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The Murder of Sharon Tate, Charles Manson’s Family and Cultural Shock: What Events are Based on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth picture does not retell, but is based on a true story that has changed the film industry.

Sharon Tate Getty Photos

On August 8, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie about the events in Los Angeles in 1969 was released. The world premiere of the picture took place in July, but the Russian release date is symbolic – on that day 50 years ago, the fate of actress Sharon Tate was decided. She was the victim of a gang of Charles Manson, responsible for a series of murders.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” should not be taken as a plausible reconstruction of the tragedy of this girl, but her life plays an important role in the plot. In fact, it becomes one of the guides that reveals the main theme of the film – the inevitable changes in Hollywood and the entire film industry.

In the hippie era, Charles Manson created a commune of loyal young people who were ready to go to violence for his sake

Decades after the tragedy of August 8, 1969, the question still remains relevant – what if Charles Manson was lucky with his music career a little more than in reality? He was born into a dysfunctional family, where his relatives humiliated and suppressed him, and spent most of his youth in correctional institutions for thefts and hooliganism. His outlet was playing the guitar, although he also learned this in prison.

What Manson did really well was the formation of a group of like-minded people around him. In the era of hippies and protests against obsolete American traditions, Manson became interested in religion, especially the ideas of the imminent apocalypse, began to associate himself with Jesus, then with Lucifer, and went in search of supporters.

Visiting the most popular regions with hippies, Washington and California, he gathered dozens of supporters around him. Basically, they became young girls and all those whom society rejected for some reason. Nobody expected them and did not want them, and Manson promised them a place in the “Family” – his commune. Her home was the Span Ranch in Los Angeles. An almost abandoned artifact of the Hollywood era where westerns were once filmed.

Span Ranch Getty Photos

The place was owned by the elderly and blind George Span, who agreed to “shelter” the commune after Manson offered him women from his group for sex. Until the summer of 1969, the life of the “Family” was relatively calm. For two years of his life in the center of attention, surrounded by young and naive people who consider him a prophet, Manson finally became convinced of his religious-apocalyptic views.

The final argument was The Beatles’ Helter Skelter. Manson brought the meaning of the text to his ideology and named it after the composition. The Beatles and other pop stars of that era were generally Manson’s weakness. He dreamed of creative success, stubbornly playing music and composing songs. These dreams, natural charisma and life in the vicinity of Los Angeles allowed the head of the commune to establish relations with Hollywood society.

So he met with The Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who brought him together with producer music star Terry Melcher. Manson tried to negotiate with him about recording a music album, but Melcher was not impressed with his work .

Manson Posing with a Guitar Photo by Alamy

It is not known whether this resentment pushed Manson to the decision that brought his “Family” to Sharon Tate. He himself denied this version. Shortly before this, the head of the commune had already set its radical members on several people, including the dealer Gary Hinman, to whom Manson personally cut off his ear for low-quality goods. This means that radicalism has already swept the group.

One way or another, after Melcher’s refusal, Manson ordered his associates to go to his mansion on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills and “kill everyone who is there as hard as possible.” The head of “Family” knew that the producer was no longer living there, but did not suspect that since February 1969 a married couple had settled there – Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

Sharon Tate’s adulthood has just begun, but on the one hand she has already been promised career success, and on the other, she was expecting a child from her beloved husband

For the young Texas native, Sharon Tate, the last years of the 1960s did not seem to be the end of Hollywood’s Golden Era, but the beginning of a successful career. Finally escaping from roles in secondary television series, in 1967 she played in the movie “Vampire Ball”, which was shot by her future husband Roman Polanski.

Immediately after this, she was waiting for success in the “Valley of Dolls”, where she played the role of a mediocre girl, the path to Broadway which lies only through her appearance. Critics greeted the picture with skepticism, but Tate was nominated for a Golden Globe. In 1968, she played in The Destroyers Team to Freya Carlson, a beautiful, but awkward and silly girl.

Sharon Tate (in the middle) in the Valley of the Puppets

“Tate was one of the most promising young stars of Hollywood, despite the fact that on TV and in the movie she did not play the main roles,” they wrotein The New York Times after the tragedy.

The actress really predicted success in Hollywood, but passers-by rarely recognized her on the street. However, Tate did not strive for such fame – friends and relatives described her as a modest nature, which, in addition to the movie, devoted all the time to one person – Polanski. Together, the couple joined the Hollywood bohemian, having met many artists, musicians and the head of Playboy Enterprises Victor Lones.

Tate with her husband Polanski Getty Photos

Night parties, cocktail pools, soft drugs and a sense of cultural freedom – 26-year-old Tate found herself in the center of Hollywood of that time and at the same time was at a crossroads. She wanted to find new roles to get rid of the “sex image”.

People see in me only sexual subtext, they are very critical of me. It makes me nervous. Even when I rest, it’s still tense. I have a rich imagination. I represent different things and phenomena. [For example] that my career is over. Sometimes I think people don’t like my company. But I do not like loneliness. Alone, terrible thoughts come to my mind.

from an interview with Sharon Tate Look magazine

In early 1969, Polanski and Tate rented a house on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, where they planned to stay until the birth of Paul’s firstborn. There they lived until August, when the director needed to leave for London.

In the evening of August 8, the actress, in the eighth month of pregnancy, went to dinner at the El Coyote Cafe restaurant with a group of friends. A few hours later they returned home to Tate. Relaxed, they talked, drank and listened to music.

The attack on the estate could have ended completely different if Tate’s neighbors had reacted to the noise

On the night of August 9, four of Manson’s followers arrived at the house on Cielo Drive with a pistol, knives and ropes. Among them are 19-year-old Patricia Crenwinkel, who suffered from overweight complexes, 21-year-old former stripper Susan Atkins, 24-year-old Tex Watson, a formerly high school student, and 20-year-old Linda Casabian. She was not the only one involved in the murder, making sure that random witnesses did not come to the house.

In addition to Tate, four people became victims. Hairdresser Jay Sebring, who once met the actress and tried to protect her, was shot at him, kicked in the face and stabbed more than ten times. Polanski’s friend and screenwriter Wojciech Frikowski – he tried to escape to call for help, but he was caught up and inflicted more than 50 stabs.

Killed in Tate House College AP
Prepetrators of Tate Mansion College AP

Frigovsky’s girlfriend, Abigail Folger (the heiress of the Folgers coffee brand), also risked to flee, for which she was stabbed for about 30. The youngest victim turned out to be Stephen Parent – he had barely finished school, and he appeared on the estate almost by accident. They shot him.

According to Atkins, Tate begged the attackers to take her hostage, giving her the opportunity to give birth to a child. She was ignored. Tied up, she could not defend herself when she was stabbed in the stomach 16 times with a knife. After that, the killers pulled a rope around her neck, and then wrote her blood “Pig” on the front door. At the court, Atkins claimed that she was under the influence of LSD and wanted to excise the baby from Tate’s womb, but was afraid of the police coming soon.

Investigators transport tate’s body

Neighbors Polanski and Tate did not come to the rescue. During the attack, about 100 meters from the estate there lived a married couple of Cotts. They heard three or four shots, but awake did not attach any importance to this and continued to sleep. Nearby for the night the participants of the school trip settled down, and one of the counselors, having heard the cry of a man, combed the area in search of a sound source. He did not see the estates and returned back with nothing. On the morning of August 9, the bodies of the dead were discovered by a maid from a neighboring house.

Killing Tate shocked and forever changed Hollywood

The massacre on the estate, as journalists dubbed the massacre in the house, quickly flew around Hollywood, and then the whole country. The cruelty that dealt with the victims shocked, but much more frightened by the lack of a convincing motive and the status of the dead. Young pregnant actress and Californian celebrities die on a Beverly Hills estate? For Hollywood, it seemed like something incredible.

The main followers of Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Crenwinkel and Leslie van Houten, on their way to the courtroom Photo AP

Six years earlier, in 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy seemed incredible when he was riding in a convertible and greeted the public. No less shocking was the death of Lee Oswald, who was shot in front of camera lenses. And five years later, American society, with a difference of several months, lost two more politicians – Martin Luther King (shot dead) and Robert Kennedy (shot).

At the same time, fear swept through northern California and San Francisco, where an unknown nickname Zodiac killed teenagers in love. The police not only failed to catch him, they could not even figure out the cryptograms that he sent to the editorial offices of local newspapers for fun. All these tragedies inevitably influenced American society, but a small part of it, the Hollywood elite, felt safe right up to the murder of Tate.

The estate where the actress lived with her husband Photo AP

While the police rushed about in search of clues in the case, at first suspecting that the “drug conflict” was the cause of the massacre, Hollywood stars in a panic were waiting for them to be next. Tate girlfriend and actress Mia Farrow was afraid to go to her funeral, and singer Frank Sinatra, presumably, all hid and did not contact. Comedian Jerry Lewis installed an alarm with CCTV cameras in the house, and actor Steve McQueen, who once met with the murdered actress, bought a gun.

“Hollywood was afraid because no one knew what was going on. Everyone thought that some kind of mysterious cult would kill them all, ” said Julian Wasser, who worked as a Life photo photographer at that time, years later. Frustrated by the tragedy, Polanski asked him to photograph the scene of the murder and show the footage to a medium so that he “found” the killers.

Julian Wasser at the estate. 
On the door, the inscription “Pig”, written in the blood of Tate.Photo by Roman Polanski.

The panic did not end after the arrest of the guilty in December 1969. For organizing and a series of murders (the actress and her friends were far from the only victims of the “Family”) Manson, as the customer of the attack, and seven of his supporters were sentenced to death. Later, such a measure was recognized as unconstitutional and replaced with life sentences.

However, this happened only after two long years of trial, during which Manson and his associates willingly shared with the media the cruel details of the deed. Once during the meeting, Manson jumped up and tried to strangle the judge, and another time he carved a slanting cross on his forehead as a sign that he was cutting himself out of society. So did his arrested associates. And when he shaved baldly, they did the same.

Each meeting was attended by other members of the commune who were not under investigation, supporting the leader and sharing their life stories with reporters at the ranch Photo Getty

By this time, the story of the “Family” had gone beyond Hollywood and found imitators. In February 1970, the captain of the “green berets” Jeffrey MacDonald said that three unknown men and a woman broke into his house shouting “kill pigs” and killed his pregnant wife and daughters. As it became known later, the veteran himself was behind the murder, who decided to imitate after reading an article about the Tate case in Esquire magazine.

In July 2019, an American writer and activist Edward Sander, who personally met with members of Manson’s Family, described his view of the shock in Hollywood after the Tate murder. According to him, the reason why this story has affected society so much is to destroy the usual reality. American stars for years thought they were untouchable. “Family” proved the opposite.

In the Manson case, the touch of evil was felt, even more than the touch, many considered the incident as a post-apocalyptic sign. He showed how defenseless folk-rock stars, movie stars, eminent producers, star dealers, star limo drivers and thousands of future people who dream of becoming stars in their illusory fortresses on the hills of Los Angeles and Malibu.

Edward Sander American writer and activist

Sister Tate sold part of her belongings at auction and still receives threats from Manson’s followers.

Sharon’s mother, Doris, survived her daughter for 23 years. She devoted most of these years to activism and protecting the rights of relatives of victims of violent crimes. She carefully watched so that those responsible for the death of her daughter would not be released.

She succeeded – neither Manson, nor his sentenced associates were allowed to leave the prison, although they repeatedly applied for parole. The head of the commune died for natural reasons in 2017. Atkins, who allegedly inflicted mortal wounds on Tate, passed away earlier from brain cancer. The rest are still in prison.

Cutting interviews with Manson over the years

When Sharon’s mother died, care for the legacy of the actress passed to her sister Debra. In 2018, she put up for auction the things of the deceased, which the family kept for almost 50 years. This includes several skirts, dresses, sunglasses and jewelry. The total value of these things was estimated at almost 100 thousand dollars.

This decision could be condemned by other family members, but after the death of Sharon, the death of her mother and younger sister, Debra had almost no one left. The woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer called Sharon’s sale of things “transferring to a new home” – her way of breaking up with accumulated items. “[After the death of my sister] I realized that I would not live forever, and what should I do with all these things?”, The woman asked. But she still bequeathed a few memorabilia to her daughter.

Sharon Tate by Margot Robbie Photo Columbia Pictures
Getty Photo

Polanski regularly visits Debra. Each such meeting, they recall the deceased: “I see Sharon in the eyes of Roman, and he says the same thing about my eyes – he sees her in them,” says Debra.

Even decades after the verdict to Manson, Debra receives threats from people calling themselves his supporters. The reason for her activism is that, like her mother, she insists that convicted members of the “Family” do not deserve the right to parole. “Many people still honor Charlie and want the Family to go out of jail, so I have to keep fighting,  she said in the summer of 2019.

Visited Debra and Quentin Tarantino. He did not ask her for approval about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he listened to her opinion and let her read the script for the picture. Debra called the story in the film “beautiful”, and Margot Robbie in the role of Sharon “perfect.” The actress herself believes that Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the image that Tarantino remembered as a child when he saw a girl in a movie.

After reading the script, I felt more confident because I understood how Quentin portrayed her. It became obvious to me that he adored her and was fascinated by her, and his memories of how he looked and admired her at the age of seven leaked into his work. After reading the script, I realized that this is a great opportunity to [play Tate]. 

Obviously, the film is dedicated to two fictional characters (the heroes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt – approx. ) , but the presence of Sharon [throughout the film] is a good way to give people the opportunity to truly appreciate the life she lived, rather than remembering [only] her death.

Margot Robbie actress

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