Back on the big screen: Remembering Sharon Tate 50 years after her murder

Fifty years after Sharon Tate’s murder, four movies are set for release about her life – and death, writes Suzanne Harrington.

Back on the big screen: Remembering Sharon Tate 50 years after her murder

Fifty years after Sharon Tate’s murder, four movies are set for release about her life – and death, writes Suzanne Harrington.

In 1969, on August 9 and 10, the love and peace of the Sixties was abruptly ended by the splattering of blood on the walls of two wealthy but unconnected addresses in Los Angeles. Sharon Tate, a young Hollywood actress, became the famous face of what would soon be known as the infamous Manson Murders. Six other people were also randomly stabbed and shot to death.

The savagery of the murders — Tate, married to film maker Roman Polanski, was eight and a half months pregnant, and begged for her baby’s life, offering her own in its place — plus the fact two of the three killers were young women, permanently embedded the crimes into public consciousness.

The killers were stone cold. One of the young women told Sharon Tate: “Look bitch, I don’t care about you. I don’t care if you’re having a baby. You’re going to die and I don’t feel a thing about it.”

The Manson Murders — and their back story of communal living on the deserted Spahn movie ranch in Death Valley, with endless group sex, massive quantities of LSD, tenuous connections to some of Hollywood most glittering actors and musicians including Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys, all driven by a small, charismatic, fatally damaged individual — became some of the 20th century’s most notorious crimes.

American actress Sharon Tate in the arms of her husband Director Roman Polanski. Picture: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
American actress Sharon Tate in the arms of her husband Director Roman Polanski. Picture: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Alongside Sharon Tate, her friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski, plus Steven Parent, a teenage boy visiting the caretaker’s family at 10050 Cielo Drive that night, were all murdered.

Their killers were Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins, with a getaway driver — and later the prosecution’s star witness — Linda Kasabian waiting outside.

On hearing the horrifying screams coming from inside the house, Kasabian apparently tried to stop the murders, but was overruled. Manson told his followers to “leave a sign… something witchy”. The killers obliged, by scrawling the word ‘Pig’ on the wall with Sharon Tate’s blood. The music producer Quincy Jones had also been invited to the house on Cielo Drive that night, but didn’t attend. Roman Polanski was away filming.

The following night, the same Manson followers plus another, Leslie Van Houten, and Manson himself, drove to the less famous address, 3301 Waverly Drive, the affluent home of supermarket owners Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

It was here the walls were daubed with the infamous slogans Death To Pigs and Helter Skelter (misspelled as Healter Skelter, the acid-fried Manson having interpreted the Beatles track as a call to create a race war); the word ‘war’ was carved into the body of Leno LaBianca. Again, it was Tex Watson and the young women who did the killing.

Such is the notoriety of these murders, in a country where 14,670 other homicides were committed in 1969, that fifty years later, four films have been made about them.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino (out August 15), has Margot Robbie starring as Sharon Tate — Tarantino imagines a radically different outcome for the murdered woman, which meets with the approval of Tate’s surviving sister, Debra.

Such is Debra Tate’s support for how Robbie portrays her sister in the film that she provided the actress with some of Sharon’s jewellery to wear on screen. Debra Tate is not keen on The Haunting of Sharon Tate, directed by Danial Farrands (on Netflix), in which her sister is played — with uncanny resemblance — by Hillary Duff.

Ms Tate, in a People interview, thought it “classless how everyone is rushing to release something for the 50th anniversary of this horrific event”. She approves, however, of the portrayal of her sister by Kate Bosworth in another movie, titled simply Tate, and directed by Bosworth’s husband Michael Polish (no release date yet), which focuses on the final days — but not the death — of the actress.

A fourth film, Charlie Says, directed by Mary Harron (out now), looks at the young women who surrounded Manson — Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins — and is set three years after the murders, with Matt Smith, the former Dr Who actor, playing the cult leader.

Hilary Duff plays Sharon Tate in The Haunting of Sharon Tate
Hilary Duff plays Sharon Tate in The Haunting of Sharon Tate

The story of Charles Manson and his ‘family’, against a sunlit backdrop of Californian utopia turned dystopia, continues to inflame our imaginations; Emma Cline’s languid, hallucinatory 2016 novel The Girls looks peripherally at a fictionalised collection of young women involved in a cultish commune.

The performer Brian Warner adopted Charles’ surname as part of his own stage name, Marilyn Manson; Manson has even featured in the satirical cartoon series South Park.

The film maker John Waters, long term pen pal of the youngest Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, has been campaigning for her release for years; now 69, she has just been refused parole once again for her involvement in the LaBianca murders.

The most recent book about Manson, just published and weighing in at 520 pages, took its author twenty years to complete, involved him interviewing more than a thousand people, and left him “at various points broke, depressed, and terrified that I was becoming one of ‘those people’: an obsessive, a conspiracy theorist, a lunatic.”

Nor does it conclusively answer any questions — but asks a whole raft of new ones, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the wider story, beyond the hideously grisly death of a blonde starlet. Like, were the CIA involved?

Kate Bosworth plays Sharon Tate in Tate.
Kate Bosworth plays Sharon Tate in Tate.

Investigative journalist Tom O’Neill was commissioned in 1999 by a now defunct magazine to write a piece marking the 30th anniversary of the crime.

He wondered what more was there to say about what happened — how Manson, a semi literate, semi feral ex con, who had suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse and neglect as a child, had grown up to manipulate a bunch of teen girls and a young man into killing for him. How it had culminated with the death of a happy, beautiful, privileged young woman and her friends — was it random?

He began unpicking the official version of events outlined by the head prosecutor Victor Bugliosi in his best selling 1974 account of the affair, Helter Skelter. He found holes, and began digging.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties looks at the link between Manson and Doris Day’s son, music producer Terry Melcher. Manson wanted to be the next Jim Morrison — Melcher turned him down, after some initial interest had raised Manson’s hopes of getting a record deal. Melcher used to rent 10050 Cielo Drive, just before Tate and Polanski moved in.

Charles Manson ordered his followers to commit the murders and “leave a sign… something witchy” in the house. Sharon’s killers used her blood to write ‘Pig’ on the walls.
Charles Manson ordered his followers to commit the murders and “leave a sign… something witchy” in the house. Sharon’s killers used her blood to write ‘Pig’ on the walls.

While this is common knowledge, O’Neill wonders why, prior to the Tate LaBianca murders, Manson was not dealt with more harshly when he was arrested, despite being almost always on parole. Why was he always released again, repeatedly set free despite repeated criminal activity?

O’Neill posits a theory that in a time of secret government LSD and mind control experiments, where the CIA actually killed an unfortunate elephant called Tusko with a giant dose of the drug, that Manson’s Machiavellian skills may not have been entirely self-taught.

That the CIA may have used him as one of their subjects in their hallucinogens experiments. Brainwashing gone rogue. We will probably never know. Our fascination in this grimmest of killing, however, remains undimmed.

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