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How Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood rewrites the Manson murders to make a point

The life of Sharon Tate means something to Tarantino

Sharon Tate dances to a record in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
Sony Pictures

Imagine a summer of 1969 in which Nixon pulls American troops out of Vietnam without simultaneously sanctioning an expansion of the war, Muhammad Ali is a respected conscientious objector instead of a convicted felon, and Stonewall is a nonviolent emblem of the beauty of the LGBTQ+ community opposed to a bloody riot that cracked open the door of equality.

[Ed. note: this post contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood]

These aren’t alternate history reverberations presented in the new film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, but rather a set of lingering ruminations the audience walks away with when it realizes that — in Quentin Tarantino’s tangential world — Sharon Tate is still alive.

The infamous Manson murders struck at the end of the summer of ’69, so even if there was a butterfly effect, those seminal events wouldn’t have been impacted. But a reality in which Tate (Margot Robbie) saunters out onto the driveway of her Cielo Drive home on the night of August 8 in an oversized t-shirt to welcome her fictional neighbor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) over for drinks — unaware of murderous cult members he’s just defeated — is made up of a different DNA entirely. For Tarantino, Tate represents an open, vibrant, free-loving L.A. culture that hoped for real change.

Once Upon a Time garnered the moniker “Tarantino’s Manson movie” almost immediately after production was announced, but as the finished product reveals, it’s really “Tarantino’s Sharon Tate movie.” She personifies the sub-ecosystem of 1969 L.A. that Tarantino idealized as a child. Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek recently asked the writer-director if he’d “found [his] way into the story via Sharon Tate,” to which he promptly responded, “That literally is what happened.” She’s the keystone of the film, the balmy mood it inhabits, a beating heart, the reason it exists in the first place. Everything builds to her survival and hinges on the implications within.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) stops by a screening of her movie The Wrecking Crew in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sony Pictures

By 1969, the free love movement was crumbling under the weight of increasing corporatization, cultural profiteering, and mass abuse of ethics. What began as an activist opposition to patriarchal society and normative values was now more recognized for its escapist dependence on psychotropic drugs, misguided recalcitrance, and turbulent sexual ethos. As podcaster and historian Karina Longworth points out in her You Must Remember This miniseries on Manson’s Hollywood, men were still occupying dominant roles and enacting oppressive sexual fantasies on the women around them under the guise of nonconformity and unchained sexuality.

If anything, that storied summer was the last drop of water on a movement that ran dry at the close of the decade. In Hollywood, the hippie-cool-kid concept of dismantling the establishment and overtaking the elitist bourgeoisie was staged on grounds of peace, love, and free expression. But, in actuality, the lines between counterculture and establishment had become indeterminately blurred, and the concept had devolved into a no-stakes cultural fad that thrived in celebrity circles and homeless cults alike.

Tarantino doesn’t settle for the superficial embrace of hippie ideals. He’s well aware of the fact that they’d been intentionally misinterpreted and taken advantage of on a national scale, and he shows it. The lion’s share of Once Upon a Time is breezy, charming, and languorous, so when the mood sours, he makes you feel it. You feel what Tarantino must feel when he broods over the insidious schemers who co-opted a treasured era for selfish gain.

When Dalton’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) arrives to Spahn Ranch, the western movie set wasteland and home of the Manson family in its largest iteration, the tone is desolate and creepy, like a ghost town. The Manson girls are borderline malnourished, drifting about the desert terrain like packs of zombies that emit the occasional giggle, which sounds like a cry for help. They’re lost, beaten, impressionable young girls beleaguered by inner and outer turmoil at the hands of Charles Manson, their abusive, freewheeling faux guru who promises them a future severed from the establishment (after a series of race wars, mind you).

Tate, on the other hand, is the ‘60s zeitgeist incarnate, albeit the embodiment of those who were true to its ethics. She spends her day off buying a book for her husband. She picks up hippie hitchhikers in her Porsche out of the goodness of her heart, and has a genuinely good time getting to know them. She’s painted in sharp contrast to the pandemic bastardization of the movement we witness through the eyes of Manson’s family members. On paper, Tate and Manson represent similar principles, but in practice they couldn’t have been more disparate. She was kind, open, generous, humble, beautiful, forgiving, optimistic, curious, and bright. “Everyone talks about her as this incredibly sweet presence, almost too good for this world,” Tarantino laments in the Time interview, as he recalls talking to her friends while doing research for the film.

Damon Herriman as Charles Manson waves to Brad Pitt’s Cliff off screen in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) rears his head in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Sony Pictures

Tate was married to Roman Polanski — who spent a good deal of his time sleeping around in London much to Tate’s disappointment — and her career wasn’t really taking off. She only had five films under her belt before that summer. Don’t Make Waves (1967), Eye of the Devil (1967), and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) were all maligned or ignored, and Valley of the Dolls (1967) was a box-office success despite being a cultural laughingstock. Her role was pejoratively assumed to be autobiographical, and the public’s perception of her as nothing more than a troubled bombshell blonde was disheartening and dehumanizing. In an unknowingly prescient comment about her character in Valley, as cited in You Must Remember This, Tate explained that “she doesn’t mean anyone any harm, yet terrible things keep happening to her.” The fifth film was a different story.

The Wrecking Crew (1969) was a run of the mill Dean Martin comedy-spy joint. The film was a far cry from a financial or critical triumph, but it was an enjoyable role player amidst the summer’s screenings. In Once Upon a Time, Tate goes to a matinee screening where she points to her picture on the poster as she asks the box office attendee if she’s allowed free admission because she’s in the picture. She’s grateful for the photo they want with her, and even more grateful for the free admission.

Once inside, she slinks into a chair in the middle in a theatre of about 15 to 20 people (not bad for a matinee). Much to her glee, her silly martial arts moves and comedic on-screen sensibilities crack the audience up. She laughs with them, peeking behind her chair every once in a while to get a glimpse of their joyous faces, and mutedly mirroring the chops and kicks of her character with utter delight.

There’s no plot attached to Tate’s Wrecking Crew moment. We just get a mundane day-in-the-life experience with her, but it couldn’t be a more halcyon memorialization. “In the case of Sharon, I thought there was something kind of wonderful about this person who lived, who has been defined by the tragedy of her death. Just the idea that she’s … living her life, which is what, in reality, she didn’t get a chance to do,” Tarantino mused in the Time interview.

Tate was known as a rather shy person, but in 1969 she’d come into her own in social settings, as Tarantino showcases. When she’s not relishing in the theatre, she’s dancing happily alone at parties or in her room while doing laundry. She’s chatting with celebrity hairstylist, ex-boyfriend, and best friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). She’s in love with life, not in an ignorant, idyllic sense, but in a hopeful sense — always trying to make the best of the relatively discouraging situation she finds herself in with an absent, disloyal husband, chided career, and nationally misunderstood persona. Moreover, Tate isn’t hyper-sexualized as she was in real life, the costume department instead nailing her aesthetic of cute mini-skirts, turtlenecks, and canary yellow dresses. But, under Tarantino’s direction, the mind lingers toward appreciation over objectification and conjures a deep yearning for life over lust.

One might expect a Tarantino film connected to Tate’s murder to break into constant fits of extreme violence and vulgar exposition. But instead of brutality and endless dialogue, we get long, lingering moments with Tate that lead us to contemplate who she was, daydream of a distant epoch, and consider how her survival serves as the film’s nucleus. Viewers get to revel in the alluring beauties of the overshadowed ‘60s culture that Tate epitomized and meditate in the many patient moments in which her contagious spirit pops off the screen. She’s alive.

a 35mm camera sits alongside Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie on a movie theater set
Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie on the set of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Sony Pictures

Tarantino’s revisionist histories (this marking the third in a trilogy) have magnetized critique, most markedly Django Unchained (2012), whose depiction of slavery drudged up much more controversy than the fiery assassination of Hitler and top-ranking Nazi officials in his other revisionist effort, Inglourious Basterds (2009). While some will surely take issue with the lack of historicity in the film’s final moments, Once Upon a Time seems less ripe for controversy in reversing Tate’s death. The actress’ sister, Debra, has even come out in support of the film’s revisions. Originally lambasting another exploitative project about her sister (including the initial August 9 release date), Debra was eventually contacted by Tarantino, who told her what he had in store. She loved it, was invited on set for three days during filming where she lent Robbie some of Sharon’s jewelry, and later said she was “very happy” with the script and Robbie’s portrayal. Tarantino and Sony even agreed to move the release date up upon her request.

Sharon Tate was stabbed sixteen times on that fateful night. In Tarantino’s version of the story, Booth beats two Manson family members to death and Dalton torches the other before any of them can get to Tate’s mansion. The true victim is left entirely out of the picture until the miraculous moment we hear her voice over the intercom outside the gate of her house. She invites her relatively new neighbor, Rick Dalton over to meet her friends and wind down from a crazy night with some drinks. In the final shot, the camera swoops over and around Tate’s house with purpose, like it needs to show us for it to be true. It sweeps from the cul-de-sac conversation where she’s only a voice, to the top of the driveway where she emerges like a breathtaking reincarnation, alive and well in a time and place she never got to be.

What would’ve happened if Tate hadn’t died? Where would we be if the positive ethos of the ’60s blended naturally into the socio-political, cultural, and technological changes of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, etc.? Sure, style and aesthetics would’ve continued to shift. But the murders of Tate and others didn’t signal the obliteration of ‘60s fashion and design. They signaled the loss of a communally guiding ethic that triggered the explosion and exploitation of the free love movement. They ushered in the birth of harsh, well-earned cynicism on a national scale.

By giving her new life on screen, Tarantino memorializes her while suggesting that we’d be better off in a world in which what she embodied — openness, hopefulness, peacefulness, equality, sober-minded anti-establishment thought, etc. — found new life at the turn of the decade. And he not only keeps her alive, he keeps her away from the Manson family entirely, refraining from inciting even the slightest bit of fear in her.

When 26-year-old Tate was murdered, she was over eight months pregnant. If the actress had survived, she would’ve had her baby within a couple weeks. Perhaps, for Tarantino, her survival in the film is not just a celebration of her life, but an ode to a cultural rebirth that never were, a new era that never came. In that universe, Sharon Tate is 76, going on her 59th year of a storied career.

Luke Hicks has a master’s in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: music, whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball. Lambast or love him on Twitter @lou_kicks.

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