'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' takes the Sharon Tate murders — and makes them about men

Quentin Tarantino's new movie reframes the brutal crime as a story about white male heroism that does a disservice both to Tate and to the story.
Image: Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate in "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood."Andrew Cooper / Sony Pictures Entertainment
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By Ani Bundel

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a story about the murder of Sharon Tate — a truly horrific real crime in which female cultists murdered a famous pregnant woman — that revolves around men.

Acclaimed director Tarantino’s ninth feature film, “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood,” is allegedly about the murder of Tate (Margot Robbie) and four others, including hairstylist Jay Sebring, screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and heiress Abigail Folger. But the movie opens six months before this incident, at the beginning of February 1969. The audience may be forgiven for forgetting about Tate’s existence entirely as Tarantino’s self-indulgent, three-hour exploration of a past Los Angeles era meanders through Hollywood. Indeed, for most of the film Tate and some Manson family girls (primarily Margaret Qualley and Dakota Fanning) are sidelined, seemingly so the "real" stars — Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt — can do their thing.

For most of the film Tate and some Manson family girls are sidelined, seemingly so the "real" stars — Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt — can do their thing.

Tarantino frames his analysis of the clash between old and new Hollywood around the 1969 Tate murders because the memory of this particular crime still holds a place of outsized cultural importance. It was the moment the “live and let live” attitude towards the counterculture ended, when many of those in the film industry who saw themselves as more open and liberal discovered at heart that they were just as conservative and protectionist towards their own as any suit in Washington D.C. But “Once Upon A Time” takes this opportunity and mostly squanders it, reframing the murders as a story about white male heroism that does a disservice both to Tate and to the story Tarantino was ostensibly trying to explore.

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For long stretches, Tarantino focuses exclusively on aging cowboy movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/bodyman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The camera spends lingering moments focusing on their faces, their greying stumble, the scars on their bodies. We see the men working, we see them navigating relationships with up-and-coming stars like James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). We spend a rather absurd amount of time watching Booth drive maniacally through the streets of Los Angeles as he travels back and forth between the set and Dalton’s home.

When Sharon Tate is finally allowed to speak, a full hour into the film, we quickly lose sight of her again as the camera gets caught up in the whirl of bodies and a cacophony of cameo appearances in a restaging of famous Hollywood parties of the era.

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But Tarantino isn’t interested in who Sharon Tate was, anyway. All he cares about is what she represents: a sex symbol, a woman cut down in her prime, all hair and eyes and period costumes. Not that Robbie doesn’t make a meal of it; she’s far too good an actress to be completely overlooked. But the portrait of Tate that emerges is despite the director and script, not because of it. If it were up to Tarantino, it seems, Tate’s lasting impression on the audience would be her dirty sockless feet. (The Manson family members are also all dirty feet front and center of the camera, visually rendering both of equal value.)

But Tarantino isn’t interested in who Sharon Tate was, anyway. All he cares about is what she represents: a sex symbol, a woman cut down in her prime.

Tarantino isn’t interested in Tate because he’s not interested in the “new Hollywood” she represents, either. This film is made by a man who’s favorite thing to do is namecheck Charles Bronson, and his love for men like Bronson is clear throughout the film. It speaks volumes that Pitt’s Booth is the character with the most screen time, despite being nominally second banana to DiCaprio’s famous Dalton. Dalton is the fake, overly-emotional, nervous wreck of an actor who audiences are supposed to look down on; Booth is the real cowboy. It’s Booth who gets to take a trip out to the Manson ranch and Booth who senses the danger while his boss is at work. It’s Booth who has the sex appeal and swagger, and yet he also flashes his moral center when he chooses not to sleep with a young and nubile girl because she’s underage. All this despite hints that Booth previously murdered his wife and got away with it.

Tarantino is obviously nostalgic for the past, when everyone in Hollywood partied together and cowboys were real. But while there may not be many cowboys in Beverly Hills anymore, in a lot of ways, Hollywood hasn’t changed much. DiCaprio’s Dalton sneers at the lucrative new “spaghetti western” genre, echoing the actor’s own pretentious sneering at branded franchises in articles that proclaim him “the last movie star.” Pitt’s coiled snake of a character is dogged by claims that women in the industry won’t work with him because he killed his wife, an uncomfortable plotline when you recall that his divorce from Angelina Jolie began with allegations of child abuse (no charges were ever brought.)

Tarantino’s casting choices also betray the confidence — and convenient memory loss — of a privileged white man. Tossed in among the insane parade of A-list names sits Maya Hawke, daughter of Tarantino’s muse from his first decade of work, Uma Thurman. Hawke is only a year or so younger than her mother was when Tarantino cast Thurman in “Pulp Fiction.” In the end, Hollywood hasn’t changed much at all, if the daughter of the woman who accused Tarantino of nearly killing her on set is fighting for the chance to work with him. Tarantino throws a multitude of movie references in the film, but he apparently missed one — Matthew McConaughey’s famous line from “Dazed and Confused:” “I get older, they stay the same age.”

Which brings me to the film’s finale, which Sony marketing has worked hard to keep under wraps. I’m not sure how anyone who has seen either Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” or “Django Unchained” (both of which are loudly referenced in this film) couldn’t put two and two together. But at least those revenge fantasies allowed the victims of injustice to have the last word. Here, Tate and her crowd are denied any sort of agency or awareness. Instead, they party on while the old white cowboys of the era do the dirty work, old Hollywood saving the new. Apparently in Tarantino’s dreams, they still do.