We know this story. A winding Benedict Canyon road and the unlucky house at the end. The curdling screams through the night. The words writ in blood. In her seminal essay, “The White Album,” Joan Didion recalled the current of Southern California the day after the Manson Family killed those five people on Cielo Drive: “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
Charles Manson’s reign of terror did not start or stop on August 9, 1969, but it is stuck in the amber of that evening. Movies, television, books, podcasts – it will live in infamy at the cross-section of culture and corroboration, the bookend of the most metamorphic decade in modern American history. A warning and an epitaph.
The news that Quentin Tarantino’s next film will center on the Manson murders – perhaps the most ruthlessly re-interpreted true crime case of all time – drew a certain ire from even his most devout fans. It’s disrespectful to the victims, there’s nothing new to tell, it’s exploitive. This of course presupposes that we know anything about what Tarantino’s brewing, which we don’t. His films sell one thing and tell another. They are incisive and indelible, and there’s a decent chance we won’t know what we’ve seen until we’ve seen it twice.
What we do know is this: At least one of the film’s storylines will focus on Sharon Tate. That still doesn’t tell us much about the plot or even the parameters of reality where it might dance – this is the director who blew Hitler’s head apart with a machine gun and incinerated the body in a blaze of nitrate film stock, after all. But that Tate’s name is already in reports, and that Tarantino met with Margot Robbie for the part, is what vitalizes the project’s possibilities. You see, for every loose adaptation, every novelization, every spin-off horror movie, not a single major Manson project has ever told her story. She is lost instead in the horror of that night – August 9, 1969 – her name some grim factoid, disordered by cause of death.
I know a lot – probably too much – about the Manson Family, their crimes, their sick and twisted legacy. The details – the address numbers, names of members, names of victims, Manson’s childhood, the high school Leslie Van Houten attended, the prison where Susan Atkins died – are crystal clear in my head; I blame it on a macabre adolescent fascination with cults and crime. We all have our phases. The Manson Family felt immediate and knowable because, unlike so many crimes, their case is laid bare: no hidden identities or faceless killers. So much of it is documented, and obsessively. Even You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s stellar podcast that chronicled Manson and his ties to Hollywood in 12 parts, barely scratches the surface of the many long message board avenues through which the Family coils.
But like a halo in the center sits the face of Sharon Tate. I was drawn to her, too, and in time, to her only. She became the distillation of all that I’d consumed, a ball of purity that soaks up the rot; supernaturally beautiful, kind in a superlative way. “Being in Sharon’s presence was being enveloped in grace,” said her Valley of the Dolls co-star and good friend Patty Duke. “Her inner beauty superseded her outer beauty.”
Sharon’s status as a Hollywood star and a Hollywood wife meant that the people she died with – Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca – are individually remembered, which is rarely the case for high-profile crimes, where the killers are prioritized and immortalized. But the victims of the Tate and LaBianca murders, as they’ve come to be known, are not Manson Family inventory, but human beings, names. And they might not have been without hers.
I’m sure the reticence to touch Tate’s story is out of respect, or fear, or some concoction of the two. And with the news of Tarantino’s project, it was her name raising alarms, due largely to the baby she was carrying, and the horrible confrontation of id that presents: mortality and human carnage in their most primal, incomprehensible form.
But, surprising even to me, I’m not upset that Tarantino’s doing this. I’m thrilled, even. Because for all the brutality his films display, they have never felt, to me – a person who flinches at guns and has no love for most action films – gratuitous or unkind. (With the massive exception of The Hateful Eight, where I’m pretty sure the gratuity and unkindness are a statement of some sort, but one I haven’t yet deciphered.) They relish in grisly moments, but the right kind of grisly moments – the Hitler and Goebbels getting pummeled by bullets kind of moments. I don’t believe for one second that he’d relish in the dead body of a pregnant woman, or any of the victims, or that he’d show the murders at all.
And more to the point, I love Tarantino’s women. All of them, even the evil ones. I love Jackie Brown. I love The Bride. I love Mia Wallace. I love Broomhilda von Shaft. I love every last dame in Death Proof, a movie that galvanizes me as a woman, makes me feel power in strange places. And I truly love Shosanna Dreyfus, with her fiery green eyes full of tenderness and vengeance, a dangerous dichotomy he mines delicately and to great effect, with a care that feels deliberate and considered, even loving.
I don’t know what Tarantino will do with Sharon – if she’ll even be the Sharon of our world or some revisionist incarnation – but I have some hard-to-describe inkling that he won’t let us down with this one; that he’ll melt the amber, and take 1969 to 1970, when culture reflexively exploded in the wake of the murders, and the moon landing, and Vietnam, and Woodstock, and an America in the throes of a post-love identity crisis. That’s a sweet spot for any director, especially one in transition himself. Maybe I’ll eat my words. Maybe it’ll be horrible. But that Tate will finally have a voice has beset my trepidation. We know this story, but we haven’t heard hers.