Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time In Hollywood has been a project rife with controversy since it was announced, as people have feared that the trigger happy auteur would be approaching the subject of Sharon Tate's death tastelessly, by bringing his trademark revisionist's touch to the night a collection of Charles Manson's followers murdered her and several others on August 9th, 1969.
However, there hasn't been a ton of focus yet on the fact that Roman Polanski - master filmmaker and Tate's husband at the time of her death - is an actual character in the movie. Most of this probably has to do with the simple truth that we don't really know that much about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood beyond the fact that it follows a fictional Burt Reynolds/Hal Needham-esque actor/stunt man duo - Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) - who were next door neighbors to Tate (played here here by a dead ringer Margot Robbie) during the Summer of '69.
Now, Tarantino has found his young Polanski in Rafal Zawierucha - an actor of Polish heritage (matching the infamous director he's portraying) - who's mostly unknown beyond his home country. Even after glancing at his IMDb page, this writer would be lying if he claimed any of the roles listed on Zawierucha's resume were remotely familiar. Yet inexperience in the States doesn't matter when it comes to Tarantino, as he put imported up-and-comers like Michael Fassbender, Christoph Waltz and Daniel Brühl to work in Inglourious Basterds.
Marina Zenovich's documentary Wanted and Desired does a fantastic job placing both what Tate's presence and death meant to Polanski in the context of his rather tragic, unfortunate, and ensuingly criminal life. A survivor of the Kraków ghettos during the Nazi invasion of Poland, his parents were both deported to separate death camps - his mother to Auschwitz (where she died soon after arriving) and father to Mauthausen-Gusen (though his papa lived and was later reunited with Roman). In Tate, Polanski discovered a sense of security he'd never known growing up under the constant threat of death, and the fact that they were expecting a child together gave him hope for the future.
In Wanted and Desired, producer Andrew Braunsberg vividly tells the story of receiving the call that Tate had been murdered:
"We were preparing a film I was going to produce called The Day of the Dolphin. We were writing the script in London. Roman was a perfectionist and kept saying we'd work on it for a few more days and then finish it in LA. It was a Saturday, and the phone rang, and I picked it up, and it was our agent, Bill Tennant, who was on the phone. And I immediately realized that something was terribly wrong. He was a very stable kind of guy, but he was absolutely distraught.
I said, 'well, what is it?' And he said something like 'they're all dead...they're all dead'. I realized something awful had happened, and I gave the phone to Roman, and I've never seen anything like it. I saw somebody disintegrate in front of my eyes."
While none of this excuses Polanski's later crimes, it does tend to illustrate why an actor would find the part so appealing. Here was an artist operating at the peak of his powers - as Rosemary's Baby had just been released the previous October - who had the woman he loved more than anything by his side, only to have Charles Manson and his sadistic followers snatch that promise of a brighter tomorrow away. Given Tarantino's track record, something tells this writer we're going to get one hell of a performance from Zawierucha.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood hits theaters July 26, 2019.