Margot Robbie’s biggest scene in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, involves her character, late-actress Sharon Tate, stopping by a Los Angeles movie theater for a showing of The Wrecking Crew. Unused to seeing her name on a marquee, she’s hyper-enthusiastic, and it’s one of the only moments in the movie where we get to just sit with her, and be.
Inside, barefoot and in the dark, she watches the audience around her react to the scenes she worked so hard on perfecting — as indicated by a flashback of her practicing a fight sequence with martial arts icon Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who consulted on the film. Up on-screen, however, is the real Sharon Tate, who would be brutally murdered by the Manson Family just six months later.
It’s a touching scene, largely because we’re seeing Robbie’s version of Tate at a joyous time in her life, enjoying the fruits of her labor and anticipating a promising career. We’re also simultaneously watching the real Sharon, in a role that was hailed as a breakthrough for a talented performer.
Starring Dean Martin, Elke Sommer, and Nancy Kwan alongside Tate, The Wrecking Crew was the fourth in what was then known as the Matt Helm series, a spy-fi comedy franchise loosely based on the novels by Donald Hamilton. Martin played Matt Helm, a U.S. government counter agent, working for an agency known as ICE (lol). In The Wrecking Crew, Helm is sent to thwart the evil doings of Count Contini (Nigel Green), whose theft of a billion dollars worth of gold threatens global security. His mission brings him to Denmark, where he meets the clumsy-yet-alluring Freya Carlson (Tate), an attaché from the tourism bureau who soon becomes his side-kick in the fight against Contini acolytes Linka Karensky (Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Kwan).
Directed by Phil Karlson, the film also featured real-life martial arts experts, wrestlers, and boxers, including Chuck Norris, who made his film debut as a background player. Lee, who appears in Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, is credited as a “karate advisor,” but did not actually star in the film.
It’s a lighthearted late ‘60s action comedy, full of bumbling pratfalls and failed seductions all scored to the kind of vaguely Chinese-sounding music common in that era’s spy films, meant to evoke the exoticism of international espionage. The gadgets are blinky behemoths by today’s standards, but it works. Think Bond, but sillier.
Indeed, Tate really is charming. Her entrance, shown in Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, has her tripping over Helm’s suitcase and falling flat on the floor.She pulls it off with enough zest that you feel she’s not only the butt of the joke. Later, she faces off against Kwan’s Yu-Rang in a fabulously chic striped turtleneck/beret combo, and Robbie-as-Tate smiles ecstatically while the audience cheers for her character.
Asked about the scene in an interview with French magazine Cinemonde,Tate said: "Really, men have no idea how cruel it is to have two women fight each other. I was so afraid to hurt the adorable Nancy!"
To which Kwan responded: “And I kept saying, As long as you don’t break Sharon Tate’s arm, or dislocate her shoulder. She’s too pretty!’”
Of course, having two beautiful women clash on-screen was part of the draw for a film that positions Martin’s character as a serial womanizer who is constantly fending off their thirsty come-ons. In that sense, The Wrecking Crew suffers from the limitations of its time. Its female characters are only there to make the male protagonist look good, and the only woman of color is tokenized. Tate’s character suffers from the peculiar Hollywood trope that requires that everyone pretend not to notice that a woman wearing glasses is beautiful until she takes them off.
Because of Tate’s untimely death, the movie now stands as a symbol of what could have been, a glimpse at a gifted comedienne on the rise. That thought turns this absurd farce into something deeply meaningful. And in the context of Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, it's a way for us to connect with the real woman we mostly know as the victim of a horrible crime.