In 1969, America was forever rocked by the vicious Tate-LaBianca murders which saw the Charles Manson family convicted for murdering five people including up and coming actress Sharon Tate. Decades later, Hollywood and many artists are still considerably fascinated not just by Charles Manson, but the Manson Family. On the anniversary of Sharon Tate’s murder, a lot of Hollywood jumped on the band wagon to find a way to highlight or explore the events leading up to her terrible murder. Except for Quentin Tarantino. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has managed to become yet another Tarantino masterpiece that has sparked endless discussion and arguments.
Despite the fact that Tarantino stages another alternate reality where the bad guys endured horrible deaths, “Once Upon a Time…” still managed to get approval from Sharon Tate’s family. And that’s probably because, refreshingly, Tarantino takes the piss out of Charles Manson and the Manson Family.
For decades after the 1969 murders, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and all kinds of pop culture analysts have studied the night that the murders occurred, and it’s almost spawned its own sub-genre with films like “Helter Skelter,” “The Strangers,” “Charlie Says,” and “Wolves at the Door,” to name a few. For reasons I can’t fathom, during his final days, Manson inspired pages of articles on big magazines like Rolling Stone. Thankfully he’s dead now, and unlike a lot of his other contemporaries, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t seem enamored by the Manson Family. That’s one of the main reasons why “Once Upon a Time…” manages to be such a masterpiece.
While the movie itself is fantastic and brilliantly written, the movie hits its stride when it decides to completely deflate any and all mystification that the Manson Family still holds in America. Finally someone doesn’t see what is so fascinating about the Manson Family or Charles Manson in general. Tarantino goes out of his way to explore the ideas of Hollywood and living a fantasy while also devoting so much of his time to paying homage to Sharon Tate. Tate is not the lamb waiting to be slaughtered like so many movies have depicted her as. Instead she’s a blossoming actress reveling in her success, all the while Tarantino has a great taking the piss out of Manson’s cult. Apart from giving him only a minute of screen time, Tarantino goes out of his way to depict the Manson Family as nothing but a group of stoned, burned out, disgusting morons that could barely keep from getting in to trouble.
Tex Watson is depicted as an overcompensating cowboy who made a big fuss about swinging his cock around but is easily pushed around by Cliff Booth. After Booth refuses to intimidated by the hive mentality of the Manson family (including the petulant Lynette, played by Elle Fanning), he makes a good show of beating the ever loving shit out of one of the family members who slashes his tires. He doesn’t just beat the crap out of him, but he enjoys it. And to add insult to literal injury, he makes him fix the tire with his face covered in blood.
Many fans and movie critics have accused Quentin Tarantino of being anti-woman as he submits all of the women in his story to some vicious punishments, but the movie isn’t anti-woman. In actuality it’s anti-Charles Manson. And I love it for that. In the finale, Tarantino stages the foundation for the LaBianca and Tate murders that would change America. But then as the car filled with Tex, Sadie (Mikey Madison), Flower Child (Maya Hawke), and Katie (Madison Beaty) lurk in the cul de sac, they’re confronted by a drunkened Rick Dalton. Dalton, with margarita in hand, relentlessly screams at them to turn the car around and get off the private street.
Tex can do nothing but quiver at his commands and pull out of the street and despite temptation to pull a gun at Jack, Tex gives in to his endless screaming. During this confrontation the course (and history) is changed as Sadie pitches the idea that rather than murdering Tate, they take their angst out on Rick Dalton, who’s spent his entire career encouraging them to inflict violence on everyone. Despite Flower Child cowardly fleeing and speeding off in their getaway mobile, the trio of hapless hippies storm Dalton’s house. There they happen upon an acid tainted Cliff Booth who is unsure how to approach any of these would be murderers, except to mock them. When they finally attack him, Cliff literally tears them to shreds.
Mind you, the Manson Family aren’t depicted as cunning, clever, relentless killers. They’re stoned, moronic, and incredibly inept wannabe criminals who can barely function without their absentee daddy Charlie to coordinate the events for them.
Even when Tex threatens Cliff declaring “I Am the Devil, and I am here to do the Devil’s Work,” Cliff casually sics his loyal pit bull Brandy on him, and she proceeds to tear Tex to shreds as he screams literal bloody murder. After maiming Sadie with a can of food, Brandy makes her way to Sadie and rips her apart as Cliff smashes Katie’s face in on Rick Dalton’s memorabilia and fireplace mantle. As a sort of call back to “Inglorious Basterds,” Rick Dalton responds to his initial shock of Sadie crashing in to his pool, fetches his flame thrower, and torches her in cold blood as she’s reduced to a blob of ashes and blood.
It’s clear Tarantino has no love for Manson and his clan and doesn’t see the big deal behind them and their motives. He revels in the dynamic charisma that Sharon Tate held as a movie star, and woman, while depicting Manson’s Family as ridiculous, silly, and woefully misguided thanks to so much drugs, and an absentee dad who spends almost all of his time off-screen. For a film that had every chance to turn Manson in to an icon that changed the world, here he’s merely just a non-entity who is emphasized by the poor planning of his followers that lead to their bloody slaughter at the hands of a drugged stunt man, his pit bull, a drugged up Italian trophy wife, and a barely conscious movie stars.
Tarantino never shies way from the vicious violence, like he’s happy to be dealing out these idiots massive pain and bloodshed. He treats them like cheap movie super villains that get what they have coming to them right through the every end. To add to the sentiment, the experience allows Rick Dalton a chance to revive his own life, as he relays what unfolded to Jay Sebring, who stands behind the closed gate to Tate’s house, utterly oblivious to what almost unfolded. No matter what, Tarantino pays great respect to Sharon Tate by basically destroying everything Hollywood has found so inexplicably fascinating about Manson and the Manson Family.
Finally, here’s a talented director who refreshingly considers the Manson Family something of a ridiculous joke, and “Once Upon a Time…” spits on their legacy as much as it celebrates Sharon Tate. And I dig it.