Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
What does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood change about the real Manson Family murders? Set in Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood rewrites history - specifically with regards to Charles Manson and Sharon Tate - and features two instantly-iconic fictional movie characters.
Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was originally believed to be a Sharon Tate movie, which later morphed into a Charles Manson film. Neither of those things ended up being true, even though both people appear in the director's ninth film. As it turns out, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is primarily a depiction of 1960s Hollywood, which happens to include and end on the night of the infamous Tate murders.
But in order to change the real-life Manson murders in this fictional story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood introduces Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth into the mix. And what they do throughout the film rewrites history for the better.
The True Story Of The Manson Murders
By August 1969, Tate was eight months pregnant and married to filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). She lived at 10050 Cielo Drive, where Manson’s music industry associate, Terry Melcher, previously resided. After moving to Hollywood during the early '60s, Tate gained career momentum upon starring in Don’t Make Waves (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and The Wrecking Crew (1968). Given Polanski’s career accomplishments and Tate's star power, the couple was popular amongst Hollywood celebrities, including Steve McQueen.
At the time, Manson was regarded as a strange yet talented singer-songwriter. He and several women lived with The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson for several months in 1968, and were introduced to the aforementioned Melcher, who produced hit singles for The Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders. By the summer of '68, however, Wilson’s manager kicked the Manson group out of the home. Now known as a spiritual guru, Manson took his followers to Spahn Ranch, a once-popular filming location for Hollywood movies and television shows. The property owner, George Spahn, gave the nickname "Tex" to a new arrival, Charles Watson.
By March 1969, Manson first encountered Tate on Cielo Drive and learned that Melcher had moved. By late spring, he began discussing “Helter Skelter” - a plan to incite a race war in Los Angeles. After a drug deal gone wrong, Manson allegedly shot a black man named Bernard Crowe, and later believed him to be a Black Panther. That same month, Manson Family members killed a UCLA student named Gary Hinman. These events set the tone for “Helter Skelter”, which would theoretically create a racial divide in Los Angeles as the Manson Family remained at Spahn Ranch and prepared for an uprising. Manson wanted to start a revolution.
On August 8, 1969, Manson sent Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to Cielo Drive in Hollywood. First, Watson shot and killed 18-year-old Steven Parent, who was leaving the Polanski guest home. As Kasabian served as the look-out, the Manson Family members proceeded to chase down Polanski friend Wojciech Frykowski and kill him. Coffee heiress Abigail Folger was also murdered by Watson. Inside the home, the Manson Family members tied up Tate and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring. Both were murdered. The following day, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were also murdered by the Manson Family, with Kasabian serving as the look-out once again. She later testified against Manson Family members.
How Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Changes The Story
While many things remain the same, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood changes key details about the Manson murders. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Manson makes just one appearance during a visit the Polanski home. Tate watches from the front door, where - in real life - the word “PIG” was written with her blood after the infamous murders. Tarantino initially stays true to the actual events, as Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Kasabian arrive at Cielo Drive and plan to kill everybody at the Polanski home. For dramatic purposes, though, Tarantino precedes the climatic events with a violent altercation between Cliff and Manson Family members at Spahn Ranch several months earlier.
Then, Tarantino fictionalizes real-life events when Rick, a Tarantino creation, confronts the Manson Family members outside his home. The group soon realizes that the angry man is none other than the former star of Bounty Law, and they decide to kill him instead, the man who inadvertently introduced them to violence as children. Rick’s murder would be symbolic and play into the “Helter Skelter” premise. The car confrontation moment not only replaces Parent’s real-life murder - he was initially confronted by the Manson Family while still in his vehicle - but it also pushes the Manson Family in a new direction, away from Sharon Tate and toward Rick Dalton. And that's when everything changes.
When Tex enters Rick’s home in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he tells Cliff that “I'm the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's business.” In real life, those exact words were spoken to Frykowski, one of the victims. For Tarantino’s alternate depiction of events, Cliff kills Watson and Krenwinkel, and Rick uses his flamethrower to kill Atkins in the pool. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends with Cliff going to the hospital and Rick being invited to the Polanski home by Tate and Sebring. While the fates of Manson and Kasabian are never revealed in the film, it's safe to presume that Cliff told the police about his visit to Spahn Ranch, which would then likely have the Mason Family arrested.
Why Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Rewrites History
It's commonly believed that the Tate/Manson Family murders fundamentally changed Hollywood and L.A. culture in 1969. By rewriting history with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino not only celebrates Tate’s legacy but ultimately preserves that era of film and television that he grew up with. Rather than depicting Tate as a Manson Family victim, he instead takes a day-in-the-life approach by highlighting the actress’ personality and vitality - her legacy. As Tate, Margot Robbie delivers a subtle performance, one that’s respectful of her subject. Tarantino wisely saves the clever and outlandish dialogue for his fictional lead characters, Rick and Cliff.
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino essentially saves the ‘60s L.A. lifestyle. He creates conflict by contrasting old school and counterculture mentalities. The hippies pose a threat, at least from Rick and Cliff’s point of view. Ironically, both men want to be part of elite Hollywood and need to play by the rules. Rather than having Rick and Cliff fade off into the sunset, Tarantino makes them Hollywood heroes. And by effectively pinpointing their personal flaws, he also foreshadows what could lead to their eventual downfalls. As a whole, Tarantino leaves certain details ambiguous, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks.
At nearly three hours in duration, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood plays out like a sequence of short films. Each chapter stands on its own, and provides much to analyze about not only the characters, but also the world they inhabit. Tarantino offers a commentary on the movie industry itself, all the while psychoanalyzing his characters. There are tender moments as well as extremely violent moments. Tarantino doesn’t stick to a specific formula with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Instead, he takes his time and just has fun, much like so many people did in 1969.