines for Rick and beers and Mannix for Cliff. Yet, there’s something so valuable about Cliff’s neon-lit ride home, a narratively irrelevant but tonally essential vignette that transports the viewer back to Tinseltown in the age of Aquarius.
What’d He Wear?
The 1967 movie The Born Losers introduced the world to Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), a tough, reclusive half-Navajo veteran who would take on criminals and authority figures over a quartet of movies directed by Laughlin across the decade to follow.
As many of these traits inspired the character of Cliff Booth, it’s no coincidence that costume designer Arianne Phillips chose Billy Jack’s getup as the basis for how she would dress Cliff for his post-credits introduction at the storied Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard.
“[Cliff] wore vintage Levi’s jeans and a vintage Wrangler jacket with a zipper, for which we searched high and low. I really wanted one with a zipper, rather than a rivet—reminiscent of the  movie Billy Jack, starring Tom Laughlin,” Phillips explained to Fawnia Soo Hoo for Fashionista prior to the film’s release.
These taciturn tough guys’ looks are anchored by a distinctive Wrangler jacket, constructed of blue denim with a zip-up front and easily identified with Wrangler’s signature “W” top-stitch on both chest pockets. Unfortunately, this isn’t not something you’d find in Wrangler’s current jacket lineup as their entire lineup (as of June 2020)—even including retro-inspired jackets like the 124MJ and Retro Unlined jackets—close with rivet buttons rather than zippers. Even Phillips explained that she had to search “high and low” for Cliff’s jacket, so your best bet would be to search vintage vendors or pick up a tribute like this jacket from Stag Provisions, though it lacks the left breast pocket.
Both chest pockets on Cliff’s jacket have rounded flaps that close with a single copper snap, and the top of each pocket is aligned with a horizontal yoke across the chest. The small black “Wrangler” brand patch is stitched above the left pocket along this yoke seam. The jacket also has two lower pockets with narrowly welted and gently slanted openings at the top, rather than the more gaping hand pocket openings on modern trucker jackets by Levi’s and others.
The zipper zips up from the waist hem to as high as the horizontal yoke, where the jacket is open a few inches up to the neck, but this too can be closed via a single copper rivet button at the top. Flanking the zipper on each side is a single forward-facing vertical pleat that runs from yoke to the top of the waistband, similar to the double pleats on the Levi’s “Type 2” trucker jacket though sewn together with three tobacco-threaded circles on each side.
Fortunately for our stuntman, the jacket is also rigged with “action back” pleats behind each shoulder, extending partially down a seam that begins at the horizontal back yoke; this vertical seam runs down the entire side of the back, though the pleat stops where it is sewn shut just more than halfway down the jacket. Further toward the center, two vertical seams slant toward the center back for a “V” shaped effect.
Though he wears a Wrangler jacket, Cliff illustrates the flexibility of his denim loyalty, wearing a pair of vintage Levi’s jeans. Despite the different companies, both jacket and jeans are a nearly matching blue denim.
Cliff’s jeans are likely the venerable Levi’s 501 Original Fit, modernized in 1947. The middle back loop’s position perfectly centered on the seat seam suggests that this pair was manufactured after 1964, though I’m having difficulty narrowing the date beyond that. Close-ups seem to reveal a mix of the older lemon yellow thread—particularly on the distinctive arcuate stitching over the back pockets—as well as the copper orange thread that the outfitter used increasingly beginning in the mid-1960s, eventually phasing out the lemon yellow thread on 501s by 1979, according to Mads Jakobsen for Heddels.
If I had to guess, I would suggest that this is a period-correct pair of 501s from the late 1960s, but I welcome clarification or correction from any who may know better.
Proud of his job to “help carry the load” for Rick Dalton, Cliff wears a large brass oval belt buckle embossed with “STUNTMEN’S ASSOCIATION MEMBER” across the top and bottle, surrounding an old-fashioned movie camera in the center. The belt itself is a well-worn strip of medium brown leather, similar to saddle tan… an appropriate choice given our heroes’ history on the fictional Western series Bounty Law.
Cliff’s tobacco brown suede moccasin-style boots were among the most talked-about parts of his costume when Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was released last summer. Even before the movie was in theaters, I read Yang-Yi Goh had identified them as Minnetonka boots in a GQ article, and the renewed interest resulted in Minnetonka re-releasing the screen-seen soft-sole version of these distinctive fringed boots with their two large silver conchos attached to lace-up flaps on the outsides.
Pitt wore these soft-sole boots on screen, and these light boots reportedly offer the extreme comfort of a slipper with many commenting (but few complaining) that they lack the support of their hard-soled brethren. I personally own a pair of these hard-sole Minnetonka boots, which trade a degree of comfort and authenticity for added warmth and protection. Both are currently available as of June 2020:
- Minnetonka men’s two-button softsole boot (Minnetonka, $64.95)
- Minnetonka men’s two-button hardsole boot (Minnetonka or Amazon, $69.95)
After Cliff’s day of Bloody Marys and confidence-boosting, he returns home to his trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In theater on the outskirts of Panorama City, his arrival scored by Robert Goulet crooning “Macarthur Park” on TV, though the more on-brand Mannix is on by the time he sits down to eat his dinner of Kraft “blue box” mac and cheese, straight from the pot and washed down with a beer. He’s removed his jacket for the first time, revealing a plain black cotton crew-neck T-shirt with a breast pocket and short “muscle” sleeves.
“So you’re feelin’ better now? Gimme my glasses back!” Cliff demands of Rick, who finds himself re-energized after realizing he’s living next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. The glasses in question are Cliff’s own gold-framed aviator sunglasses, styled with a double brow bar over the bridge and tinted with brown lenses.
Given Brad Pitt’s longstanding preferences for Oliver Peoples sunglasses, it’s possible that these on-screen aviators are an OP product, though they may also be a true vintage pair. Other alternatives across all budgets include the classic Ray-Ban RB3025 Aviator (available via Amazon or Ray-Ban) or the budget-friendly J+S Premium Classic Aviator (available via Amazon).
Cliff’s laidback California vibe is echoed by his sole “jewelry”, a brown leather bracelet worn on his right wrist. The bracelet’s fit is adjusted through a thin brown leather cord that runs the length of one side of the bracelet, including over the split opening where it is fastened onto a white plastic button. Decorated on one end with a blue bead and on the other longer, dangling end with a green bead, the cord is threaded onto the rest of the bracelet with four red-sewn sections on each side of the button. (Such a specific piece would be difficult to pin down with 100% accuracy, but this is also a character piece that gives its wearer a chance to establish their own unique identity so you can scour the booths of handmade jewelry crafters at an art show or select something that speaks to you from an assortment of more mass-produced jewelry like this.)
On his left wrist, Cliff wears a unique watch-and-strap rig that has been positively identified as a Citizen 8110 Bullhead, so named for the placement of its dual pusher buttons at the top of the case à la bullhorns.
Cliff’s Citizen has a gold-finished nickel 38mm case with black fixed bezel and gold dial with three black sub-dials, secured to his wrist via a 1 5/8″-wide brown leather cuff bracelet custom-made for Pitt by Red Monkey Designs, the same L.A.-based leather specialist who made watch straps that the actor wore in The Mexican and Ocean’s Thirteen. While vintage, Cliff’s watch is a few years too young to have realistically been on his wrist in 1969 as Citizen wouldn’t introduce its 8110 model until the 1970s in response to Seiko’s earlier bullhead watch.
Nearly 50 years after Citizen debuted the 8110, the Japanese watchmaker continues to manufacture bullhead watches like the Citizen Promaster Tsuno quartz chronograph, including this steel (with a tan dial and black sub-dials) model and this gold (with all-black dial) model.
What to Imbibe
Cliff’s day begins—as so many great days do—with a Bloody Mary, served up by the bartender at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, where he and Rick are awaiting the arrival of gregarious talent agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino).
Like most legendary alcoholic concoctions, there are conflicting stories regarding the origins of the venerated Bloody Mary, though it’s clear the drink emerged sometime during the interwar period and was firmly in print by 1939 when “This New York” gossip columnist Lucius Beebe attributed it as the “latest pick-me-up” favored by comedian George Jessel, a regular at New York’s 21 Club, which has often been cited as the birthplace of the Bloody Mary. Beebe’s description of the drink was simple—”half tomato juice, half vodka”—but it laid the groundwork for a popular and versatile drink that remains a popular hair of the dog nearly a century later.
While garnishments and additions to the Bloody Mary can include bacon, shrimp, cayenne pepper, and cheese, among a multitude of other savory delights, the most traditional accoutrement is celery, as evident by the massive stalk that Cliff takes a vodka-soaked bite from during their meeting with Marvin. Cliff is also sure to douse the drink in plenty of Tabasco, the peppery Louisiana hot sauce often mentioned as a preferred ingredient for the drink.
While Cliff’s loyal pit bull Brandy settles in for a misophonia-triggering dinner of the fictional Wolf’s Tooth dog food, Cliff cracks a can of the equally fictional Old Chattanooga Tennessee Lager, a beer that was invented specifically for our protagonists to enjoy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Setting the scene at Cliff Booth’s trailer is a Colt Single Action Army revolver, casually resting on a side table in what would prove to be an aversion of the Chekhov’s Gun principle as not only is the firearm insignificant, but we never even see it again. (Instead, it’s Chekhov’s Dog to which we should be paying attention…)
Likely a prop revolver kept from the production of Bounty Law, Cliff’s case-hardened Peacemaker is likely an authentic Colt, based on the markings on the hard black grips and the inscription on the barrel that reads “COLT SINGLE ACTION ARMY .45.” Of the Single Action Army’s standard barrel lengths, Cliff’s Peacemaker appears to be an “Artillery” model with a 5.5″-long barrel.
Introduced in 1873 and designated the New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol, the instantly recognizable Peacemaker would become forever entangled in the mythology of the old West, thanks in part to its ubiquity in Western cinema and television. Part of the reason for its ubiquity was their ability to fire the “5-in-1” blank cartridge favored in early Westerns, a round that could be fired from any revolver or rifle chambered in .38-40 Winchester, .44-40 Winchester, or .45 Long Colt.
It would take one hell of a machine to draw attention away from stars like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, but Cliff Booth’s gently aging light blue Volkswagen Karmann Ghia arguably steals the show for two minutes of glory as Cliff motors from Benedict Canyon to Panorama City.
The Karmann Ghia story began with a collection of minds and companies in the early 1950s as VW execs sought to capitalize on the growing popularity of their rear-engine Type 1, best known to the world as the Beetle or VW Bug, by adding a stylish halo model to Volkswagen’s lineup that would resonate during this age of postwar prosperity. At the same time, German coachbuilder Karmann (led by Wilhelm Karmann) and Italian automaker Carrozzeria Ghia (led by Luigi Segre) were also seeking to expand their output and build their respective reputations.
Ghia designers Mario Boano, Sergio Coggiola, and Giovanni Savonuzzi spent five months in 1953 working on a sleek prototype, using a covertly secured Beetle as its basis and incorporating design elements from Virgil Exner’s Chrysler d’Elegance “dream car” concept. Rather than taking offense, Exner was reportedly flattered and pleased to see that parts from one of his designs would eventually enter mass production. (In appreciation, Segre would send “Ex” the first Karmann Ghia to be imported into the state of Michigan, according to Daryl Scott at Throwin’ Wrenches.) After Ghia’s design was enthusiastically received by Karmann, and—in turn—Volkswagen, the car was unveiled to the world at the Paris and Frankfurt auto shows.
VW was wise to have turned to an Italian designer, as Chevrolet had already gotten a head start on Italian-influenced sports cars with its Corvette, which debuted in 1953, with the Ford Thunderbird soon to follow for the 1955 model year. Following on the heels of those American auto giants, Volkswagen rolled the first Karmann Ghia off the Osnabrück production line in August 1955. Aware of its somewhat underpowered engine carried over from the Type 1, Volkswagen wisely marketed its new Type 14 as a stylish 2+2 rather than a performance-oriented sports car.
“The Karmann-Ghia’s improved aerodynamics added about 8 mph to the Beetle’s 68-mph top speed, while 120 to 200 extra pounds (again, sources vary) weighed down on the VW’s already limp acceleration,” wrote John F. Katz for Autoweek in 2006. “But then Volkswagen never promoted the Ghia as a sports car so much as a blend of exclusive style and VW economy. That the Ghia was very nearly identical to the Beetle mechanically was cited as an advantage.”
The formula of sleek European design in an affordable, reliable package appealed to North American consumers, and Karmann Ghia sales exceeded expectations with more than 10,000 in its first year, resulting in doubling production until the Type 14 became the most imported car into the United States. Aware of the winner on their hands, VW continued to put efforts into the Karmann Ghia, introducing a convertible for the 1958 model year and a restyled exterior for 1961, overseen by designer Sergio Sartorelli who had also developed Volkswagen’s Type 34 for the European market.
Exterior design on the Karmann Ghia remained relatively unchanged throughout the 1960s while Volkswagen engineers worked on enhancing performance through slightly larger and more powerful engines, though total output never exceeded 60 horsepower as the 1971 models with their 1600 cc engines were rated. Although the Karmann Ghia remained a popular model into the 1970s with sales peaking in 1970, Volkswagen chose to end manufacture after the 1974 model year, effectively replacing the Beetle-based Karmann-Ghia with the Golf-based Volkswagen Sirocco.
The exterior styling of Cliff Booth’s Karmann Ghia has led viewers to deduce that it’s certainly a 1960s model, with most sources citing 1964 as the likely model year, though an IMCDB contributor suggests 1969 as the car appears to be painted in “chrome blue”, cited to have been only offered in ’69. That said, it’s unlikely that Cliff’s Type 14 would be in its somewhat worn condition if it were only a few months—rather than a few years—old, and I’m inclined to follow the seeming consensus that we’re seeing Pitt behind the wheel of a 1964 model.
1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia (Type 14)
Body Style: 2+2 convertible
Layout: rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RR)
Engine: 1192 cc (1.2 L) Volkswagen OHV flat-4 with Solex 1-barrel carburetor
Power: 40 bhp (29.4 kW; 40 PS) @ 3900 RPM
Torque: 64 lb·ft (87 N·m) @ 2400 RPM
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Wheelbase: 94.5 inches (2400 mm)
Length: 163 inches (4140 mm)
Width: 64.4 inches (1636 mm)
Height: 52.4 inches (1331 mm)
The above specs apply to the stock 1964 model, though it’s been reported that the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood team swapped out the Karmann Ghia’s 1200 cc Volkswagen engine for a more nimble Subaru motor better inclined to performing on screen as desired.
My friend (and Karmann Ghia owner) Eric Tidd noted that Cliff has a sheet from a Deist catalog on his refrigerator, suggesting that he may be picking up his own racing parts for the car that add additional horsepower. After all, if Cliff’s character was inspired by experienced stuntman and director Hal Needham, his car is going to need to be able to show off.
“The one thing that I love about driving a Ghia is its indestructibility,” Eric recalled fondly in a recent conversation. “You can really dog it, just like Cliff does in that driving montage. They don’t have a lot of horsepower, but I could always lay a drag in mine and drive it like a bat out of hell… I loved the way it shifted and handled and could out-drive my friends in much faster cars.”
If you’re looking for your own Cliff Booth-style Karmann Ghia convertible, affordable options seem to abound due to the more than 80,000 convertibles produced over the car’s timeline, generally well-maintained more than a half-century later, such as this ’64 convertible repainted in turquoise blue selling for $12,500 via ClassicCars.com.
“There is something about a Ghia that absolutely gets under your skin once you’ve owned one,” explained Eric, who had purchased his 1972 Karmann Ghia for $500 when he was 16 in 1984. “It makes sense that Cliff would drive a ‘poor man’s Porsche’ as many refer to it, given his stuntman’s salary. Cliff’s is a little beat up for being five years old and has a hell of an oil leak. I think I was the only one in the theater laughing when he first backs out of Rick’s driveway, and you can see the oil stains where his car was parked. Looked just like my spot in the driveway from my teenage years.”
“Bottom line is, the Ghia is a beautiful car,” he concluded. “Simple and easy to work on… once running well, they will last forever, and I have yet to drive mine anywhere without someone waving, smiling, or yelling ‘I love your car!’ as I drive by.”
To read more about the Karmann Ghia, I suggest the pages I sourced from:
- “1956-74 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia” by Dan Jedlicka (Road Tests and Classic Cars)
- “1963 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia: Slower, but Prettier Than Any Porsche” by John F. Katz (Autoweek, September 2006)
- “Origins of the Karmann Ghia” (Karmann Ghia Connection)
- “Rob’s Car Movie Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” by Rob Finkelman (Street Muscle Magazine, January 2020)
- “The Ugly Underside of Brad Pitt’s Cool Car in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by Sebastian Smee (The Washington Post, August 2019)
- “Volkswagen Karmann Ghia” (Wikipedia)
- “Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia” by the auto editors of Consumer Guide (How Stuff Works, December 2007)..
How to Get the Look
Cliff Booth takes a lesson in rugged everyday style from Billy Jack, hitting the streets of L.A. in an unglamorous Wrangler zip-up jacket and vintage Levi’s with a plain black T, made additionally distinctive with his own signature style pieces of concho-detailed moccasin boots and bullhead watch.
- Black cotton crew-neck short-sleeve T-shirt with chest pocket
- Blue denim Wrangler zip-front jacket with single rivet button at top, snap-flapped chest pockets (with “W” top-stitching), slanted welt hip pockets, pleated front, back shoulder pleats, adjustable waist tabs, and single-snap cuffs
- Blue denim Levi’s 501 Original Fit jeans
- Saddle tan leather belt with large brass “Stuntmen’s Association Member” buckle
- Tobacco brown suede Minnetonka moccasin-style boots with two metal conchos on side-laced flaps and soft padded soles
- Brown leather beaded bracelet
- Gold-framed aviator-style sunglasses with double brow bar and brown tinted lenses
- Citizen 8110 Bullhead gold-finished nickel watch with 38mm “bullhead” case, gold dial with three black sub-dials, and custom brown leather cuff strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Look, I had never had much experience to speak of, so I can’t say I really know how you feel.