Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.
It’s February in Los Angeles, 1969, sun mingling with the rows of tan legs marching down Broxton Avenue. The decade is rounding out, and revolution is lurking ’round the corner: Stonewall, Woodstock, the Apollo moon landing, the Manson murders. At least, it is in the real world–but this isn’t the 1969 of history books or CNN specials or Joan Didion essays. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s 1969, where Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate sits–feet up–in the Bruin Theatre to watch herself in the Matt Helm flick The Wrecking Crew. Only it’s not Robbie on the screen, but the real Sharon Tate; soft-spoken, gentle, beautifully unknowable.
It’s a moment of disconnect, these two strains of reality blurring in tribute to a woman who, in our world, was murdered before her light could shine brighter than this. But this is Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, a fairy tale that imagines what could have been if these weren’t Sharon Tate’s last moments, but the prologue to a blossoming career.
The subject of Tate’s involvement in the film is already a contentious one. At Cannes, where the movie premiered, a female reporter made headlines when she questioned Tarantino’s depiction of the actress in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, which uses her sparingly; she’s not the main character so much as a symbol for the breed of Hollywood star power slowly drying out, and therefore her line count is minimal. But that line of questioning ignores the enormous impression Tate leaves on the film, and her thematic relevance to the story at hand.
In real life and in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Tate’s career was borne from the same old school studio tailoring as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a backlot cowboy sliding from one set to the next, playing new iterations of the same gluttonous baddie. Like Dalton, Tate was passed around TV sets, disguised in black wigs on shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Man From U.N.C.L.E. while her managers tinkered with her star image. Her talent was arguable, but that didn’t matter much back then; like Jennifer North, her character in Valley of the Dolls, she was a stock commodity to producers–a pretty, empty prop they could use to their liking.
But in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, we see Tate as she likely never saw herself; enamored with what she really had to offer, and what might have defined her if given the time. Not just looks, but an onscreen presence that was uniquely captivating. As she nestles herself into the worn seats of the Bruin, she lights up like a firecracker as the audience laughs at her character’s jokes and applaud her combat victories. She flashes to a loving memory of stunt training with Bruce Lee, a moment that highlights not only her affection for the business but the loving work she put into her projects–always eager to better herself in the name of movie magic.
This is a Sharon Tate as in love with Tinseltown as Tarantino; reverent for the technicolor spell of cinema, tickled that she gets to be a part of it. And unlike snuff films like The Haunting of Sharon Tate or the various adaptations of Helter Skelter, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood isn’t preoccupied with her status as a murder victim. It’s interested in her life, her career, and the infectious joy she conjured for those around her.
The love Tarantino has for Sharon Tate is felt beyond the delightful theater scene, and trickles into the nuanced references he peppers through the script. Before Tate heads to the theater, she stops in a bookstore and purchases a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles for her husband Roman Polanski; in real life, Tate gave this book to Polanski shortly before her murder–years later, he turned it into the 1979 film Tess, which he dedicated to Sharon. Earlier in Hollywood, we see Tate with a Yorkie terrier, a dog she owned in real life and named Sapirstein, after the doctor in Polanski’s hit horror movie Rosemary’s Baby. She puts the small dog into a floral velvet carrier, the same one she actually owned, one of the many nods to Tate’s real life and personal tastes.
Indeed, Tate’s only surviving immediate family member–her sister, Debra–was so enamored with Tarantino’s treatment of her beloved sister, that she lent Robbie actual pieces of jewelry Sharon owned and loved. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Debra spoke about visiting the Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood set–on Tarantino’s invite–where she watched the Bruin scene from a monitor. Through the headphones, she heard Robbie articulate her sister’s trademark voice–half whisper, half prayer. “She made me cry because she sounded just like Sharon,” Debra told the magazine. “The tone in her voice was completely Sharon, and it just touched me so much that big tears [started falling]. The front of my shirt was wet. I actually got to see my sister again…nearly 50 years later.”
For some, that early goodwill screeches to a halt when the date “August 8, 1969” flashes on the screen, indicating that we’ve arrived at the day of Sharon Tate’s real-life murder in the narrative. The events leading up to that fateful moment are depicted with textbook accuracy. In the film, Kurt Russell narrates Tate’s timeline: Now pregnant, she lunches with friend Joanna Pettet (Rumer Willis) and later dines with Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) at El Coyote. Their supper is followed by a group singalong of “Straight Shooter” by the Mamas and the Papas in the family living room–all details that align perfectly with the true events of that night. (Sheet music for “Straight Shooter” was found on the house’s grand piano–a few feet away from Sharon’s slain body.)
But the roads of fate diverge when Rick Dalton, Tate’s neighbor, intervenes a planned attack on the Tate/Polanski homestead by the Manson family. Instead, three members of the vicious cult are lured into his abode, where their plans are foiled by Dalton’s acid-tripping stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and his dog Brandy, who kill them off in a strikingly violent coda. In this version of reality, Tate and her housemates survive, and the film ends on a tender note; as Booth is whisked away in an ambulance, Tate and Sebring invite Dalton into their Cielo Drive home.
It’s Tarantino at his most sweetly indulgent, a sense of melancholy and wonder swelling as the words “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” dance over happy images of Sharon Tate–pregnant and alive and ready for her second act–as the film fades to black. Tate is one small player in a film doing arguably too much, but when she’s there she shines with hope–a light in this grim world of cultish affectation. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is occupied with the magic Tate promised, not the tragedy we’ve used to define her. It’s the first time Sharon Tate’s career–not her body, not her death–has gotten a spotlight like this. Let’s hope it’s not the last.
Images: Sony Pictures; Alan Pappé/Flickr