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Sharon Tate: the heartbreaking true story of her life, as seen in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Sharon Tate Polanski was brutally murdered at the hands of the Manson family, 50 years ago today. The anniversary, which coincides with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has put the spotlight back on Charles Manson’s most famous victim. In the movie, Margot Robbie stars as the late actor, but how accurate is her performance? And what does the movie miss when it comes to depicting Tate’s real life?

There’s a scene in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie, that has everyone talking.

It’s not a moment of graphic, chilling violence, though the film has its share of that. Nor is it a moment between mega-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who appear in the movie as an actor and his long-time stunt double, just two best friends up against the world. It’s a scene about halfway through the film in which Margot Robbie, starring as Sharon Tate, goes to the movies.

Sharon Tate, in a black ribbed turtleneck and go-go boots, walking down one of those endless, sprawling Hollywood streets, passes a cinema that just happens to be playing her new movie The Wrecking Crew

She decides to buy a ticket to the movie on a whim – “I’m Sharon Tate,” she says, grinning, to a disbelieving theatre attendant, “I’m in the movie. That’s me. I play Miss Carlson, the klutz,” – and plunks herself ebulliently down in the theatre. There, behind a pair of oversized square glasses, Sharon watches her fellow cinema-goers react to her performance, basking in the reflected glow of their adoration. 

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In one of Tarantino’s directorial flourishes the Sharon Tate that Robbie-as-Sharon-Tate is watching onscreen is the actual Sharon Tate. This lovely, moving scene uses real footage from The Wrecking Crew, broadcasting it onto the cinema screen for Robbie and us to watch. It is a poignant reminder of how much star power and talent and life there was in Tate. And it is a reminder of how, before the brutal acts of Charles Manson’s followers in the early hours of 9 August 1969 – 50 years ago today – forever cast Tate as the victim of a shocking crime, she had an identity beyond that. 

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate: American actress Tate rose to fame after starring in the film adaption of cult classic, Valley of the Dolls.

Tate’s sister Debra cried when she saw that scene. “She made me cry because she sounded just like Sharon,” Debra told Vanity Fair. “The tone in her voice was completely Sharon, and it just touched me so much that big tears [started falling]. The front of my shirt was wet. I actually got to see my sister again… nearly 50 years later.” 

Debra added that she wished Tarantino had told the story of Tate herself, and not DiCaprio or Pitt’s fictional characters. “I would love to see Margot play [that],” Debra said. “But that was not the movie that Quentin had written, and I knew it and I understood it.”

But what would a movie that was only about Tate’s life look like? To answer that question you have to understand Tate’s life in the first place.

Colonel Paul Tate and his wife Doris were blessed. That’s what everyone says about families who are lucky enough to have three beautiful daughters: first Sharon, born in 1943 in Dallas, then Debra and finally Patricia.

Being in the military meant that the Colonel and his family relocated often; by the time Tate turned 16 she had moved to six different cities. Any army brat will tell you – it’s hard on the kids. All the endless relocating made Tate shy and anxious, which came to a head when the family moved to Vicenza in Italy in 1961, where Tate graduated from high school.

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate in 1969's The Wrecking Crew, where she played the love interest of co-star Dean Martin.

She never wanted to be in show business. But she was beautiful, and beautiful girls in the late 50s ended up in beauty pageants, and then modelling and then milling about on movie sets. After graduation she was an extra in Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, which filmed in Italy, and where she met its star Richard Beymer. The pair dated and were even engaged for a brief time. 

It was Beymer who introduced her to producer Martin Ransohoff. According to reports, Ransohoff cried when he met her and immediately signed her to his production company Filmways. For two and a half years he kept Tate out of movie theatres, allowing her to work on television projects only in order to ensure that her debut film was also her breakout one.

“I was told I was a secret,” Tate said. “I was being taught speaking, walking, dancing, fencing, calisthenics and, of course, acting… People are calling me an instant star. But it really isn’t true. Mr Ransohoff discovered me three years ago. He’s been grooming me for stardom. You know, the Cinderella bit, like in the old Hollywood days.” In another interview about her newfound celebrity, Tate quipped: “I’m a trick done with wigs, aliases, teachers and, I guess, a lot of money.”

Tate’s Cinderella trick came with Valley of the Dolls. An adaptation of the bestselling, phenomenally successful book of the same name by Jacqueline Susann. Before Valley of the Dolls, Tate had appeared in just a few unsuccessful movies like Eye of the Devil and Don’t Make Waves and The Fearless Vampire Killers (directed and starring her future husband Roman Polanski), movies that zeroed in on her beauty and left her with little else to do.

Sharon Tate in Don't Make Waves.
Sharon Tate in 1967 movie Don't Make Wave, starring alongside Tony Curtis.

Valley of the Dolls, however, was a revelation. Tate’s character Jennifer was still beautiful, of course. But she was a beautiful woman whose beauty meant that she was never considered to be anything more than a pretty face. Eventually Jennifer uses her beauty in shocking ways in order to support her husband through his hospitalisation. Tate told journalists that she felt incredibly close to Jennifer. She poured herself into the performance and was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Newcomer.

Valley of the Dolls was not a critical hit. Roger Ebert called a scene in which Tate practiced her “bust exercises” one of the most “appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilisation”. “Sharon Tate remains a wonder to behold,” Ebert added, “but after her bust exercises I am afraid I will be unable to take her any more seriously as a sex symbol than Raquel Welch.” 

On to the next, though. Tate was 25 and finally flexing – after those years in the Ransohoff wilderness – her acting muscles. Her next movie was The Wrecking Crew, the very same film that appears in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. In this Tate played an adorably clumsy spy, as spies so often are of course, completely oblivious to the charms of the James Bond-esque Matt Helm, played by Dean Martin. It was “a delightful comedy performance,” noted Variety. Every critic in Hollywood predicted that Tate was a rising star with a long and storied career ahead of her.

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate was nominated for the 'best newcomer' award at the Golden Globes for her role as Jennifer in Valley of the Dolls.

She was also in love, freshly married to Polanski, whom Tate called “beautiful and a genius to the bone”. (After Tate’s death Polanski was charged with statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. The director fled to France where he has lived ever since. He will not return to the US or visit any country that could extradite him.) The pair married in 1968. They moved into a house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. In August 1969 Tate was eight and a half months pregnant with their first child.

The rumour mill around Tate and Polanski’s relationship still churns, even to this day. According to reports theirs was a relationship built on control. Tate’s friend Joanna Pettet once said that Polanski “told her how to dress, he told her what makeup he liked, what he didn’t like – he ruled her entire life from the time she met him.” 

Polanski could certainly be churlish. “If Sharon wants to quit [acting], I would not change her mind,” Polanski said in 1967. “If she continues to act, I want her to be a good actress. She has not been given the chance to really show off her talent. So far she has only made one movie with a good director. And that was me…” 

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate at their wedding.
Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on their wedding day in 1968, just over a year before Tate's tragic death at the hands of the Manson family.

And he wasn’t the only man in her life who wanted to control her. It started with Ransohoff, whom Tate said essentially kept her in a “prison”. “I was forbidden to go out at night, forbidden to go to the movies, forbidden to go to the theatre, forbidden to be photographed, forbidden everything… I became the puppet that he wanted,” Tate said in 1968. Tate was also controlled by the male directors she worked with or magazine editors who commissioned stories about her, men who wanted to put her in the ‘sex symbol’ box.

In reality, Tate was a shrewd observer of sexism and outdated societal norms. In an interview in 1976, Tate expressed her disdain with the idea of being a sex symbol. “When I was put under contract, I thought, ‘Oh, how nice,’ but… I was just a piece of merchandise,” Tate said. “No-one cared about me, Sharon. People expect so much of an attractive person.” After appearing naked in Valley of the Dolls, Tate said “I honestly don’t understand the big fuss made over nudity and sex in films. It’s silly.”

She was also kind and generous. She hated wearing shoes. She loved Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and hoped one day to star on the silver screen as the heroine of that story. Her sister Debra recalled that “her inside, her heart, her soul, her kindness, her humanity – all of that was as beautiful as the exterior. She was kind, loving and giving.” 

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.
Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski: According to reports theirs was a relationship built on control.

“She had a unique quality to make anybody, and I mean anybody, feel as if they were the only person that mattered in the whole world. And that could be a beggar on the street,” Debra added. “She just had a very warm, personal and genuine concern for people.”

You can see that in Tate’s own words, too. Speaking to a German magazine a few months before her murder, the actor spoke about her hopes for her future child. “I hope my child will be the most beautiful and the healthiest child in the world,” she said. “And it shall be happy. A happy person who can see, understand and enjoy the beautiful things in life. This is also the hope I have for my own life. Just carry on living like I do now, perfectly happy… Or is this maybe asking a bit too much?” 

The sweet bungalow at 10050 Cielo Drive where Tate and Polanski spent their first year as husband and wife was demolished in 1994.

It was a beautiful house designed to resemble a French country home, wedged halfway up Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, fringed by tall pine trees and fragrant cherry blossom. Polanski and Tate were only the latest in a long line of celebrities to live there: Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon spent their honeymoon there, and Candice Bergen and Terry Melcher were the previous owners before Tate and Polanski. The house had four poster beds and stone fireplaces and beautiful big windows and soaring ceilings. Tate adored it – she called it her “love house”.

“There was a cartoonlike perfection about it,” Bergen wrote in her 1984 memoir Knock Wood. “You waited to find Bambi drinking from the pool, Thumper dozing in the flowers, to hear the dwarfs whistling home at the end of the day. It was a fairytale place, that house on the hill, a Never-Never land from the real world where nothing could go wrong.” 

Sharon Tate
Debra Tate on her sister Sharon Tate: “She had a unique quality to make anybody, and I mean anybody, feel as if they were the only person that mattered in the whole world."

On August 8 1969 Tate was at her “love house” with her hairdresser and ex boyfriend Jay Sebring, screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger, coffee heiress and Frykowski’s girlfriend. Polanski was in London working on The Day of the Dolphin. Tate had been with him until just a few weeks earlier when she returned to Los Angeles and to 10050 Cielo Drive.

Just after midnight four of Charles Manson’s followers went to that house on the hill and murdered Tate and her three guests. A fifth victim, an 18-year-old student, was found in his car. He had come to Cielo Drive to visit Tate and Polanski’s caretaker William Garretson, who was the only survivor of the attack. Manson instructed his followers to kill the occupants of Cielo Drive because he bore a grudge against Melcher, for whom Manson had once auditioned. The next night two more Manson Family members killed supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their own home.

The bodies at Cielo Drive were discovered by Tate’s housekeeper Winnifred Chapman when she arrived the next morning for work. She found a terrifying crime scene. There were bodies on the lawn of the house. A chilling message had been scrawled in blood on the front door. 

The news spread like wildfire through Hollywood. “I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive,” Joan Didion wrote in an essay on the Manson Murders. “The phone rang many times during the next hour.” 

Sharon Tate
Just after midnight on 9 August 1969, four of Charles Manson’s followers went to the Polanski house on the hill and murdered Tate and her three guests.

“Los Angeles was in shock,” Bergen wrote in her memoir. “For months no-one talked of anything else. Gates and guard dogs went up everywhere overnight.” Manson and the followers responsible – Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Steve Grogan and Tex Watson – were captured and charged. Charles Manson died of a heart attack while serving life imprisonment in November 2017.

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the 60s ended abruptly on 9 August 1969,” Joan Didion wrote. “Ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.” 

Manson appears in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood only once when he turns up at Tate and Polanski’s “love house” on Cielo Drive “looking for Terry”. The chunk of time that the movie does spend engaging with the Manson Murders is actually spent at the commune that Manson, played by Australian actor Damon Herriman, created for his followers, embodied onscreen by Margaret Qualley, Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning. 

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood doesn’t tell the story of the Manson Murders, even though it is set on Cielo Drive (that’s where DiCaprio’s character lives, right next door to Tate and Polanski) in August 1969. It doesn’t tell the story of the Manson Murders until, suddenly, it does, courtesy of a shocking twist ending that we won’t spoil here. 

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate in Tarantino's latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Tarantino has said that this was a deliberate choice. He wanted to show Tate as she was before the murders. The Tate who went to a bookshop to buy a Thomas Hardy book, the Tate who danced at the Playboy mansion, the Tate who was excited to kick off her shoes and sit back in a cinema and see her first big movie on the big screen. The Tate who, before August 9 1969, had an entire life ahead of her – maybe a long one, maybe a difficult one, maybe a happy one, but, crucially, a life. 

“Unfortunately she’s kind of been defined by her murder,” Tarantino told Entertainment Weekly. “I thought the best way to get her across was not sticking in a bunch of scenes with Roman [Polanski, Tate’s husband] or with other people where she’s a plot, but just hanging out with her, letting her drive around Los Angeles, do her errands and just see where the day takes her. I wanted to show people a glimpse of Sharon before the murder, so they think of her as more than just a victim.” 

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is in cinemas in the US now and in the UK from 15 August. 

Images: Getty, Sony

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