Quentin Tarantino has been on the promotional circuit a lot lately, getting the word out about his first novel, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He’s certainly made for an interesting figure these past few weeks, whether it’s being called upon to comment on every pop-culture issue of the past decade or doubling down on his questionable depiction of Bruce Lee in his work. He talked about living in Israel with his wife and child on Jimmy Kimmel Live, fired back at critics on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and confirmed to Bill Maher that he still intends to retire from directing after his tenth film. The book, which I reviewed here, has inspired its fair share of debate, as is the norm for all things Tarantino.
Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon called Tarantino out in a piece for The Hollywood Reporter, taking issue with the filmmaker’s questionable depiction of the actor. In both the film and the novel, Lee is portrayed as arrogant, cruel, and viewed with disdain by practically everyone around him. Shannon Lee wrote, ‘Mr. Tarantino, you don’t have to like Bruce Lee. I really don’t care if you like him or not. You made your movie and now, clearly, you’re promoting a book. But in the interest of respecting other cultures and experiences you may not understand, I would encourage you to take a pass on commenting further about Bruce Lee and reconsider the impact of your words in a world that doesn’t need more conflict and fewer cultural heroes.’
Lee isn’t the only real-life person whose fictionalization via Tarantino’s narrative has raised some questions. The central celebrity of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the late Sharon Tate, played on-screen by Margot Robbie. The film depicts flashes of her life leading up to the release of The Wrecking Crew, and famously rewrites history so that she does not end up murdered by the Manson family. The novel does not show the fiery fightback against the Manson kids that made for the movie’s striking climax, but we do see more of Tate. Her journey to Hollywood is depicted, including a moment where the narration refers to her as the ‘big boobed blonde.’ We also see more of her with her husband, director Roman Polanski.
In a recent interview on The Jess Cagle Show on SiriusXM, Tarantino detailed his youthful fandom of Tate, then declared, ‘I think it’s horrible that she’s been defined by her murder. And one of the things that I can say about the film that I’m absolutely proud of, because of the movie, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case anymore. I don’t think she’s defined by her victim status.’
Did he? Can we really thank Quentin Tarantino for offering a renewed narrative to the life of Sharon Tate that isn’t wholly defined by the horrific way that she died? I’m gonna be honest and say that I think Tarantino is, at best, being extremely generous to himself here.
One of the biggest criticisms Once Upon a Time in Hollywood faced when it premiered in 2019 at the Cannes Film Festival was how little it gave Robbie to do when playing Tate. She doesn’t have a whole lot of lines or a big stand-out scene in the way her male co-stars (who play fictitious characters) do. Tarantino vigorously defended his version of Tate to critics, claiming that ‘the moments on screen show those wonderful sides of [Tate] could be adequately done without speaking.’ The result of this change is that Tate feels more like an ethereal being than a tangible human, a representation of that twilight of the swinging ’60s that she never got to see come to an end in her lifetime. Robbie is certainly a magnetic actress, one whose charm shines through even in the most underwritten of roles. It is sweet to see Tate watch herself in a cinema and find joy in the audiences’ reactions to her pratfalls (although that patented Tarantino foot watch felt, as always, unnecessary.) Still, this doesn’t make for much of a character, let alone a cultural pushback to decades of leering grotesquery related to Tate’s abhorrent murder.
Tate’s legacy is an incomplete one, as it so often is for the victims of violent and infamous crime. Even if you’ve seen all of her films and read or listened to every word she said, the chances are that the first thing you think of when you consider Sharon Tate is how she was killed and the scar it left on Hollywood for decades afterwards. There’s a reason that Joan Didion referred to the Manson family murders as the end of the ’60s. it’s become the stuff of California legend, a near-mythic exemplification of the cosmic horrors of the entertainment world and its barely concealed darkness. That’s not a part of reality that can be easily erased or even subverted. Tarantino is no stranger to esoteric and brash historical rewrites. It’s one of the things that made films like Inglourious Basterds spark with such verve. Who saw that ending coming?! Even though it’s now become a predictable part of his oeuvre, that cheeky refusal to adhere to the past’s binary notion of winners versus losers fits well with that which we know of as the Tarantino-esque.
It’s not hard to see why he would want to apply that chaotic logic to the Manson murders. Cut out what happened that night on Cielo Drive and the face of American culture drastically changes. Tarantino hints at this future in the novel but only vaguely, and he doesn’t do much to scratch beyond the surface. Tate isn’t central to this alternate ’70s. She remains a symbol in Tarantino’s hands. Erasing her death doesn’t give her a new life, not in the film or in reality. She’s just there, to be admired and for men to project upon their ideas and desires, much like she was in her own time.
In the novel, there is one oft-misunderstood Hollywood star who is given a moment of tragic redemption that adds a new layer to our understanding of his life. But it’s not Sharon Tate. Aldo Ray, a former contract player for Columbia who was often typecast as a ‘tough guy’, gets an entire chapter, even though he isn’t a character in the film. This part actually makes for one of the book’s most interesting aspects, a brief dive into a figure who Tarantino clearly adores and has bucketloads of empathy for. The latter days of Ray’s career were hindered by his alcohol addiction, and he turned to B-movies and even porn to make ends meet. In his scene with stuntman Cliff Booth, we see a broken man abandoned by the industry who shaped him, a figure who has long since given up on any notions of dignity, yet one who inspires a kind of devotion in those around him. It’s the kind of nostalgic dissection that Tarantino at his best does like nobody else, and it’s one of the few justifiable parts of the novel.
Tate isn’t afforded that same kind of affection or cultural reset in his hands, both on-screen and on the page. Tarantino’s eye is more clearly focused on the changing masculine ideal of this era than anything related to the brand of femininity that Tate represented. It’ll take more than what Tarantino seemed willing to give for Sharon Tate to become more than her death to the general public. A more traditional biopic seems inevitable, although it would have to tangle with many uncomfortable details, including the elephant in the room that is Roman Polanski. You can find Tate’s distinctive make-up and hair featured on many a beauty blog. Listen to any true-crime podcast and she’ll appear (the best of which remains the Charles Manson season of You Must Remember This, wherein Karina Longworth offers a far more empathetic portrayal of Tate and her oft-derided acting career.) Whatever shape future depictions of Tate take, it feels dishearteningly safe to predict that not even the most elegant of them will overcome the public’s gawking obsession with her death. Tarantino couldn’t pull it off, although one wonders if he even really tried.
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