Facts vs. Fiction | What was True and What was Fantasy about "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
This analysis includes many spoilers from the film. If you haven’t yet seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and you don’t want to be told how Tarantino rewrites history, turn back now.
I can’t believe that after so much speculation, so much hype and so much waiting, the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino is finally here. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairytale version of the real events surrounding the 1969 Tate murders, carried out by the infamous Manson Family. Much like his last couple of films Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained, Tarantino once again rights the wrongs in American history, giving the audience a satisfying outcome to a story they already understand the sad realities of.
And while the film clearly wasn’t attempting to be 100% true to real events, I believe it’s important to go back and find out what in this movie was fact and what was fiction, to keep ourselves better informed and see just how much research was done in the making of the film.
Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth
As we all know, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, used to frame and affect the story of the Tate murders. But they were masterfully crafted by Tarantino’s love of 60s and 70s westerns and moviemaking. Tarantino always blows me away with the references he makes to film and television themes and visuals of yesteryear. And the characters of Dalton and Booth are no exception.
Not only do Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have great chemistry, but their side by side stories throughout the film are a great metaphor for filmmaking and acting. In the film, Dalton’s character gets to play a crime-fighting hero on TV, while Booth performs the duties of one in real life. And in return, Dalton gets to live in a fancy house and relax in his swimming pool every night, while Booth lives in a trailer eating food out of packages and cans. The heroes of real life never get the thanks and recognition from the world that the imaginary ones do.
These characters are based off of actor Bert Reynolds, and his frequent stunt double, Hal Needham. Just like Dalton, Reynolds had watched his stock fall after his work on a television series, resulting in his work in spaghetti Westerns. But unlike Booth, Needham was also an actor director and writer in the industry. Reynolds and Needham ended up finding more success in the 70s than in the 60s, much like the film suggests Dalton and Booth do.
Funny enough, Bruce Lee would not have been a part of The Green Hornet (the film he was filming in the movie when he gets into a fight with Booth) if it weren’t for Sharon Tate’s ex-lover Jay Sebring. Sebring met him in 1964 at a karate championship and introduced him to Bill Dozier who was working on the series. This kickstarted Lee’s career.
Lee was known for how seriously he took martial arts, as portrayed in the film. He was a very no-nonsense person when it came to his expertise and he’s often painted as pretentious in the modern day. Which is where this caricature version of him in the film comes from.
On the topic of the scene where Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee duke it out, Lee’s daughter Shannon had this to say: “I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive…He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air. And not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”
While this was an entertaining scene and something that furthers this idea that he was an extremely serious martial artist, I hope that this portrayal doesn’t tarnish his reputation for future generations. Lee was a trailblazer who paved way for future martial artists and Asian actors in American film.
Sharon and Roman
I found it strange that the film portrayed the relationship between Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski as slightly distant, but happy. While there are scenes where they part ways at a party, and Polanski is notably missing from many of Tate’s scenes, the film chooses not to delve into the actual nature of their relationship. And while I think that’s fine as their relationship is not the core of the story, I think it’s important to understand the relationship between Tate and Polanski.
Raised in the beauty pageant scene, a young Sharon Tate realized that her passion in life was acting, and networked and auditioned her way through Hollywood, experiencing a roller coaster of a career. Her breakout role was 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls,” for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for “New Star of the Year.” She was known to impress directors and producers with her combination of fearlessness to perform, and sheer vulnerability.
When you read the story of Sharon’s life, it’s filled with people doubting her talents when first meeting her, and in then believing she’s going to be the next big thing after spending time with her. Perhaps her beauty caused people not to take her as seriously. But her love for the art of acting and for film in general was very apparent. Enter Roman Polanski, whose career as a director was just taking off.
Tate met Polanski a short time before she was cast in his 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers. While they initially were not attracted to each other, - and Polanski got frustrated with her on set due to her inexperience - once they improved in their collaboration and her performance ended up pleasing him, they started a relationship. She became a major muse for him, and he had an urge to cast her in the titular role for his now classic film, Rosemary’s Baby. But he felt too embarrassed to request that the role be given to his love interest, so Mia Farrow was cast instead.
Tate and Polanski married in early 1968, and reportedly throughout their time as husband and wife, Tate yearned for a more traditional marriage and told friends that she hoped Polanski would change his promiscuous ways. Although it’s been alleged that when Polanski agreed to marry Tate, she promised that she wouldn’t try to change him. Peter Evans has quoted Tate on her marriage stating "We have a good arrangement. Roman lies to me and I pretend to believe him.” In fact the day of her murder, 8.5-month pregnant Tate had even confided in two friends over lunch that she was upset by Polanki’s extended stay in London.
According to Sharon’s sister Debra Tate, Tate’s death completely destroyed Polanski. She told Dateline NBC “I watched a very strong man break down completely.”
Following the murders, Life magazine wrote an article about the incident and included photos of the crime scene. Polanski was criticized for posing for a photo at the doorway of the home next to the word PIG, painted on the door in Tate’s blood by her killers. He claimed that he didn’t mean any disrespect by posing for the photo, and instead hoped it would shock people who saw it and possibly force the truth to surface.
Sharon and Jay
The relationship between Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring is something that has fascinated me for years. His undying love and dedication to her causes many to believe that he was the true love of her life (although Tate of course is the only one who could have confirmed that.) I appreciate that the film recognized their relationship and his loyalty to her.
Sebring was a celebrity hairstylist who was so sought-after, that he could charge $50 or more for a haircut at a time when the average cost was a dollar or two.
He started dating Tate in 1964. After some time, she declined a marriage proposal from him and ended up leaving him for Polanski. Despite his feelings of betrayal, Sebring befriended Polanski in an attempt to salvage his friendship with Tate. A relatively lonely man, he considered the two of them to be his family until his dying day.
He notably begged for Sharon and her unborn son’s life before being the first one killed in the Tate murders.
In the film, after Booth and Dalton kill the Manson family intruders, Sebring approaches Dalton to ask what all the ruckus was and invites him up to the house to meet Tate and their friends. To me, it was a nice nod to both his caring nature and his ability to network. The only thing I would have changed in regards to him is that I would have liked the film to show us that Sebring is Tate’s ex who still has feelings for her, rather than having the fictional version of Steve McQueen explain it to us in an awkward exposition-fest.
While the scene where Charles Manson shows up to the Polanski house and speaks with Sebring is fictional, the idea that Manson had an interest in the house in particular was not.
Manson had at one point been interested in making it big as a musician. And the year before the Tate murders took place, Denis Wilson of the Beach Boys introduced him to record producer Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day,) who was interested in producing some of his music and even recording several songs he wrote with the Beach Boys. However after Manson got into a physical fight with a stuntman at Spahn Ranch (Cliff Booth, is that you?) Melcher declined to sign Manson for a record deal and he and Wilson severed ties with the budding musician.
This rejection hurt Manson very deeply, and thus his urge for revenge against Melcher was born. In the past, Manson had visited Melcher when he lived at 10050 Cielo Drive. And even after Melcher had moved out of that house - and it was leased to Polanksi and Tate - Manson still had his family members target the home on their killing spree. He thought killing everyone in the home would send a message to Melcher and force him to live in fear. It’s been alleged that someone from the Manson family (perhaps even Charles himself) had left a note at Melcher’s home in Malibu after the murders took place. Melcher was forced to go under the radar following the press of the murders and trial.
As for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this film’s portrayal of Charles Manson bewildered me. I accept the fact that he wasn’t a huge part of the film considering the fact that he didn’t directly participate in the murders, and has even been quoted claiming that his “family members” killed because it was something they had an itch to do deep down.
I understand that this film is a fantasy version of real events, so I can’t expect every portrayal of a character to attempt a Meryl Streep-level of accuracy. But the moment this character opened his mouth, I felt like there was no way you could convince me I was seeing someone who was anything like Charles Manson.
This character was incredibly friendly and normal-seeming. Something I cannot say I’ve ever seen or heard proof that Manson ever was. He wasn’t a Ted Bundy-type where he could play normal so easily, that you’d be shocked when he stuffed you into the trunk of a car. Charles Manson was the kind of person that would cause the average person to cross the street when they saw him coming, spouting his philosophies. Even the calmest footage I’ve seen of him from this era proved him to be incredibly hostile and snarky.
He was incredibly persuasive and alluring to the people around him - easily bedding many women - and could convince his followers of mostly anything. But that doesn’t mean that he’d show up to a house, calmly introduce himself and throw up a peace sign to catch potential victims off guard. This portrayal was a waste of the character, and I feel that the movie should have just left him out to keep him more ominous as their leader.
The insertion of George Spahn as a character in this movie was truly a testament to Tarantino’s knowledge and passion for filmmaking.
Spahn was a real person, who really owned a ranch that he rented out to film production companies, where the Manson family stayed at the time of the murders. He was blind and an octogenarian around the time they moved in. Manson offered Spahn sex with the women of the family in exchange for shelter. And the family really did give tours on horseback of the property to tourists to make money on the side. Spahn gave many of the members of the family their nicknames, including Tex and Squeaky. Tex named after Texas, and Squeaky named after the sound she made when he pinched her thigh.
The fact that Spahn isn’t well known made his reveal in the film all the more intense. I thought this was a smart move. As Booth walks to the back of the house to talk to Spahn, the audience wonders if Manson will be in the bed, or if Spahn’s corpse will be in there. I am saddened by the fact that Burt Reynolds - who was intended to play this role - had passed away before the scene was shot. But Bruce Dern did a great job of playing the jaded and in-denial Spahn.
In 1970, a wildfire destroyed Spahn Ranch and Spahn passed away in 1974.
THE MANSON FAMILY
Boy did I think this movie was clever in showcasing the Manson Family before the murders went down. Having Booth pass by the character of Pussycat once before finally helping her hitchhike back to the familiar territory of Spahn Ranch gave such great insight to who the Manson Family was, what their values - or lack of values were and how they lived.
The movie made it very clear that they were going to create more Hollywood versions of each of the members. Although I do appreciate the fact that the scenes at the ranch introduced us to Squeaky Fromme and Steve Grogan, who weren’t directly involved in the Tate murders, but were infamous for other crimes. Grogan - who gets beaten in the film when he flattens Booth’s tire - is known in real life for his involvement in the 1971 murder of Spahn Ranch stuntman Donald Shea. (This guy really has it in for stuntmen, doesn’t he?) And Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme became famous following the murders, after attempting to assasinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Sure Fromme never ever sounded like Dakota Fanning’s trailer park-voiced portrayal of her, but the rest of the scenes at Spahn Ranch were so entertaining and meta that I totally forgive it.
Tarantino clearly did his homework when it came to the lives of the Manson family. And these scenes at Spahn Ranch really made the ending that much more satisfying.
THE MURDER ON CIELO DRIVE
This is unfortunately the part where we must put the vision of Rick Dalton flamethrowing Susan Atkins’ smug face into oblivion out of our minds and talk about the sad realities of August 8, 1969 on Cielo Drive.
The day she was murdered, Tate received phone calls from Polanski and her family. Her sisters offered to spend time with her, as she was feeling lonely from Polanski’s absence, but she declined their offer to stay the night at her home. That night, she went to her favorite restaurant, El Coyote Cafe with Sebring and friends, aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski and Folgers coffee heiress Abigail Folger. They returned to the Polanski/Tate residence after dinner. Fun fact: Quincy Jones had plans to meet them that night, but was not able to make it.
4 Manson family members were involved in the murder. Let’s put this in terms of the film: Tex Watson (the guy), Linda Kasabian (the one who gets cold feet in the film and leaves with the getaway car,) Patricia Krenwinkel (the one who gets her face bashed into the fireplace mantel by Booth,) and Susan Atkins (who gets killed by Dalton via flamethrower.) They were allegedly instructed by Manson to “totally destroy everyone in [the house], as gruesome as you can.”
Before they attacked, Watson climbed the telephone pole to cut the house’s phone line. They then all climbed an embankment to access the house. As they approached the house, they encountered their first victim of the evening: an 18 year old man named Steven Parent - not mentioned in the film - who had no association to anyone in the Polanski/Tate home, and was merely there visiting the property caretaker who was staying at the guest house. Watson lunged at Parent, stabbed and slashed him with a knife, and shot him four times, killing him. Watson positioned Kasabian to be their lookout and cut the screen of a window to break into the home. He then let Atkins and Krenwinkel in through a door.
Their entry awoke Frykowski who was sleeping on the couch in the living room. Watson told the girls to go find the other occupants, while he messed with Frykowski. He kicked him in the head and told him "I'm the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's business,” which is where he gets his silly line towards Booth in the film.
Atkins and Krenwinkel then brought Tate, Sebring and Folger into the living room. Watson tied Tate and Sebring together with rope while Folger was mugged for the money in her purse and Frykowski’s hands were tied together with a towel. When Sebring begged for Tate and her unborn son’s life, Watson shot and stabbed him dead.
Frykowski then freed himself from the towel and struggled with Atkins, who had been guarding him. This resulted in her stabbing him in the leg (which happens to Booth in the film.) As Frykowski begins to get away, Watson caught up with him, beating, stabbing and shooting at him.
Kasabian left her position on the lookout after hearing the horrifying noises coming from inside, falsely telling the rest of the Manson family members that someone was coming. This links back to the movie where Kasabian has cold feet about the whole event. They ignored her claims and proceeded.
Meanwhile, Folger escaped out the bedroom door to a pool area (which might have inspired the poolside standoff in the film between Dalton and Atkins,) where Krenwinkel tackled and stabbed her. Watson then killed Folger by stabbing her 28 times. As Frykowski attempted to flea via the lawn, Watson caught up with him and stabbed him to death. Frykowski was stabbed a total of 51 times.
Finally, Tate begged the three Manson family members for her and her unborn son’s life, offering herself as a hostage. They showed no mercy, with Atkins later stating that she “felt nothing” for Tate in that moment. And either Atkins or Watson stabbed Tate a total of 16 times, killing her.
Remembering their instructions from Manson to leave a “witchy” sign before leaving, they scrawled the word “PIG” on the front door of the home in Tate’s blood.
The Manson family carried out several other crimes and murders around this time.
After they were raided and charge, Kasabian turned herself in, acting as a lead witness in the case. In return, she was given immunity. She then changed her name and went into hiding. In 2009, a documentary film crew discovered her living in a trailer park.
Manson, Watson, Atkins and Krenwinkel were found guilty and sentenced to death. But due to California’s ban on the death penalty in 1972, they all instead received life sentences (thanks California, I’m sure the taxpayers appreciate it.)
Atkins died at the Central California Women's Facility in 2009 at the age of 61. At the time she was the longest-serving female inmate in all of California.
Krenwinkel is currently being held at the California Institution for Women. Over time while in prison, she disassociated with Charles Manson and has maintained a perfect prison record, receiving a Bachelor's degree in Human Services from the University of La Verne. She is currently 71 years old.
While in prison, Watson converted to Christianity, got married, fathered four kids and got divorced. Tate’s family continue to fight the system every time he’s elligible for parole. He is currently being held at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility and is 73 years old.
Manson loved life in prison, finally feeling at home. He made no attempt to be released. He was later quoted telling Dianne Sawyer this about his life in and out of prison: “People outside are much different than the people inside. If [people inside] lie, you get punched...You don’t lie to the lieutenant. The lieutenant don’t lie to you. There’s a certain amount of truth in prison. And being raised in prison, I was pretty much raised in the light of that truth.” While incarcerated, he got engaged to a 26-year-old named Afton Elaine "Star" Burton. The engagement was called off after it was discovered that Burton only intended to marry Manson in order to later use his corpse as a tourist attraction. He died at Corcoron State Prison in 2017 at the age of 83.
Tate’s family still work to maintain her image and keep her memory alive for her talent rather than her victimhood. Sharon’s sister Debra Tate owns Sharon’s intellectual licensing and approved of Margot Robbie playing her for this film. While she was deeply hurt by the ridiculous portrayal of her sister in the Daniel Farrands’ 2019 horror flick The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Debra loves Tarantino’s version of Sharon, claiming that Robbie sounded just like her and that she felt like she got to see her sister on-screen again after all these years.
How Did the Film Do?
Overall, I thought this movie was a really clever retelling of this true Hollywood Story. Once I finished the film, its title made so much sense and I really was able to appreciate every scene and detail.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that Tarantino would be touching on a subject that I am fascinated by and have been reading about for years. It’s arguably one of the most famous crimes in American history and takes a lot of finesse to touch on it - let alone write a fictional version of it. But I thought that the movie proved that Tarantino was incredibly informed on the subject, and respected its moving parts. This movie and the research it inspired me to do taught me a lot of new information on the subject. And those last 15 minutes gave me the ending I wish Sharon and her friends had gotten. Tarantino made me dream for about half an hour before I sadly reminded myself about the reality of the events.
It was at the end of the film that I realized that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a fairytale for adults. But instead of being centered around fanciful characters like princesses, dragons and knights, it was taking a subject matter that was more mature and closer to home, creating realistic fiction that an adult could easily engage with, and subverting expectations in a successful way by creating a version of the world that the audience would rather live in.
As someone who loves Hollywood history, I feel it’s a must-see for anyone who was ever fascinated by the Tate murders and the Manson family. This was definitely a treat for me to watch and research. Can’t wait to see what film #10 will be. Until we meet again.