Sharon Tate (1943 – 1969)
”My whole life has been decided by fate…”
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is my favorite film of 2019, a great year for films. It works as a wistful comic fairytale, but also as a historical drama in the same mode as other movies written and directed by Quentin Tarantino like Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), where he chooses to rewrite history as revenge, righting terrible wrongs.
If you haven’t seen it, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells a story of a stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt (mesmerizing in this role), who also acts as driver, best friend, and pep talk provider to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of a 1950s Western television series. You probably know it’s also partly about the grisly, infamous Charles Manson family murders, which claimed the lives of five people, including director Roman Polanski‘s wife, Sharon Tate.
It is the summer of 1969; Rick is living next door to the Polanskis on Cielo Drive. He doesn’t know them, although he catches sight of Polankski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Tate (a fantastic Margot Robbie) sometimes as they come up the driveway. In one subtle scene, the happy couple are just leaving for a night on the town while the guys next door are coming home after a day of shooting.
Tarantino, one of the most skilled of filmmakers, is obsessed with film history and its preservation, and in this movie he has recreated a world he wishes he could have worked in with such love that it feels like his most personal film. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a thrill ride and loads of fun, but it’s also strangely sad.
In early scenes, Tate drives around with her husband in a convertible and dances at a lively Playboy Mansion party with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) talks about Tate to a stranger.
My favorite scene, one that still haunts me, has Tate wandering around Westwood where she spots a poster for The Wrecking Crew the final film in the Dean Martin ”Matt Helm” series. It was Tate’s next big Hollywood film after Valley Of The Dolls (1967) and would become the last movie released while Tate was still alive. She looks at the poster and then at a collection of film stills outside the box-office, and Robbie shows the pleasure in Tate seeing herself immortalized. After a very funny moment where Tate tries to convince the bored box office clerk that she really is in the movie playing right now, before she slips inside the theatre to watch herself onscreen. But, mostly, she is enjoying watching the rest of the audience loving her performance.
In August 1969, Tate was on the cusp of becoming a really big star and should have been making news for her upcoming films, or perhaps the birth of her first child. Instead, the world was shocked to hear that Manson’s followers murdered her in a Benedict Canyon home. The house had previously been occupied by Tate and Polanski’s friends Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen. The Polankis had visited it several times, and Tate was thrilled to learn that it was available, referring to it as a “love house”.
They were all part of a social circle that included the most successful young people in the film industry, including Warren Beatty, Jacqueline Bisset, Joan Collins, Mia Farrow, Jane and Peter Fonda, Steve McQueen, and Joanna Pettet, and Peter Sellers. Polanski’s friends included Wojciech Frykowski, Polanski’s childhood friend from Poland, and Frykowski’s girlfriend Abigail Folger, a coffee heiress. The Polanski were hosts for their large group of friends, although some of them worried about the strange people who continued to show up at their parties.
Tate was encouraged by the positive reviews of her comic performances and chose the comedy The Thirteen Chairs (1969) as her next project. It was a chance for her to costar opposite Orson Welles.
After completing the Welles project, Tate joined Polanski in London where she posed for photographer Terry O’Neill as she was opening baby gifts. Polanski was due to return on August 12 in time for the birth, and he had asked Frykowski and Folger to stay in the house with Tate until his return.
Tate was born in Dallas. As part of a military family, she moved around a lot, and she attended high school in Italy. She went on to win beauty pageants and was crowned Homecoming Queen. When she finally made it to Hollywood at 20 years old, she was cast in small roles in popular television series like The Beverly Hillbillies.
In 1964 she met Jay Sebring, a leading hair stylist in Hollywood. He proposed marriage, she declined. She said she would retire from acting as soon as she married, and at that time she wanted to focus on her career.
In 1964 Tate made a screen test for Sam Peckinpah opposite McQueen for the film The Cincinnati Kid. The role went to Tuesday Weld. She continued to gain experience with small television appearances, and after she auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Liesl in the film version of The Sound Of Music (1965), Tate was cast in her first major role: Eye Of The Devil, with David Niven and Deborah Kerr.
Tate and Sebring traveled to London to prepare for filming. As part of her manager’s promotion of Tate, he arranged the production of a short documentary called All Eyes On Sharon Tate, to be released at the same time as Eyes Of The Devil. It included an interview with Eye Of The Devil director J. Lee Thompson, who said he had some doubts about Tate’s potential with the comment, “We even agreed that if after the first two weeks Sharon was not quite making it, we would put her back in cold storage,” but added he soon realized Tate was “tremendously exciting“
In 1966, Tate was introduced to Polanski who cast her in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) after meeting with her. Tate’s fluent Italian proved useful in communicating with the local crew members. A perfectionist, Polanski had little patience with the inexperienced Tate, and one scene required 70 takes before he was satisfied. Polanski also played one of the main characters, a guileless young man who is intrigued by Tate’s character and begins a romance with her. As filming progressed, Polanski praised her performances and her confidence grew. They fell in love and got married in January 1968. At This point, Tate was a very promising 26-year-old actor creating a buzz.
Polanski was contracted by the head of Paramount Pictures, the late Robert Evans, to direct and write Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski later wanted Tate to star in the film. The producers did not want Tate, and Mia Farrow was cast. Tate was a frequent visitor to the set and was photographed there by Esquire and the photographs generated considerable publicity for both Tate and the film. A 1967 article about Tate in Playboy began:
“This is the year that Sharon Tate happens …”
The piece included six nude photographs taken by Polanski during filming of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Tate was optimistic; Eye Of The Devil and The Fearless Vampire Killers were both due for release.
She was signed to a major role in Valley Of The Dolls. Based on one of the all-time bestselling novels, the film version was highly publicized and anticipated, and while Tate acknowledged that such a prominent role should further her career, she confided to Polanski that she did not like either the novel or the script. Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Judy Garland were cast as the other leads. Susan Hayward replaced Garland a few weeks later when Garland was dismissed. Director Mark Robson was highly critical of the principal actors, but according to Duke, he directed most of his criticism at Tate. Duke wrote that Robson “continually treated Tate like an imbecile, which she definitely was not, and she was very attuned and sensitive to this treatment“. But, Polanski quoted Robson as saying to him:
“That’s a great girl you’re living with. Few actresses have her kind of vulnerability. She’s got a great future.”
In August 1969, the time of the setting for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tate was more than eight months pregnant. But while hanging out with her friends at the Love House one night, she was brutally murdered. The next day, The New York Times described her as “…one of Hollywood’s most promising young starlets, even though her television and film appearances were not primarily in leading roles”.
10050 Cielo Drive’s only connection that links Manson, his cult, and the home is Manson’s relationship with music producer Melcher, only child of Doris Day, who lived there with Bergen, before Tate and Polanski bought the home.
Manson knew Melcher, who had rejected his auditions for a music career, but he was no longer living there, and there was no clear motive why, in the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, Manson family members Charles ”Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Linda Kasabian (who was the state’s key witness against her fellow cult followers) drove to the home and found Tate and her friends Sebring, Folgers, and Frykowski. Steven Parent, a teenager who was friends with the house’s caretaker, was also killed while driving away from Tate and Polanski’s home.
Manson was sentenced to life in prison without parole and died at 83 years old in 2017. He did not kill anyone in the Cielo Drive murder spree, but he was indicted and convicted for the Tate murders (and later, four more murders). He believed that The Beatles‘ song Helter Skelter alluded to a race war, and that’s why he ordered those Family members to go to Cielo Drive.
Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten were sentenced to death, but that changed to life imprisonment when the death penalty was abolished in California in 1972. Watson was convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder and remains in prison. Atkins, who testified (but later denied) that she had stabbed and killed Tate, died of brain cancer in prison in 2009. Krenwinkel and Van Houten, who were 19 when they participated in the murder, are still in prison.
In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I love how Tarantino rewrote history, but take note, the real story has a very different ending.