No, Sharon Tate isn’t Underutilized in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the character in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film perfectly captures the essence of a simpler time.
There is simply no other filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. Since arriving on the movie scene in 1992 with his festival hit Reservoir Dogs, the filmmaker has become as much a star as the actors he casts. He and his films are one in the same — manic, loud, and above all, controversial. His new film, the stellar Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is no exception.
Set in Hollywood (if the title didn’t tip you off) during 1969, a time in which Tarantino himself was growing up in LA, Hollywood tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), an actor past his prime and his loyal friend/stunt double struggling with their uncertain future. This is all set in front of a backdrop of the Manson family murders that took place that year.
Much has been said about the treatment of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in this film. Some consider Hollywood exploitative, while others find it sweetly touching. To be frank, I find myself on the “sweet” end of the spectrum, and I’ll tell you why. Beware — there are spoilers ahead.
It’s true that Sharon Tate doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue in this movie, and what little she does has little to do with the events experienced by Rick and Cliff. Yet, Margot Robbie brings her to life in a way that fleshes out the character without using words. The warmth that Tate was known for is present onscreen through Robbie’s performance. She, in essence, becomes Tate.
Tate is certainly a character in Hollywood, but she’s also an idea. She’s the ideal Hollywood that existed before that sunny, west coast innocence disappeared on August 9, 1969. She’s kind, carefree, and beautiful in ways both internal and external.
While her scenes may play as inconsequential to those unfamiliar with history, every time Tate appears onscreen is a reminder of her horrible death. With the Manson Family lurking in the background of the movie, her safety is constantly in question. While she is the luminous light of the movie, the Manson cult is the darkness looming in the distance, ready to snuff that light out.
One of Hollywood’s most effective (and affecting) scenes arrives when Robbie’s Tate crashes a screening of her film The Wrecking Crew (1968). While Tarantino could have easily put Robbie in the place of Tate on the big screen, the footage shown in the theater is actually Tate. We watch as Robbie’s Tate watches “herself” with an audience, anxiously anticipating their reaction.
When the audience laughs along with her during the film’s comedic moments, a look of relief spreads across Tate’s face. During one of her action scenes, Tate mirrors the choreography learned during filming. The audience reacts favorably to the shenanigans on screen, Tate glows.
It’s a wonderful reminder that the late actress was more than a murder victim. Sharon Tate has become synonymous with the Manson family murders, so much that she’s become a footnote in a man’s story. What Hollywood does so brilliantly is taking that idea and flipping it. In Tarantino’s ’69, Manson is a footnote in Sharon’s world.
While the name “Sharon Tate” is spoken multiple times throughout the film, Manson’s full name is never used. In fact, he’s only ever called “Charlie,” robbing his name of any power it once held. Charlie is only in the film for one very brief appearance, whereas Sharon Tate appears throughout the entire run time.
If you’ve seen Inglorious Basterds (2009) or Django Unchained (2012), you’re well aware that Tarantino uses history as a malleable substance, not as law. Yet, as Hollywood progresses toward its brutal finale, Tarantino doesn’t play with history. In fact, he embraces it, recreating the events leading up to the horrific murders with acute accuracy.
Until the three Manson cult killers are dispatched in brutal and darkly comic fashion by Rick and Cliff, Tate’s fate is in question. It’s only when all three are deceased that the film reaches its biggest catharsis: Sharon Tate is alive and well, free to live the rest of her life.
The last moments of the film feature Tate welcoming a shaken Rick Dalton into her house for a drink with her friends. It begs the question: what if things had turned out differently? Tarantino isn’t interested in answering that question for the audience. Instead, the audience is left to ponder this new, unfortunately false, outcome.
In the real world, the Manson murders shook America to its core. In Hollywood, America — represented by Rick Dalton’s sedated wife — is able to sleep soundly, remaining innocent for at least a while longer. The film works both as an optimistic and surprisingly sweet fairy tale and a touching tribute to a young woman taken too soon.
We’ll never know what today’s world would be like if the Manson murders had never happened. But with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, at least we can dream about it.