Tate’s killing signalled end of Hollywood’s innocence
In death, Sharon Tate was born into myth, an “it” girl with a canyon house, a film-director husband and a beauty Hollywood craved as its mirror in an age of acid trips and biker gangs, when America was unmoored and the studio system was giving way to brash, young independent filmmakers.
Tate lived at a moment when the counterculture barged in on the martini set and tore up the rules. She was that flicker between eras — wholesome daughter, libertine wife. Her murder in 1969 came as if a horror show had hijacked a pot-scented parade. Hollywood ran scared and Tate, who was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed 16 times by followers of Charles Manson, became a patron saint to the inexpressible.
She was 26. Her role as a suicidal softporn actress in the Valley of the Dolls, a tale of barbiturates and reckonings, did not win the reviews that crystallize a career. But her end, as with those of James Dean and Bobby Kennedy, was tragically American, a promise forsaken, a dream denied. She became inextricably linked to the crime that took her, and what’s left is a stunning, ageless face, an alluring portrait upon which to hang our what-ifs and insatiable fascinations.
Tate flashes as if a recurring candlelight in Quentin Tarantino’s new Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Played with trippy guilelessness by Margot Robbie, Tate, married to Polish director Roman Polanski, shines in snippets through a gritty, nostalgic, musical joyride into 1960s Hollywood and the lives of washed-up fictional TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman confessor Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
The film is as much homage to Tate as it is to an era of halter tops, draft dodgers, Joe Namath and Easy Rider. She dances at the Playboy Mansion and races in a convertible with Polanski, whose Rosemary’s Baby had made him a heralded auteur. In mini-skirt and white go-go boots, Tate slips into a movie theatre to watch her part as a secret agent in The Wrecking Crew. The scene reveals unadorned wonder that she, a Catholic-raised army officer’s daughter, is on the marquee with Dean Martin and Elke Sommer.
Robbie has few lines, but her resonance carries a lasting, eerie enchantment. She embodies an actress who personified a time at the instant that time changed. “I always look at the character and what the character is supposed to serve to the story,” Robbie said when the film premièred at Cannes. “The moment I got on screen gave an opportunity to honour Sharon. I think the tragedy ultimately was the loss of innocence. To really show those wonderful sides of her, I think, could be adequately done without speaking.”
Tate’s sister, Debra, could not be reached for comment. She had misgivings about the film, but reportedly after receiving a script from Tarantino, regarded the director’s rendition as respectful to Sharon’s memory. Hollywood is much altered since the days of Sharon Tate when women were often cast more as types than talents. Sexualabuse cases, including those against Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s former longtime producer, have raised awareness and given women more inroads in the industry on and off set.
Tate’s magic was that she was a fleeting ingénue, her face everywhere, as if on a pinwheel spinning through pop culture. Her brand could be recycled and reinvented. The 50th anniversary of her death brought the April release of the widely panned The Haunting of Sharon Tate, starring Hilary Duff, and the upcoming novel Set the Controls for the Heart of Sharon Tate by Gary Lippman. Her wedding dress was auctioned last year for $56,250 US. A sex symbol — she appeared in a Playboy spread shot by Polanski — Tate also wore scarves, went barefoot and read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which, a decade later, Polanski would adapt for a movie. Their house on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon echoed with the parties of a new Hollywood, a set of filmmakers, artists, musicians and narcotic-induced wanderers changing the city and U.S. culture.
It wasn’t all glamour and discovered privilege. The real-life Tate had her problems. Polanski, whom Tate first met at a party in London, was domineering and often on the road with a film, frequenting clubs and, according to a number of accounts, orchestrating trysts. Nine years after Tate’s death, he would flee the U.S. after being arrested on sexual-abuse charges against a minor, and has yet to return.
In his 2015 biography, Sharon Tate: A Life, Ed Sanders writes of a woman conflicted over wanting to be either an American version of Catherine Deneuve or a stayat-home-mom. Feminism was chipping at tradition and women such as Tate were balancing personal desires and family expectations. Tate seemed to enjoy celebrity more than the rigours of serious acting and Polanski, a man of moods and ruffle collars who cast her in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), was consumed with his own scripts and obsessions.
“Roman was the star in that relationship and Sharon was the beautiful actress wife. You didn’t walk into a room and think this is Meryl Streep,” said Toni Basil, choreographer on Tarantino’s film, who knew Polanski and Tate, and once dined with them in France. “Sharon was dear, sweet and aware of her sexuality, but not competitive with other women.”
Born in Dallas two years before the end of the Second World War, Tate was an army brat, living in Texas, Washington state and Italy before moving to Los Angeles. A homecoming dance queen and cheerleader, she had an uncredited role in Barabbas (1961), a biblical epic starring Anthony Quinn. Tate went on to appear in TV shows, including Mister Ed and The Beverly Hillbillies.
Valley of the Dolls was released the same year as three films that epitomized Hollywood’s fresh sense of social realism: The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night. Valley was, by comparison, melodrama.
Tate told Look magazine in 1967 that when people look at her “all they see is a sexy thing. People are very critical on me. It makes me tense. Even when I lay down, I’m tense. I’ve got an enormous imagination. I imagine all kinds of things. Like that I’m all washed up, I’m finished. I think sometimes that people don’t want me around. I don’t like being alone, though. When I’m alone, my imagination gets all creepy.”
Less than a month after man first walked on the moon, in a year when the Beatles gave their final performance and Jimi Hendrix played The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, a man nicknamed “Tex” and Manson “family” members Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel walked up to 10050 Cielo Drive and slaughtered Tate and four others, including her hairdresser and former lover Jay Sebring.
Manson, who died in a Bakersfield hospital in 2017 while serving a life sentence, had ordered the killings to ignite a race war. Tate was left lying beside a sofa, a rope looped around her neck. The killers wrote “Pig” with her blood on the front door. Polanski was in Europe. When Los Angeles woke up, a fantasy had ended and the world was not the same as before.