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Why Quentin Tarantino’s Manson Family film has proved so controversial

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Moya Crockett
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The first trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has dropped – 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.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Margot Robbie as Tate, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as her fictional next-door neighbours. Damon Herriman will play Manson, while Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning will appear as Catherine “Gypsy” Share and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, former members of the Manson Family who were not involved directly in the Tate-LaBianca murders. 

The first trailer for the film was released on 20 March 2019, and it looks as though it will certainly depict a glamorised version of life in Sixties California. However, it also suggests that the murders of Tate, Sebring, Folger, Frykowski, Parent and the LaBiancas will not be the movie’s primary focus. DiCaprio and Pitt’s fictional characters are at the centre of the trailer, with Herriman making only a fleeting appearance as Manson. Indeed, the uninitiated could easily watch the clip without realising that it is advertising a film partially about the 1969 killings.

By using the Manson murders as a backdrop to the story of DiCaprio and Pitt’s fictional characters, rather than delving into the killings in depth, Tarantino may be able to avoid accusations of exploitation. When the news first broke in 2017 that he would be directing a film about the Manson Family, there was some scepticism about how respectfully he would handle the deaths of Tate and the Family’s other victims. This is in no small part down to his trademark style, which generally leans heavy on extreme violence and the sexualisation of women.

In March 2018, 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.”

Debra eventually reconsidered her opposition to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood after Tarantino reached out to her to explain his concept for the film. He also agreed to move the film’s release date to 26 July 2019 so it didn’t coincide exactly with the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family murders, something Debra had originally described as exploitative.

“He has done nothing but respect me and be very forthcoming,” Debra said. She later added that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood “is not what people would expect it to be when you combine the Tarantino and Manson names”.

However, it wasn’t just the opposition of Tate’s family that made Tarantino’s film controversial. There was some criticism when the director cast Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, one of the Manson Family’s victims, given that 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.

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?”

Sharon Tate in 1967, two years before she was murdered 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Tarantino himself has come under scrutiny for his past treatment of women. He has acknowledged that he could have done more to intervene in his former friend Harvey Weinstein’s allegedly abusive behaviour, saying in October 2017 that he “knew enough [about Weinstein] to do more than I did… I knew he did a couple of these things.” Notably, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first film that Tarantino has made without the disgraced producer.

Tarantino has also admitted 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.) And despite the fact that the director 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 his Manson film. 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”.

Ultimately, though, the people who are most emotionally invested in Tarantino’s film are those whose loved ones were murdered by the Manson Family. Last year, Debra Tate said she has “very high hopes for this project”. Let’s hope she’s not disappointed.

This article was first published on 7 August 2018. It has been updated with new casting information and the March 2019 trailer. 

Images: Sony Pictures, Colombia Pictures / Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk. 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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