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.  

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