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.  

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.