The Sharon Tate we see in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, played by Margot Robbie, leads a perfectly average life — as average as you can get, at least, for a rising movie star living with her director husband high in the hills of Los Angeles.
It feels rare to glimpse a human side of someone who is almost exclusively recalled for the shocking way she died. But that human side of the actress is what Quentin Tarantino strives to show in his latest film: A.O. Scott wrote in his review for The New York Times that this Tate is an “emblem of normalcy.”
Tate hardly had time to sink into her career before she was murdered at age 26. In the absence of a wide body of work, the gruesome circumstances of her death — and the terror among Hollywood’s elite that her killers might target them next — have enveloped Tate’s legacy for decades.
She was 8 1/2 months pregnant when cult leader Charles Manson’s followers stabbed her in the home she was renting on Cielo Drive with her husband, Polish film director Roman Polanski. Four other guests in the house were killed that night in 1969: coffee heiress Abigail Folger; hair stylist Jay Sebring; Polish writer Voytek Frykowski; and a young visitor, Steven Parent. Polanski was in London at the time.
The ensuing seven-month trial captivated the country. The murders were unsolved for months before one of the family members, Susan Atkins, bragged about them while in jail on a separate charge. Manson and Atkins, along with Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles Watson, were convicted in the case; another Manson follower who stood watch during the murders, Linda Kasabian, became the star witness and was given immunity. Manson, who was denied parole a dozen times, died in 2017.
After the murders, The Times wrote that Tate had been “one of Hollywood’s most promising young starlets, even though her television and film appearances were not primarily in leading roles.”
Tate was born in Dallas in 1943 to an Army family, and they moved around quite a bit through her childhood, to San Francisco, Washington state and Washington, D.C. Another move led the family to Verona, Italy, where Tate went to high school.
Before her Hollywood days, she won a number of beauty pageants, The Times reported after her death. At her American high school in Verona, she was crowned as queen at both homecoming and the senior prom.
At the start of her acting career in 1963, Tate had smaller parts in shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Mister Ed, but her six years in Hollywood were defined by movies.
Tate was best known for playing Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls, a drama about three young women navigating show business. (The Times’ review was not particularly kind to the film when it opened in 1967 — nor to the cast, which it called “generally mediocre.”)
Tate also appeared in The Fearless Vampire Killers, directed by Polanski, and Don’t Make Waves. Her role in The Wrecking Crew made its way into Tarantino’s film, with one scene showing the actress watching herself on-screen from a movie theater.
It was after making Don’t Make Waves that Tate met Polanski, who was also rising in prominence with films like Repulsion. They married in 1967.
Tate was “head over heels in love” with Polanski, her sister Debra Tate said in an interview with The Times last year. “Roman and Sharon were a true love story,” she added.
The couple had a diverse array of friends in the entertainment industry, The Times reported in 1969, including actors, directors and musicians, as well as Playboy executive Victor Lownes. Peter Sellers, Yul Brynner and Warren Beatty were all cited as part of their circle.
Polanski has been a fugitive from the United States since 1978, when he fled the country while awaiting sentencing for statutory rape. He was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood isn’t the only film about Tate being released near the 50th anniversary of her death. A particularly bloody (and vaguely supernatural?) slasher starring Hilary Duff as Tate came out this year to grim reviews, while a seemingly more sensitive biopic — Tate, with Kate Bosworth in the leading role — is also in the works.