An Essay on Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Charles Manson only has one scene in Quentin Tarantino’s newest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s work likely assumed that Manson would play a larger role in the film, because he structured the movie around Sharon Tate, and in the cultural lexicon you usually can’t bring one up without talking about the other. I’m guilty of that in the first couple sentences here as well. Charles Manson has been covered endlessly in podcasts, films, television shows and books. He’s always had a platform, and his voice has always been loud, and even after his passing he still has a foothold in American culture. He’s an iconic image of America because we haven’t shut up about him, and I think it’s a bold, and exciting move on Quentin’s part to minimize Manson’s place in this story to that of a footnote. It’s fantasia of a dead Hollywood, but one I found myself eager to return to again and again throughout the Summer.  

In Tarantino’s film Sharon Tate gets to live a normal life. She could hardly even be considered a character, because she’s not beholden to Tarantino’s usual plot mechanizations. Margot Robbie plays the young actress and there’s this beautiful private moment she has as Tate in the vehicle of her own car. She’s listening to music, off somewhere in her own thoughts, and we as an audience don’t get to hear what she’s thinking, but there’s peace in her eyes. and in that moment she gets to live. She picks up a hitch-hiker and the two of them gab about things we never hear, because the soundtrack has the tunes of the late 60s cranked all the way up. Tate and this young girl, in full flower-power fashion, strike up a quick friendship, and they have an easiness in each others conversation. Hollywood gives Sharon Tate a lot of scenes like this one. My favourite is when she sees her name across the marquee of a local movie-house for her latest feature The Wrecking Crew. She asks the ticket-taker if she can go in for free if she’s in the movie and she does just that while ambling down the aisles to sunny pop music playing over a movie trailer for a Joe Namath starring vehicle. When Robbie’s Tate watches herself on screen she isn’t viewing The Wrecking Crew as something recreated, but the actual Sharon Tate. We see her through the eyes of Robbie, and while it’s difficult to say whether or not Tate would have gone on to become an iconic actress it hardly matters, because the possibility of it is present in these scenes. The possibility of hope, juxtaposed with the work of the real actor, is a beautiful, poignant sentiment. It isn’t common in the movies of Quentin Tarantino where the shedding of blood is law. Tate’s all smiles and the promises of what this city could bring to pretty young girls.  

While watching this movie I thought a lot about Sharon Tate. Not Charles Manson. She is the defining image of the movie, but it doesn’t come without the creeping dread of real-life. Quentin never gives Manson a soapbox, but because he’s always had a platform to speak, we know that he’s a manipulative racist who took all of his shortcomings as an artist out on Hollywood. It wasn’t necessary to let him speak in this movie, because the actual context of the real history behind this story tangles around Hollywood at times. When the would-be murderers pull up on Cielo Drive soundtracked to a rumbling muffler and a haunting spectre of California tragedy by way of the Mama’s and the Papa’s hit song Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon) the film acknowledges that whatever happens next can’t bring Sharon back. It’s the way the car comes fully into frame when that song soars into a minor-key that does it and it sends chills down my spine. It is an understanding that cinema isn’t enough, but because this is a fairy tale (it’s in the name) the Manson Family won’t succeed in their mission to kill these people tonight. When the Manson family murderers have been dispatched by Cliff Booth (a wonderful performance from Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (likewise for Leonardo DiCaprio) it’s exaggerated, and violent. Likely a choice of form on behalf of Dalton and Booth’s inebriated state and a great stunner of a joke involving a flamethrower in the case of Dalton. In spite of this happening, we still never get to see Sharon Tate’s face in the closing moments: another acknowledgement that cinema can’t change what’s happened. Her voice appears over an intercom to ask Dalton if he’s alright and there’s this really wistful music cue that lingers in and Dalton looks away from the intercom, and I feel for a moment again that the real history informs the scene. DiCaprio plays it not like he’s getting his big break as Dalton, but like an Angel is speaking to him directly. There’s a crane shot that peeks above the trees like a god’s eye point of view, after the gates to the Tate/Polanski house opens like those of heaven and it feels like an afterlife. They get to live, but only in the images of this movie. It’s a complicated ending to a balancing act of images on behalf of Tarantino. If you insert Manson too much then you’re just giving him another platform to be a boogeyman of the late 1960s. If you kill him it’s too simplistic and it betrays the kind of person Quentin Tarantino viewed Sharon Tate as. I don’t think he believes she would have wanted more violence and he keeps her away from it, up the street, behind the gates, safe in her own home. By refusing to give Manson space in this story and taking the crimes, legacy and iconography away from him the film does its best to honour Sharon Tate. At heart this is a fantasy of her life. Not one of revenge on Charles Manson. By ignoring Manson Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows Sharon Tate to be more than a murder victim. She’s allowed to be a person.  

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1942)

Meshes of the Afternoon

I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are,
in case you don’t know”

-The Velvet Underground

Meshes of the Afternoon pushes the viewer to ask questions of what they expect from images. A knife is generally thought of as a weapon of violence and an instrument of murder. When a woman’s body is used parallel to the knife there is an assumption that the sexualization of murder would occur due to the bevy of images produced by horror and non-horror films alike. Identifying with the woman becomes precedent to the horror film in order to feel the terror of being the victim and thus holding up a mirror to the worst societal aspects of femininity. What Deren does with Meshes of the Afternoon is to perceive the violence both self-inflicted and otherwise in one woman’s life through ground-breaking filmmaking techniques and attention to objects. Meshes uses a dream sequence of repetition and complex layering to introduce the possibilities of one woman and the difficulties of trying to break through a mirror, or in this case a house.

The film is loaded with images that align themselves with easy identification like the knife (masculine) and the flower (feminine). The mirror figure seems to slip in and out of frame gracefully, but is always a looming presence, perhaps a truth-sayer or a version of Deren herself. Meshes scatters from any definitive subjective meaning, but the sensory terror of quick pans and edits, and the woozy camera movements mixed with these definitive images like the knife, flower, blood and the mirror create a sense that the movie is about having a female body. But that is merely one reflection of many.

On Max Cherry and Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and Max Cherry (Robert Forster)

Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) only share a handful of scenes in the movie bearing her name, but those moments cast a shadow over the entirety of this story. When Jackie gets into trouble carrying Ordell Robie’s (Samuel L. Jackson) money he got from selling illegal firearms across the border she’s sent to jail. Max is a bail-bondsman hired by Ordell to help get Jackie out of prison. Max probably thinks this is going to be just another job, but what he doesn’t expect, what no one can really ready themselves for, is seeing someone and hearing music. People talk a lot about “butterflies” when they see someone they fall for, but in movies that shit is always soundtracked, and when Max sees Jackie he hears “Natural High” by Bloodstone. Jackie’s silhouetted in a wide shot. She’s got broad shoulders, gorgeous hair, and killer legs that run down into a comfortable flats that click on the concrete. It’s the only sound that can be heard other than a guitar plucking an orange note that’s practically visible across the screen. The song is warm and signals to us that this love is immediate, classic, and perfect. Jackie keeps walking closer to Max, and he’s stuck right there, dead in his tracks. There’s a cutting back and forth and he just keeps looking at this woman he just fell in love with. Robert Forster plays it cool, knowing he has a job to do, but if you pay attention to his eyes you can see he’s weak in the knees for Jackie Brown. When she’s finally right there at the front gate he introduces himself, and she to him. The song keeps playing. Might as well keep playing through the rest of the movie. There’s a heist to pull off, and government agents to hoodwink, but all of that is icing on the cake when you’ve got a scene like this one.  

Max and Jackie don’t really know they’re living through a perfect night they’ll remember forever. None of us really realize those moments are happening, until you’ve got the context to understand what happened was important. There’s a small tragedy in not knowing what you’ve got when you have it, but that too makes the memory all the better. When Jackie gets in the car the camera hovers a bit around her facial features. We’re looking at her through Max’s eyes and it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall for this woman. She pushes her hair behind her ears and her cheekbones pop. It’s the kind of close-up that would leave you breathless if you saw it on the gigantic screens of a multiplex, but even at home it does the job nicely. The movie wouldn’t work if Max and Jackie’s romance didn’t feel real, and while Jackie takes a bit longer to fall for Max, and doesn’t even realize she’s in love until she’s riding off into the sunset, decked out in the latest fashion with a killer soundtrack blasting behind her, Max loves her immediately. The soundtrack tells us this. Quentin Tarantino always underlines with whatever music cue he introduces into the story and “Natural High” can only ever evoke love.

 The night goes on as they drive on by. Max could take her home, but they’re having an easy enough conversation getting to know each other while looking for some place to get a drink. It’d be kind of like a date if Jackie didn’t rightfully have her defences up, but even those eventually slip away. Everything does when you’re really falling for someone. Nothing else is important. Only the vulnerability it takes to give yourself over to what could be something special. Our bodies end up knowing before our heads do. Max and Jackie make all the excuses in the world to stay together on this night and later that morning. They get a drink, they have a cup of coffee, they talk about music. Anything just to keep talking to one another, and it’s perfect for Quentin Tarantino, because he likes nothing more than writing scenes where characters just talk. Max smiles when Jackie finally suggests a place to get a drink, because he knows the night won’t end in that moment. It’ll keep rolling forward with perfect harmony, where two people can be the whole world. Quentin’s got to get across a lot of exposition and move the plot forward in this conversation over a drink and a smoke, but there’s an easyness to the way Grier and Forster converse that makes it feel natural. They talk about gaining or losing weight while smoking cigs and anxieties about their own jobs inbetween the business of dead bodies and jail time and all of it feels just as romantic as that initial encounter. The red light from the bar is like a cocoon for them, a warm place where they can talk about anything with comfort, and as an audience it’s easy to fall in love with the way they speak to one another, the way they trade glances or sit in silence. Max and Jackie are tied together from this point forward. We know it, even if they don’t.  

What Max doesn’t know when he finally drops Jackie off at her house is that she took his gun out of the glove compartment to protect herself from Ordell, But more important than protection, it gives him an excuse to go see her again, and she knows that too. Two birds. One stone. That morning they have a drink again: this time coffee, and like last time they just talk. Jackie puts on some music and they go back and forth just like last night, the only difference being the topics at hand. She plays The Delfonics and Max likes the music. The camera frames Jackie lighting a cigarette as the music starts up, underlining once again through song that Max loves her. My favourite conversation in the movie revolves around aging. Jackie asks Max how he feels about getting old and he says he feels okay about it. He was losing his hair at one point, but he did something about it and now he’s comfortable, but the question was a huge smoke-screen for Jackie to open up about a bigger topic: her own fear. With this arrest hanging over head she’s afraid she’s going to lose everything and she ain’t got much to begin with. Max listens. He really listens. The image cuts back to him multiple times during Jackie’s conversation just hearing her. He may not realize it, but that’s all she needs right now. She’s made her mind up on what she’s going to do about the government and Ordell hanging over her head, and she just needs him to hear her speak, and tell her that he’ll be there for her. He does as much with a little bit of flirting thrown in for good measure. Partners in crime. Partners in love.  

Later there’s a scene where Max buys a Delfonics cassette. In day to day life we make memories through song. When couples dance at their wedding they tend to have a song picked out, because it has greater weight or meaning for the people in question. No one else at the wedding needs to know the context of this song or how it got to be important. These things just happen organically. For Max he’ll never be able to listen to the Delfonics the same way again. They’ll always be Jackie Brown, and for me, Jackie Brown will always be the relationship these two characters had.   

Formed in clay

An elder said there was only two and she wasn’t one. From above he decreed that this is how things would be and how things were. Fate handed down from masked figures, perceiving the future. Prophets and clerics with scalpels and gospel in their words. She grew up in the grips of many gods who said she’d be one way and not the other. Racing to the cliff of a death sentence they couldn’t foresee. With hammer on stone in the force of her voice she twisted the fate they handed down for her and walked a different path. One of blasphemy, a bottomless pit, Gomorrah. Hers. Flesh bent under her own will, with new definition. New commands. Crashing waves in the chaos of truth and the bed of Lilith that she called a home. Cast into hell for having lived a life and seeking more. She was covetous, a prophet of her own, with clipped wings in a torn babydoll dress. Crucify me in the arms of womanhood if you must. Acknowledging you were wrong. A lineage of Hester Prynne. The Witches of Salem. Yoko Ono. The imperfect woman. The shapeshifter. The transgressor. The snake. She knew all of this to be true, and in their scrolls they knew it said the same. All it took was one bite, to want more, when she knew hunger. She finished the apple, and threw the core into the soil. Only a shell. Soon, it would be something else.

A Boy and a Girl Take a Walk

By: Willow Maclay

I’ve always really liked the front cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. There’s this girl and she’s clasping onto Dylan’s arm as tightly as she can. It looks cold outside in that way filmmakers romanticize about when they make films about New York City, and when I look at this image I can hardly blame them. The girl has the biggest smile plastered across her face that I’ve ever seen on anybody, and it makes me wonder if I’ve ever had a moment that brought me as much joy as this girl is experiencing in the presence of Bob Dylan. I’ve never done any research about who she was or what her relationship to Dylan might’ve been, because for me that would destroy the illusion of the emotional simplicity of the image. I look at this image and I know exactly what Bob Dylan means when he sings “She gave him a rainbow”. Doesn’t matter to me that the real meaning is probably tied up in anti-war sentiments, because love can have two definitions. Dylan knows this too.

I get really swept up in her eyes whenever I listen to this album. They’re so wide. Clear. Honest. I know the feeling of having my head pressed up against the brown leather jacket of someone I care about on a cold day. But even if I didn’t have that experience there’s so much texture in the image that looking at it means feeling the same things that this girl does. The second track on this album is Girl From the North Country and I wonder if that song is about her. This album is filled to the brim with images of war and songs that would become protest anthems and then songs of nostalgic days gone by and then golden oldies and then history, but this song slipped through the cracks. Dylan re-recorded it with Johnny Cash years later and it’s become the go-to version of the song since. On this album it’s like a port at sea, where the author gets lost in something that’s slipping away right in front of him. Her soft yellow hair. Mine’s yellow too. In December of 2014 my husband and I were walking in the woods in his hometown. It was cold, but I didn’t mind, because I was underneath his arm. Like the girl with Dylan. When I was a kid I always wondered what being a woman would actually feel like and I have no clearer answer than this song. When we were walking home it came up on shuffle and it lifted something cinematic out of the air during our first Christmas together. I always hated Christmas, because I never got what I wanted. We kissed in that way people do when they talk about old Hollywood, and he put his hand on my breast and this song was given new context.

We kept walking through the woods until we approached the cemetery where his grandfather had recently been buried and I placed my hand on the cold grave, but I didn’t feel alone at all. There’s something spiritual about hope and memory and longing and my husband tells me that his grandfather would have liked me. Bob Dylan is now about the age of my husband’s grandfather when he passed away, but it doesn’t feel like Bob Dylan could ever die. He feels more than human somehow. I grew up with his music when it was already considered American history. He’s no different than Abraham Lincoln or Betsy Ross or Mickey Mouse. When I listen to Dylan it’s easy to get sucked into his gravitational pull with the currents of his words and the prose I might not ever understand completely. Listening to Dylan is sometimes like reading the Bible. It feels just as sacred, more even, and we give songs and artists a god-like stature because to make someone feel an emotion with such clarity is the same thing as righteousness. The same thing as grace. Bob Dylan is god. Judas for some. But when I look at the front cover of this album he doesn’t seem so large. He’s boyish, and he’s cold just like her. There’s the smallest glimpse of his lips brimming. A secret smile hidden in the corner of his mouth. When Dylan sings it comes across like hymns or psalms or a call to arms, but on the cover of this album his mouth is closed. In this image he’s human, just like this girl. Walking the streets of New York City, just like everyone else.