Recently, Lisa and I saw It: Chapter Two, and she had trouble sleeping afterward. “I can never get to sleep after watching a horror movie,” she confesses, “because it seems so real.” I assure her that Pennywise the Clown is nowhere near our townhouse in Mission Viejo, but she insists (with childlike unease) that it feels like he’s close by.
I’m tempted to make fun of her – after all, it’s a silly movie about a made-up clown – but I hesitate because I, too, was very disturbed by a film I saw recently, so much so that it became a minor obsession, something that troubled me profoundly and at times still does. But it wasn’t a horror film – rather, it was billed as a “drama-comedy.”
It made me laugh. It made everyone laugh. And that’s the problem.
The film was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
OUATIH (as it’s known) is the story of western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), living in Hollywood circa 1969. Dalton’s past his prime as an actor, struggling to retain his celebrity, even as a younger actress begins her rise to stardom, on a path that’s the opposite of his. The younger actress, played by Margot Robbie, is sweet and instantly likeable. She’s Dalton’s next-door neighbor, though they’ve never met.
Her name is Sharon Tate.
If you have any knowledge of local history, you can see why this story is upsetting. On August 8, 1969, Tate and four others were murdered by cultists devoted to Charles Manson, at her home in Benedict Canyon. The murders were savage and pitiless, and became a grim chapter in Hollywood history. I googled this to find out more, and it’s as bad as you think. If you want to see for yourself, I recommend you don’t.
So why did I go to this movie?
Because I was told “It’s not about that,” meaning the murders aren’t the focus of the story, it’s really about something else. Plus, it’s a comedy. How on earth do you make the events of that night funny?
Tarantino has asked us not to reveal the movie’s ending. I’m not going to, not directly, but I’d like to share an observation about the nature of violence in movies. How violent a film is, I believe, depends greatly on who the violence happens to. If an innocent woman suffers a horrible death, the scene will be very upsetting. But if, say, Adolf Hitler meets a violent death – which actually happens, in another of Tarantino’s movies – we’re less horrified, less upset, less inclined to take offense.
We might even laugh.
I thought Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would be depressing. To my surprise, it wasn’t. Tarantino did a twisted-retelling of the story that was surprisingly palatable, even to someone as squeamish as me, evoking not horror but jet-black mirth. I give the film a surprisingly high rating.
But it still upset me. Because no matter what happened in Tarantino’s self-described fairy tale, the events that inspired it are just as nightmarish as they ever were, and now they’re in my head and I have to deal with them. This is the very thing Charles Manson wanted, it occurs to me, the slap-in-the-face realization of how fragile life is, how easily it can be wrenched away, how dreadful the loss will be. Manson’s dead, but his toxic message persists.
So how do you cope with that?
My quest led me to http://www.SharonTate.net, the website maintained by her sister, Debra Tate, which is not about the murder, but rather a celebration of Sharon’s life and career, which included the dramatic film Valley of the Dolls and the comedic film The Wrecking Crew, featuring Dean Martin as superspy Matt Helm, and Sharon as his bumbling assistant. There’s a Sharon Tate filmography and photo gallery, also a mini-biography of her life, her pilgrimage to Hollywood, her marriage to controversial director Roman Polanski, and more. (Did you know Sharon was the model for Malibu Barbie?)
Full disclosure: There’s also a page where you can sign petitions, asking that pardons be denied to all of Manson’s killers who are still alive. You’ll find “Terry Black” in the list of signers.
As for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Debra Tate loved the movie, saying, “I had Sharon back in front of me again, but it was too short a visit.” And maybe that’s the morsel of redemption we can take from all this. As I’m writing this, in theaters all over the country, there’s a smash-hit film featuring Sharon Tate’s character, impeccably recreated, filmed half a century after she left us. She’s become a legend, an icon, someone who lives forever in movies – not just as a victim, but as a star.
This film disturbed me, but I’m glad I saw it. Sometimes we need fairy tales.
Scary clowns, not so much.