Why Quentin Tarantino’s Manson Family film has attracted so much controversy

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Moya Crockett

Lena Dunham has joined the cast of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which stars Margot Robbie as murdered actress Sharon Tate. But the film already has its critics…

The Manson Family murders have been a source of grisly fascination ever since they took place in the summer of 1969. The story has all the ingredients of a gripping film: a glamorous setting (California, shortly after the Summer of Love); a charismatic, psychotic cult leader (Charles Manson); an ensemble cast of vulnerable, violent young hippies and drifters (the ‘Family’); and – the key ingredient in far, far too many fictional narratives – a beautiful dead woman, the actress and model Sharon Tate.

As a result, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are currently almost 250 books about or inspired by the Manson Family on sale on Amazon. Or that three movies about the cult and their murders are in the works: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hillary Duff vehicle The Haunting of Sharon Tate, and indie movie Charlie Says, starring The Crown’s Matt Smith.

But what somehow seems to get forgotten when we pore over the intrigue of the Manson cult is the fact that the murders resulted in the very real deaths of seven innocent people: Tate; Jay Sebring; Abigail Folger; Wojciech Frykowski; Steven Parent; and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Tate was eight months pregnant at the time of her death, and her unborn child was also killed. As a result, the glamorisation of the events of August 1969 has long upset some living relatives of the Family’s victims.

The cast for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Margot Robbie as Tate, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as her fictional next-door neighbours. On 22 August, it was announced that Lena Dunham had joined the cast as Catherine “Gypsy” Share, a former member of the Manson Family who was not involved directly in the Tate-LaBianca murders. 

In May, Margot Robbie – who will play Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – said she had “always dreamed” of working with Tarantino. 

“Beyond anything, I’ve just always wanted to see him work,” she told IndieWire. “And I want to see how he runs a set, and how he directs people, and what the vibe is onset, and what’s in the script… I’m just fascinated by all of it, fascinated.” The actor later shared a photo of herself in costume as Tate on Instagram.

It’s a reasonably convincing costume, but it will take more than that to dampen the scepticism around Tarantino’s film. The news that the director would be helming a film about the Manson murders – focusing on the fictional neighbours played by DiCaprio and Pitt – first broke last July.

Since then, a question mark has hung over how respectfully Tarantino will treat the deaths of Tate and the Family’s other victims. This is in no small part down to his trademark style, which is heavy on the sexualisation of women and extreme violence.

In March this year, Tate’s sister Debra criticised Tarantino for not seeking her opinion on how the actress should be portrayed in his film. “I think it’s terribly irresponsible [not to reach out], especially since I own Sharon’s licensing so that I can help protect the way she’s viewed through the public’s eyes,” she told People magazine.

“These people are taking horrific situations and making them even more graphic than they were without any concern for the living victims of these crimes and I think that’s horrible and crass.”

Sharon Tate in 1967, two years before she was murdered 

Not helping matters is the fact that one of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s cast members, Emile Hirsch, was convicted for aggravated assault in 2015 after throttling film executive Daniele Bernfeld at a nightclub. It makes for a deeply uncomfortable juxtaposition: a man with a record of violence against women, being cast in a film about murderers whose most famous victim was a woman. (Hirsch is set to play Jay Sebring, one of the Family’s victims.)

Bernfeld’s friend Jameela Jamil criticised the casting decision on Twitter, writing: “Emile Hirsch strangled my tiny female best friend until she blacked out at a party in front of dozens of witnesses… INTENSE case of rich white male privilege eh?”

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Tarantino himself has come under scrutiny for his past treatment of women. He has admitted that he could have done more to stop the actions of his friend Harvey Weinstein, and that he forced Uma Thurman to drive during a dangerous car scene in Kill Bill that resulted in a life-altering crash. (In an unexpected twist, Thurman’s 20-year-old daughter Maya Hawke has since been cast in a small role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.)

Despite the fact that Tarantino has since promised to treat women more empathetically – and called on other men to “vow to do better by our sisters” – it’s understandable that many people feel uneasy about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It is, observes The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, “a film about the death of a woman, Sharon Tate, directed by a man who has admitted that he knew that Harvey Weinstein assaulted women, co-starring a man who assaulted a woman”. 

Quentin Tarantino with Uma Thurman, who has said that he treated her poorly on the set of Kill Bill 

Recently, Tate’s sister has reconsidered her opposition to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Speaking to People in late July, Debra Tate said the director had got in touch with her since her first comments about his movie. 

She added that Tarantino had agreed to move the film’s release date so it didn’t coincide exactly with the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family murders, something Debra had originally described as exploitative.

“I’m pleased he reached out. I thought it showed a lot of class and sensitivity to move up the release date,” she said.

“He has done nothing but respect me and be very forthcoming. I have very high hopes for this project.” 

Let’s hope she’s not disappointed.

This article was first published on 7 August 2018. It was updated on 23 August 2018 to include the information about the casting of Lena Dunham and Maya Hawke. 

Images: Getty Images 


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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, politics and psychology. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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