This piece contains some spoilers for Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood.
In 1968, Brussels-based Cine Revue Magazine interviewed actress Sharon Tate about her relationship with director Roman Polanski and Hollywood's efforts to position her as the future blonde bombshell of the looming 1970s.
"They tried to make me into a sex symbol, a blonde goose," she said in the interview, translated from the original French. "That's their favorite idea. Hollywood only has a few studios and they're run by old men."
"They're certain that to entertain the public, you just have to create a blonde star with shiny lips, rounded hips, and no brain."
That same candid attitude towards the industry is reflected in what appears to be 1968 profile of Tate in Photo Screen, called "Venus on a Treadmill," written in the aftermath of Valley of the Dolls, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of doomed starlet Jennifer North.
Tate comes off as a complex woman, one at the brink of major fame as a sex symbol, yet still extremely savvy about what that means. She appears to be woman in control of her own trajectory, a person who could easily have succumbed to the expectations of an industry run by misogynistic white men, but instead, looks towards a modern future.
The piece ends on a bittersweet note. Tate understands that to make it in Hollywood, she has to play a game she finds distasteful. She’s ambitious and career-driven enough to do it, but she craves respect, not adulation. In other words, she’s stuck on what writer Johnny Columbus called “the Hollywood treadmill,” which has her running in place, cast as the beautiful and vapid Venus when she should be an Athena, fearless and wise.
“Sometimes,” she said — in a quote attributed both to Photo Screen and Newsweek, “I think it would be better to be a sex symbol, because at least I would know where I was…But I’d lose my mind!”
Sadly, that’s the role she’s been cast as longest. Her tragic and violent death at age 26 at the hands of the Manson Family has frozen Tate’s legacy in time. To many, she’s not a promising young actress, known for roles in The Fearless Vampire Killers, Valley of the Dolls, or 12x1, her last film released posthumously with her name in top billing. Nor is she a woman in love with her new husband, director Roman Polanski, or a young mother-to-be, pregnant with her first child and ecstatic about starting a family. Instead, pop culture’s morbid fascination with Charles Manson and his followers has condemned Tate to the role of perpetual beautiful blonde victim, the very thing she never wanted to be.
Margot Robbie’s role as Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood has been controversial from the start. As soon as her casting was announced back in March 2018, critics and fans worried about yet another portrayal of the late actress as a casualty, her tragic death reenacted for entertainment thrills.
To his credit, Tarantino’s film goes in an unexpected direction. Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood primarily focuses on has-been actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), navigating the changing landscape of the movie industry in the late 1960s. Tate is largely symbolic of that changing narrative: married to It-director Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and a burgeoning talent in her own right, she lives next door to Rick at 10050 Cielo Drive. And because most of the events take place during one weekend in February 1969, six months before the gruesome Manson Murders, most of Tate’s scene portray her simply living her life — a welcome change of pace.
The endorsement of the project by Tate’s real-life younger sister Debra, initially very critical of the film, seemed to put the matter to rest. But then, in March 2019, the first trailer for the film brought up the concern again: Robbie, though featured in multiple frames, did not speak once. Was Robbie as Tate cast merely as a token beauty to further the plot of these two straight, white male protagonists?
The character’s perceived lack of dialogue became a flashpoint of criticism during the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere. Asked by a female journalist why Robbie had so few lines, Tarantino appeared flustered and annoyed, answering that he rejected her ”hypothesis.” He later offered some clarification on the decision, and announced that he was adding two minutes (a generous 120 seconds) of Tate dialogue to the final cut.
So, how much does Robbie actually speak as Tate in Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood? By my approximate calculations — I was distracted by Brad and Leo’s unparalleled buddy chemistry, which hints at the director’s true focus — she has fewer than 50 lines total, many of which are whispered to Tate’s husband , as they drive to dramatic swells of music on the way to various glamorous events. It’s not very much. Twelve-year-old Julia Butters, who plays Rick’s precocious co-star on a TV show, probably speaks more, and her lines definitely have more substance. Partially, that’s due to the nature of the situations they happen to be placed in.
The first time we see Tate, she’s undulating to music in a private plane. Tarantino frames her as a free spirit, a genuinely joyous and nice person, who loves to dance. I know this, because she dances all the time: in her house, in the dark of a movie theater, in her car, in her bedroom while packing. There’s an element of manic pixie dream girl to her, a woman that’s been filtered through a distinctly male perspective. She’s a glowing, beautiful, blonde idea — not a person.
Tarantino’s adulation of Tate is evident in the way he talks about the actress in interviews. “[Tate] is an angelic presence throughout the movie, she’s an angelic ghost on earth, to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts,” he told Indiewire.
But while that perspective might track in a film that only alluded to Tate, that isn’t the case. She is in the movie, on the promotional posters, and isn’t given all that much to actually do. And yet, that too, was apparently part of Tarantino’s plan. The director has said that he wanted us to spend “a day in the life” with a woman who is only really remembered for her death. But the fact that the film could largely work were Tate to completely be removed from it makes her feel all too much like a token female character, there to titillate, and act as a catalyst to propel male characters forward.
In one of her more lengthy sequences, Sharon and Roman attend a party at the Playboy Mansion whose guest-list includes Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf). After one squeal of recognition when she sees her friend, Tate expresses herself, once again, by dragging them all to the dance floor, as the camera pans up bare legs and over her exposed midriff (she’s wearing sunshine yellow shorts and a matching crop top). In this moment, we’re seeing her much like Hollywood executives saw her: a beautiful woman defined by how much the various men around her covet her. (It’s a point that’s even explicitly made in the movie, when Steve McQueen explains that former fiancé Jay Sebring is still in love with Sharon, creating tension with husband Roman.)
We get more of a sense of her real-life personality later in the film, as she cheerfully picks up a woman hitchhiker, giving her a big hug before heading off to buy a first-edition copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Passing in front of a movie theater, she sees a poster for The Wrecking Crew, the 1969 spy comedy she starred in alongside Dean Martin.
Tate’s interaction with the ticket booth lady (played by Kate Berlant) as she requests entry for one is the most we hear her speak. The scene would actually pass the Bechdel Test, if only the ticket booth lady was named in the movie. That moment, and the time she then spends in the theater, watching the audience watch her performance, is the single time we really feel close to her. Usually, this kind of meta moment would be a surefire recipe for disaster. In this case, however, it comes off as a lovely tribute, a way for Robbie and Tarantino to pay homage to Tate’s real comedic talent as bumbling Danish tourism attache Freya Carlson.
Here, we see a woman who is on the cusp of fame, craving the audience’s respect, and delighting in their reactions — not out of vanity, but out of a genuine desire to be as good as she can be. A flashback to her training for the film with martial arts legend Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) shows us how hard she’s worked for this. Sharon's sister Debra Tate — who read a draft of the script early on — was reportedly on set when that sequence was shot, which maybe explains why it stands out as the only one of its kind in a film that claims to hinge entirely on Tate’s fate, without really being about her at all.
Strikingly, it’s also the one time we get to be with Tate alone, as opposed to filtered through the gaze of those around her. In the end, she’s really just there to provide a potential career opportunity for Rick, as is made clear towards the film’s end, when Rick finally gets introduced to Sharon, over her gate intercom. The one time they finally get to speak is in a context where her body cannot be factored into the equation — the only time her voice takes precedence over her looks.
None of this, by the way, is Robbie’s fault. She gives a compelling and truly affectionate performance with what she’s given to work with, conveying the essence of a woman you’d want to be close friends with, which by all accounts of the late actress, is accurate. But Tarantino has created an environment that sidelines Tate as a pawn in a game of chess run by the men around her — and to hear her say it, that’s not what she had in mind.