WARNING: Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
What's the reason for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Sharon Tate controversy? Directed by Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's main storyline parallels the real-life 1969 Manson Family murders. Tate and four others were killed on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills that August.
Although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was originally described as being a Sharon Tate movie, which then morphed into a movie on the Manson Murders (exacerbated by the fact that the film was initially scheduled to release on the 50th anniversary of the Tate murders, before being moved up a few weeks), Tarantino always affirmed that his ninth film was actually about something else. In his eyes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was never going to be about Tate and Manson but rather an original story set around that time. And that's exactly what ended up happening.
But because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood turns the camera away from Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate and towards Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth instead, viewers weren't exactly content with the choice. So once again, Tarantino polarized moviegoers with his latest film, and here’s why there’s a controversy surrounding Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s depiction of Tate.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood's Sharon Tate Controversy
Critics mostly applauded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019. But many people also pointed out Robbie’s noticeable lack of screen time, which is the source of the film's Sharon Tate controversy. During a Cannes press conference, Tarantino made matters worse by rejecting critical feedback. Specifically, he told a reporter that he rejected the hypothesis regarding Robbie's limited speaking lines (via The Guardian). Given Tarantino’s history of provoking audiences with stylized violence and racial slurs, he appeared to be up to his old tricks by prioritizing male perspectives in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Tarantino ultimately increased Robbie's screen time by two minutes for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s theatrical cut. But according to the director himself, there’s a good reason for Robbie’s reduced role. Tarantino wanted to focus on the basics about Tate's life as an actress, rather than the tragic event that she’s remembered for by so many (via Deadline):
“I thought it would both be touching and pleasurable and also sad and melancholy to just spend a little time with her, just existing. I didn't come up with a big story and have her work into the story so now she has to talk to other characters and move a story along. It was just a day in the life. It's a day in the life of all three of them, that Saturday in February. A day in the life, driving around, running errands, doing this, doing that, and just being with her. I thought that could be special and meaningful. I wanted you to see Sharon a lot, see her living life. Not following some story, just see her living, see her being.”
Now that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been released, some people have complained about Tarantino’s perceived misogyny and history of making movies geared towards so-called film buffs. Online, numerous writers have pointed out that it’s irresponsible to imply that only males can fully appreciate Tarantino’s films. As for Tarantino’s depiction of Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s ultimately a matter of story construction and how fictional characters are used to highlight the essence of a real woman who’s been mostly defined by history as a murder victim; a woman whose name immediately comes up with any mention of the notorious Charles Manson.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood's Sharon Tate Scenes Are Fantastic
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino does limit Robbie's lines as Tate, but at the same time focuses on the personal qualities that made her so appealing. When Tate first appears on Cielo Drive, Rick is enamored with her presence. Soon thereafter, Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) similarly comments about Tate’s charisma at a Playboy Mansion pool party. These early scenes don’t romanticize the late actress, but are rather based on facts that so many people overlook. By 1969, Tate was a rising star - in fact, she had received a Golden Globe nomination two years prior for Most Promising Newcomer, thanks to her performance in Valley of the Dolls. Overall, Tarantino captures Tate’s vitality and her exuberance as an up-and-coming Hollywood actress.
Tarantino also pinpoints Tate’s Hollywood persona during the summer of '69. In a telling scene, Tate attends a Westwood screening of her film The Wrecking Crew, in which she stars alongside the iconic Dean Martin and German actress Elke Sommer. The sequence underlines the fact that Tate was famous enough for her name to be familiar (“the Valley of the Dolls girl"), but also that she wasn’t necessarily famous enough to be recognized on the street. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tate’s optimism and excitement contrasts with Rick and Cliff’s internal angst and skepticism. There’s a rhythmic quality to Robbie's scenes as Tate; she’s lost in thought but fully cognizant of the present.
As an actress, Robbie captures specific emotions in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She doesn’t have many lines because this version of Tate wasn’t constructed to be a typical Tarantino character like Rick and Cliff, two fictional people who embody numerous real-life figures. Tarantino wisely took a restrained approach with his Tate portrayal, fully understanding that less dialogue would be effective. It would’ve been disrespectful to give Robbie’s Tate an over-the-top monologue, or to provide a fantastical version of what she experienced. And that’s what makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s final act so incredibly poignant.
How Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Honors Sharon Tate
Tarantino does indeed honor Tate with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s alternate history, as she lives and Manson Family members are killed instead. But it’s more than that. Tarantino strays from his usual narrative formula to present a moving and authentic depiction of a real-life Hollywood actress. He even uses real footage of Tate during a movie theater sequence, which at once honors her legacy as an actress while highlighting her potential as well. As Robbie’s Tate watches herself in The Wrecking Crew, it’s evident that the young starlet was far more than just a pretty face. She had a knack for comedy, and one particular sequence displays her athleticism and connection to Bruce Lee. As real-life Tate preps for a confrontation on-screen, Tarantino shows Robbie's Tate training with Lee, The Wrecking Crew's action director. He reminds viewers that Tate was on top of her craft, and that she was working with elite talent.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood honors Tate by focusing on her life as an emerging actress. Instead of recreating the actual 1969 murders, Tarantino shifts the violence towards the Manson Family. He focuses on Tate’s genuine talent, along with her striking beauty and undeniable A-list potential. In that sense, Robbie is an ideal casting choice, as she’s currently a rising in star in Hollywood. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a beautiful film, immaculately paced and full of superb performances. Of course, Tarantino certainly isn't above criticism, and he could’ve found different ways to give Robbie even more screen time. But perhaps Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will help change Tate’s pop culture depiction over the next 50 years. In the past, she’s been portrayed mostly as a victim with no backstory. Moving forward, hopefully more directors will choose to celebrate Tate's accomplishments and talent.