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Even with my novice understanding of the horror genre, I have to say I was captivated by an incredibly nerdy, passionate horror movie discussion between Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino on Roth’s podcast, History of Horror.
This back-and-forth reminds me of the movie discussions I often have with my friends. Whether we’re in complete disagreement or excitedly dissecting a movie down to its very core, I always seem to tap into this hysterical vigor when we tear into the art of cinema.
These conversations are special to me because I truly grow from them. The lessons each of us take away from a movie—or any story or piece of art for that matter—reveal something so core to our being. There are so many universal truths movies explore that we’re incapable of understanding until we gain that new perspective. Through those discussions about art, we learn, we empathize, we evolve.
That’s what I’m hearing when Roth and Tarantino, two of Hollywood’s most revered directors, talk about the origins of horror and how the genre has progressed to modern times. To Roth and Tarantino, movies just aren’t moving images on a screen—they’re living, breathing portraits of America…and of their own lives. These two directors can detail their entire individual journeys through the evolution of the genre. They’re in debt to the people who made those movies.
This entire conversation reveals just how much Tarantino pours himself into his films and how important they are to his very being. Having a better understanding a Tarantino film creates a better understanding of Tarantino himself—and he openly wants you to realize that. In an interview with Ella Taylor for The Village Voice, Tarantino described his movies as “painfully personal.”
“My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is.”
And then at the end of this long Tarantino-esque rambling quote, he says my favorite part:
“The more I hide it, the more revealing I can be.”
On the surface, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is what it seemingly is: a colorful display of Hollywood in the 1960s as the Manson family ran amok. But the more we understand about that era, about the real-life people Tarantino drew inspiration from, about the treacherous political environment surrounding the Manson murders…the more we find Tarantino hiding in the film.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t just a reworking of history—it’s a love letter to the place that birthed Tarantino’s biggest passion in life, to the people who sought to preserve the inherent joy films can bring to the world. The final scene of the movie is Tarantino’s chance to pay his respects in the best way an artist can: by creating a universe where his heroes are allowed to keep living and make the world a better place with their art.
In turn, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood becomes a metafilm that showcases the movie industry’s power to create meaningful change in the world. In Tarantino’s new world, these movies stars aren’t defined by the pessimism of Charles Manson, who was bitter about Hollywood’s exclusivity. In Tarantino’s world, inherent goodness win out. You may not realize it, but the final scene where Sharon Tate walks into her home with Rick Dalton—something that wasn’t allowed to happen in real life—says so much about how movies can bring people together. This tiny, sentimental moment is Tarantino’s chance to thank his heroes for inspiring the kind of passion that shows during that conversation with Eli Roth.
This movie, more than any, exposes Quentin Tarantino. And after we overview the dynamic that exists between Charles Manson and Hollywood in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’ll find that Tarantino isn’t hiding in this movie at all—he’s everywhere.
The shift from Old to New Hollywood
In the lone scene we actually see Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he shows up at Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s house asking to see Terry Melcher. This actually happened in real life—and knowing why is key to understanding the end of the movie.
Charles Manson is rarely seen in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…yet, he’s everywhere. And that’s because the views held by Charles Manson about fame, about politics, about one’s existence on this earth were held by many young people in the 1960s—and those changing attitudes warped the state of movies at the time.
During 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood was dominated by musicals and historical epics that benefited from the larger screens, wider framing, and improved sound. These movies, however, represented a gap between the “old guard” and the widely changing American landscape. As Hollywood remained stuck in the past with movies like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Hello, Dolly!, they paid the consequences—both of those movies were notably giant flops. Studios were giving huge budgets to movies filled with aging movie stars and tired storylines that young people didn’t care about.
As the baby boomer generation took over the ‘60s, what is now dubbed as “Old Hollywood” continued to lose money at an unprecedented rate. Studios had no idea how to capture educated high schoolers and college students. By the mid-1970s, 76% of all movie-goers were under the age of 30. Those audiences were much more interested in arthouse European films like Blowup and Japanese cinema from Akira Kurosawa than they were in movies like Doctor Doolittle and The Sound of Music. Foreign movies embraced sex and unabashedly showed violence and discussed uncomfortable topics…while Hollywood wanted to make movies about T.E. Lawrence and the fall of the Roman empire—you know, the stuff your parents liked.
Everything changed, however, in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, a movie about a pair of amateur on-the-road criminals that take over the headlines as they move from city to city, robbing banks and claiming lives. While at first the movie received a limited release and miniscule box office earnings, it started to get some positive press from notable film critics like Pauline Kael. While publications like The New York Times dismissed Arthur Penn’s volatile film, Kael loved how daring the movie felt compared to the standard Old Hollywood films, praising Bonnie and Clyde for its violence and brutality.
Turns out: the kids loved it too. After a re-release, Bonnie & Clyde became a box office smash. This saw the transition from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood, where Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, where Roman Polanski’s Chinatown became the movies that studios started pumping money into.
And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in February, 1969—right in the middle of that gigantic shift.
Music was experiencing a similar disconnect at the time. While rock music was starting to catch on at the end of the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that rock music evolved into sunshine pop and progressive rock, that musicians like Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys and The Beatles took over the pop charts. That was the kind of music that spoke to a younger audience.
That was the music that spoke to Charles Manson.
The incredibly bitter life of Charles Manson
It’s well known that Charles Manson had aspirations of becoming a rock star. But the reasons Manson wanted to become a rock star are much more important—and a defining characteristic that differentiates the Charles Mansons of the world from the Rick Daltons, the Sharon Tates, the Cliff Booths of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While many found catharsis and meaning in their craft, Manson’s rockstar aspirations stemmed from his obsession with controlling others and boasting his power.
Manson’s psychology can be traced back to his troubled past. He never really had a true father figure in his life, and his mother was grossly neglectful, spending much of her time going on drinking sprees and robbing people with her brother. One particular robbery went horribly awry and landed her in jail for five years. From there, Manson bounced from caretaker to caretaker during his childhood as his mother went in and out of trouble with the law.
Basically, there was no stability to his early years. Forced to move from city to city, Manson had no agency over his life, which led to a desire to create an environment where he felt empowered.
Thus, he surrounded himself with troupes of criminals who would help him steal guns and burgle stores. These devious acts would land Manson in various boys’ homes and minimum security institutions heading into the 1950s—the decade when everything got much worse. In January 1953, he was caught raping a boy at knifepoint, which landed him in the Federal Reformatory of Petersburg, Virginia. There he committed eight serious disciplinary offenses, which resulted in him being transferred to a maximum security reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio.
For the next two decades, Manson’s life ebbed and flowed in accordance with his prison stints. But the most formative jail time came in 1960. Manson was forced to begin serving a 10-year sentence, which came as the result of various crimes involving forgery and manning a prostitution ring. During that 10-year sentence, Manson took guitar lessons from gang leader Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and became a prominent figure in the cells. Addicted to his elevated state, he gained aspirations of extending that power into a musical career that would allow him to reach millions. Thus, Manson became obsessed with rock music.
And, in particular, he loved The Beatles.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about, of course, Hollywood. But it’s also about that young, disconnected population inspired by filmmakers like Dennis Hopper and Arthur Penn, inspired by bands like The Beach Boys and The Beatles. When Charles Manson was released early from his 10-year sentence in 1966, he was 32 years old—the age that film studios and record labels were suddenly most interested in capturing. And no band was hotter than The Beatles at that time. The Beatles were young, daring, and imaginative—essentially, the polar opposite of the old, stale rock and roll that your parents loved. And people like Charles Manson read deeply into The Beatles’ music to find inspiration in an environment where young people felt like they weren’t being heard.
Believe it or not, Manson actually requested to remain in prison because he had become so accustomed to the caged life. Out in the real world? Everything was different. Between 1960 and 1966, women had started wearing denim jeans like men and men had started growing out their hair like women. Manson could no longer run prostitution rings because young people were so open about sex that anybody who wanted to have sex was having it (and the older men weren’t interested in the hippie girls available). America in 1966 was an America Manson no longer recognized.
Which…as it would turn out, was good news for Manson, who had become acclimated to controlling and manipulating people. Everywhere Manson went—from the rundown neighborhoods of his youth to maximum security prison of his adulthood—he had become accustomed to a ring of followers. As a huge fan of Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Manson needed people to worship his every word. And in 1966, when movies and music were in the midst of a major transition, he could suddenly prey on the disconnect young people felt from the old guard.
And that’s where The Beatles came in. For several years Manson was taking in young people and preaching a better way of living by combining Dale Carnegie’s principles with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology. In prison, it was seen as a good thing were when inmates embraced a faith—in the real world, religion became a weapon for Manson. Preying on prostitutes with terrible self-images, Manson would tell these girls they didn’t have to be crippled by their past, that they were immortal spirits trapped in their temporary bodies. And the more women he surrounded himself with, the easier it became to recruit men to his circle as well. This is what became the “Manson family.”
And Manson was able to solidify his grip over his followers once The White Album dropped. Perhaps the most famous album from The Beatles, The White Album was an epic labor of love from the four Beatles members. Because the group couldn’t decide on which songs to cut—which was largely due to their own internal strife and impending break-up—the album was a double LP that spanned over 90 minutes.
For years, Manson had tried to acclimate himself into the music scene…and continually failed. Through his prison connections he would make friends with Phil Kaufman, an American record producer and tour manager who encouraged Manson to create his first album Lie: The Love and Terror Cult…which only sold 300 copies.
Over the years, Manson would make friends with various musicians, including Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson. He auditioned several times for various labels, and each time it was a disaster. One of those auditions occurred with Terry Melcher. After the audition, Melcher tried to separate himself from Manson, which caused Manson to visit the house he believed belong to Melcher—really, that house belonged to Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, who was a beautiful, aspiring actress just on the cusp of making it in Hollywood.
Thus, Manson’s attack on the home became a symbolic representation of his own bitterness towards an entire industry that never allowed him in.
Manson repeatedly told his followers that his music—whenever he got signed, anyway—would recruit more people to their circle. Manson got his family to believe that The Beatles’ created this album as a message to their commune. In particular, he claimed the song “Helter Skelter” foresaw an apocalyptic race war in which black people would destroy all white people. Manson said he would lead his family into hiding, and once the war was over, he would emerge as the new human race’s leader. And Manson and his followers believed they could precipitate this war by committing murders and making them seem as though they were committed by African Americans.
That’s why Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel went to Sharon Tate’s home on August 9, 1969—the day Once Upon a Time in Hollywood largely takes place.
Anyway, onto Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…
I know that was a lot of backstory, but it’s really important to set up the environment surrounding Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Charles Manson isn’t in the movie very much, but his family and the youth’s collective detachment from society is. The bitterness and resentment we see from the Manson family members as they descend on Rick Dalton’s home stems from Charles Manson’s own teachings. They believed that killing members of the “Hollywood elite” would create the race war that would in turn cleanse society.
But in real life, the Manson family didn’t visit the home of Rick Dalton, because Rick Dalton didn’t exist—they invaded Sharon Tate’s home. And this key twist is what allows Tarantino to warp time and space, to create a different universe where members of Old Hollywood protected the budding stars of New Hollywood.
In this universe, people who wanted to spread joy with their art conquer the people who use art to push their selfish ambitions. The first group spreads joy to the world, while the second wreaks havoc. And by changing the fate of Sharon Tate, Tarantino’s movie becomes a meta work that displays the power and beauty of film.
Preserving the beauty of Hollywood
While Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth didn’t actually exist, they represented an entire generation of filmmakers and artists that did—and it’s clear Tarantino is sympathetic to them. While the New Hollywood system was an exciting one gave us some classic films and changed the course of the movie industry, the transition to New Hollywood also left many revered filmmakers and actors in the dust.
The old westerns in which Rick Dalton used to star may have seemed rustic and dated in 1969…but that didn’t mean they weren’t good movies; that they weren’t sincere, profound pieces of art. Those artists from the Old Hollywood system poured their hearts and souls and frustrations into their films just as much as any New Hollywood artist—all that changed was what the public wanted from their movies.
And that’s the tension that exists between Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate. They may live next door to one another, but their worlds couldn’t be further apart. Rick Dalton is a has-been lead actor who now takes undesired bit parts and villainous roles in TV westerns; Sharon Tate is a young, budding actress working with Roman Polanski and Dean Martin in the New Hollywood system. Both have something to offer, but not everybody wants to utilize their respective talents.
Despite her eventual success, Sharon Tate actually had really a tough go of things for a long time. After being raped by a soldier as a teenager, Tate had extreme self-esteem issues throughout her young adult life. Despite her incredible and revered beauty…Tate often lacked confidence in her acting abilities as she took on Hollywood. Acting teachers, casting agents, and directors would always demand more from her sometimes-timid performances.
She didn’t catch her first big break until Martin Ransohoff’s Eye of the Devil, but perhaps her first true eye-opening performance came in the form of Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Despite their contentious relationship on set, Tate and Polanski would start to date after filming was complete. From there she would only star in four more films before her death, one of which was the notoriously derided Valley of the Dolls, and another was the posthumously released The Thirteen Chairs.
The other film was the one we saw in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Phil Karson’s comedic spy-fi film The Wrecking Crew. In that film, Sharon Tate shines. She’s playful, goofy, and full of life—it’s a film she can be proud of.
We don’t get any of this backstory about Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But what we do get is much more powerful: Tate visits a theater during a lazy afternoon and watches her film with a sparse crowd. She smiles widely as she recalls training with Bruce Lee for a fight scene in The Wrecking Crew. She’s utterly overjoyed that the people in attendance are laughing at her comedic, slapstick karate bout that sends her tumbling across the floor. It’s a moment of pure elation that represents climactic moment for her career.
We can connect Sharon Tate’s moment in the theater to Rick Dalton’s time on the set of Lancer, a western in which he plays the villain. After flubbing his lines several times, Dalton returns to a scene and delivers an outstandingly villainous performance that leaves the film crew floored. In a symbolic gesture, Dalton’s co-star, the young method actress Trudi, tells Dalton it was the best acting she had ever seen—a revelation that brings Dalton to tears.
Clearly Dalton’s aging presence had been wearing on him, as he believed he could only land undesirable parts in forgotten genre fares. But in this moment—just like Sharon Tate in in the theater—he found catharsis. He was able to win over a future star of the New Hollywood scene, showing that the power of film isn’t constrained to any particular year or genre—there’s always room for artists to make the world a better, happier place. Even if you can touch one life and inspire one person, you’ve done your job.
As Tate and Dalton relish in the power of their acting, Cliff Booth becomes a sort of ghost of Old Hollywood, roaming the streets of a city where he’s no longer welcome as a stuntman. His trip, then, to the Spahn Movie Ranch where the Manson family is staying becomes a metaphor for the disconnect between the incoming and outgoing generations of America.
The ranch where Booth filmed Bounty Law back in his heyday, this trip serves an allegorical meeting between the pure artists and the narcissistic ones. Once a prosperous site where Old Hollywood artists made their westerns, this rundown ranch is now home to a troupe of cynical, high-and-mighty murderers who scoff at popular art. For Rick and Cliff, those days on set were fulfilling and meaningful—they made art that would make people feel good. For the Mansons, their time at Spahn Ranch was spent hatching a scheme to incite mass violence.
It’s easy to believe that, in real life, the Mansons win. Their desire to disrupt the American landscape and provoke chaos on the L.A. scene seemingly worked for a moment when the newspapers flashed headlines of Sharon Tate’s murder. A young, prosperous actress with her entire career in front of her was suddenly wiped from the earth—and there was nothing to do about it. The dream was dead, the Mansons had won.
Except…that didn’t really happen. Sharon Tate might have died, but the power of Hollywood raged on. No matter how many lives you take, you can’t vanquish the cathartic moments like Rick Dalton experienced on the set of Lancer or Sharon Tate felt while attending a screening of The Wrecking Crew. True fulfillment comes from within—when you commit yourself to your art, other people can sense that. An artist’s effort and hard work and care can spill out of a screen, a book, a piece of music. That kind of power can be found in anything you pour yourself into, whether you’re a filmmaker, a social worker, an accountant, a teacher. When you commit yourself to a craft, you have the power to affect so many lives.
And that’s what Tarantino vows to do at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sharon Tate doesn’t die, and instead Cliff and Rick outsmart the conniving, bitter souls that feel they’ve been cheated by the world. In a symbolic gesture, Rick even ignites of the Mansons in flames with a prop from a Nazi film. As he sets one Manson ablaze, he exerts the entire force of the film industry along with him.
On this day, Rick and Cliff handed off the reigns to Sharon Tate. Because it’s not about what artist is successful, but that art lives on—that the ability to make a difference with your art lives on.
Tarantino says you can find him hiding in his films. Well in that moment where Rick torches the Manson family and their attempt to inhibit art, I think we see him. Behind Rick Dalton on the screen sits Tarantino in the director’s chair, gladly giving Sharon Tate a second chance. People will undoubtedly walk away from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood now knowing who Sharon Tate is. They’ll know about the now-heralded recut of The Fearless Vampire Killers; they’ll seek out her first shining role in the supernatural Eye of the Devil; they’ll relish in her deliciously campy, melodramatic performance in Valley of the Dolls.
And, of course, you’ll smile just like Sharon Tate did when you watch The Wrecking Crew. From her own theater experience to ours, we all get to experience a world where Sharon Tate—and the dream of touching other people’s lives with your art—lived on.
Wow, Travis…..your review is a tour de force. Bravo! I am struck with how gifted a writer you are. Thank you.
Thank you so much! Your kinds words me so much to me 🙂
I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood yesterday and to me it was a strange movie, to be honest. However, I did not have the backgroud you provide here. I did not know about Sharon Tate. I had heard about Charles Manson but in any way I linked him with the movie I saw yesterday. And reading your piece made me understand and appreciate the movie in a different way. It makes me think on the thing you say about being disconnected. My generation doesn’t know about this time and the events that shaped the movies and people back then, but I think it is important to really appreciate the movie to know that Sharon Tate was a real person who did not get as lucky as Sharon in the movie. It is beautiful to think that almost 40 years later Tarantino gives Sharon Tate, a person who he never met, a second chance to impact more lives.
Thank you so much for this.
I was in high school when Sharon Tate was murdered; everyone was devastated by it. It’s always been in my generation’s collective psyche, and at first Tarantino’s ending seemed to re-open the wound. Yet your insightful article makes so much sense, and it gives all of us a sort of catharsis. Thank you for that.
I consider myself well versed in everything Manson. I found Helier Skelter at sixteen and couldn’t believe someone like this existed. Tarantino demolishes 50 years of fear and notoriety in one fell swoop, exposing him and his followers as the sad losers they were. The ending is hilarious and achieves the justice that was never achieved. It’s sad Manson garnered so much attention in real life and I was so delighted that this movie makes him and his followers a punch line.
I finally saw this film this week–I was struck by the enormity of “time-bending” and the absolutely riveting experience as the story line weaves together past and pretend lives. I loved the film and your review only added to its importance and depth. Thank you–you are an outstanding writer.
Just found your critique, Travis. Thanks so much. I watched this movie with my brother in a cinema in Napa, and then again with my son in Melbourne, Australia. It’s now on high rotation on Blu Ray. I loved the movie from the first view, but your insight into this era have added another dimension.