Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Shouldn’t Be Historically Accurate

Brent L. Smith
Jul 25, 2017 · 8 min read

We know from Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) that Quentin Tarantino has a penchant for mixing hyper-violence with historical fiction. A movie “based on true events”, that deviates from the facts, may rub some people the wrong way, but, at the end of the day, movies are movies. Even documentaries have their skewed perspectives and dramatic flair. And when it comes to the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, there are nothing but slanted angles…

Reportedly, Tarantino’s screenplay centers on Sharon Tate (to be played by Margot Robbie). All the better. Most depictions of these crimes — and their stiff attempts at accuracy — have come up short. They rarely capture the cultural magnitude of the ‘Tate murders’ at the time, and how the media became so fascinated with Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ that their notoriety supplanted that of the prominent victims.

1976's Helter Skelter TV Movie remains the benchmark (adapted from Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling book), which did nothing short of exalt the true crime genre to what it’s become today. Its success is partly because its swagger was still ‘of the times’ (hard to beat with decades-later recreations), but mainly because Steve Railsback’s portrayal of Manson remains the most hypnotic.

The myth of Manson (a figure who’s joined the annals of American criminality next to Billy the Kid and Bonnie & Clyde), refused to die with the 20th-century… and we’re all complicit.

The past 17 years alone have seen numerous renditions of the seven murders Charles Manson allegedly ordered members of his ‘cult’ to carry out. While Helter Skelter focused on his investigation and trial, recent dramatisations have attempted immersion (however vain) into the cult-y atmosphere of Manson’s ‘Family’.

House of Manson (2014), written and directed by Brandon Slagle, was one of the few takes that surprised me. You can tell it was made by a younger filmmaker not old enough to have been affected by the paranoia that saturated the 1970s. It was a bold attempt in not just a biopic of Manson, but of the Family itself, humanizing the unitary hippie gang as to dispel the myth.

Still, these narratives take plenty of liberties as it is, abridging nuance and facts while claiming to do justice to the actual events.

The result is they become hard to tell apart; clumping together into 1960s-nostalgia panoramas of actors in glorified Halloween costumes. It’s always the same cast of caricatures, with Manson as the unhinged cult leader, and the girls as nothing more than lobotomy-eyed sister wives — which was all the public gleaned during the trial.

You can never see why these upper-middle class, college educated girls would be so drawn to this skulking elf of an ex-con — equal parts cherubic and demonic. Or how the formation of the Family was more of a volatile cocktail of militant minds, rather than some crusading power trip for world domination. (Sounds hokey, don’t it).

Unless we relinquish Manson of the boogieman archetype — and stop giving him so much credit — we’ll never pierce the veil. Maybe that’s why our fascination lives on.

With some retrospect, it seems as though each of these renditions are taking cues from the previous one, like a bad game of Telephone, without mining the weird, long-abandoned corridors of the source material.

It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker like Tarantino succumbing to the same pitfall. Of course his version will stand out from the rest, so long as he doesn’t try to replicate reality.

If he, in true Tarantino fashion, shamelessly took liberties that deviate from official accounts, maybe he’d crack through the mystique, free us of our ideological shackles, and give us something that doesn’t border on the campy and reductive?

Django Unchained faced some critical backlash for its apparent affront to historic accuracy. Tarantino commented on this criticism, saying:

“When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arm’s-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.”

The movie’s unflinching violence is often highlighted—which, Tarantino noted, was nowhere near the levels endured during actual slavery — but underneath that is the disturbing subtlety of the characters’ indifference to said violence. (Violence, after all, is as American as cherry pie, as expressed by the late black power activist H. Rap Brown.) In the film, when the German bounty hunter (Christopher Waltz) shows disgust in the mauling of a black slave by dogs, Django (Jamie Foxx) flatly tells slave master Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) his friend “ain’t used to America like I am.”

This merely glimpses the bad and bloody weirdness of the pre-Civil War Cotton Kingdom, and the ravenous neurosis that possessed the Jacksonian South over the prospect of social upheaval.

‘Accuracy’ in cinema is inconsequential, what it hopefully does is push people to dig at truth for themselves. Imagine this auteur turning his keen eye back toward Los Angeles, a city he hasn’t revisited onscreen for 20 years! If his Manson project is only half as good as Jackie Brown (1997), it’ll be worth seeing.

Jamie Foxx as Django in Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED © Columbia Pictures

Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Tarantino’s dialogue crackling around Sharon Tate’s inner-Hollywood circle? (Who themselves were no strangers to the occult and trendy Satanic ritualism that pervaded 1960s L.A.) It’s no secret that the likes of Jay Sebring, Peter Sellers, and Yul Bryner frequented the same freaky parties as the Manson clan at a particular Topanga Canyon haunt, nicknamed the Spiral Staircase — a defunct mansion that slid off its foundation and had since become a crash pad for gypsies and ramblers. Kink parties so sadomasochistic that they, by his own admission, perturbed Manson himself. Different social circles (black magicians, rock stars, New Age gurus, bikers, socialites, etc.) mingling in orgiastic debauchery like some fucked up Venn diagram. And what happens in that overlapped region, when the world of the glitterati collides with the world of that ecstatic garbage gang: the dumpster-diving, car-stealing, drug-dealing band of vagabonds that is the Manson Family.

Rabbit holes abound in the Manson-Hollywood connection (giving more context behind the Tinseltown freakout that ensued). Why regurgitate the same material? We know the end result was the Cielo Drive massacre — a time bomb — but its seedy ingredients are no less hazy than the turbulent decade that sowed them.

The front covers of two books about the events surrounding the Tate murders. Click images to purchase from Amazon.

Sharon Tate and filmmaker Roman Polanski’s marriage apparently wasn’t the stuff of fairy tales either (shock!), which in itself could take two-hours of movie to dissect. Tarantino wouldn’t be the first person to shine the spotlight back on Tate. In 2016, author Ed Saunders (who wrote The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion in 1971) released a biography titled Sharon Tate: A Life. While New Republic praised it as “a decent project, dutiful and worthy of acknowledgment,” it was widely criticized by readers as being contradictory and full of conjecture. (Though conjecture concerning the Manson case simply comes with the territory).

Compare this lukewarm reception of non-fiction to the huge success of 2016 novel The Girls by Emma Cline, a bestselling re-imagining of the events that surrounded the murders. The public seems more ready for imaginative probing, growing weary from 50 years of static rehashing.

Truth is stranger than fiction. But what if the truth was warped from the get-go? What if it was never known, or can’t be known, to anyone who wasn’t actually there? Even from those present, all we get is jive and diatribe about an underground world that might as well have been an alternate dimension. All we have to go on are the memories of convicted killers and acid freaks.

Charles Manson, surrounded by journalists prior to his trial (photograph circa 1969)

There’s certainly no sympathy for the Devil, or even a Jesus Christ superstar. As popular history tells us, Manson was both. But looking past the headline hoopla, there’s nothing more than a jailbird riddle with no straight answer — other than a sobering indictment of the US criminal justice system. “My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system,” Manson said after his Death Row sentence. “I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you.”

Manson the man is as illusive as the motives for the murders themselves. We, of course, know the ‘scary bedtime story’ of Helter Skelter (the prosecution’s theory, as aided by the testimonies of immunity-seeking Family members like Linda Kasabian). If you think there are a lot of movies, the number of books on the subject is truly astronomical. I’ve read a handful that span four decades. The devil is in the details:

  • Was it Manson’s revenge on the music industry?
  • Was it the Family’s protest of the war and our systematic destruction of the planet?
  • Was it a hit from a drug deal gone wrong involving Frykowski?
  • Was it the girls’ attempt to get Bobby Beausoleil off the hook for the murder of Gary Hinman?

One rabbit hole splits off into two. The more you pull on threads, the more you tighten the knots, and the more sleepless your nights become. That’s exactly what Bugliosi and the city of Los Angeles didn’t want for its law-abiding citizenry coming out of that circus of a trial in 1971.

I don’t expect Tarantino to step out of character by trying to give us something “historical.” If the truth is known, and history behind us, why does it always fail to play onscreen? After all the adaptations and attempts in telling the Manson story, why does nobody seem to capture the kaleidoscopic horror that gripped both middle America and the Hollywood elite, and continues to do so to this day?

In the case of the Manson Family, when people reach for the real — for what’s ‘true’ — all they get is caricature.

Featured image illustration designed by Dan Owen.

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