'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood': What Film Got Right on Manson Murders - Rolling Stone
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18 Details ‘Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’ Got Right About the Manson Murders

Quentin Tarantino took a lot of liberties when it came to the depiction of real-life events — but he left in plenty of easter eggs

"I Don't Have Any Guilt" said long-haired hippie chieftain Charles Manson, 35, in brief press conference in courtroom here, June 18, where a hearing to continue proceedings in the murder case of musician Dary Hinman was held. Manson's trial for the slaying of actress Sharon Tate and four others last August 9th, and the killing of a wealthy supermarket chain owner and his wife the day after the Tate murder, began this week and forced postponement of the Hinman case."I Don't Have Any Guilt" said long-haired hippie chieftain Charles Manson, 35, in brief press conference in courtroom here, June 18, where a hearing to continue proceedings in the murder case of musician Dary Hinman was held. Manson's trial for the slaying of actress Sharon Tate and four others last August 9th, and the killing of a wealthy supermarket chain owner and his wife the day after the Tate murder, began this week and forced postponement of the Hinman case.

Charles Manson

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

This post contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is now in theaters. 


Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, the latest epic from Quentin Tarantino, is not, as you may already know, a historically accurate depiction of the Manson Family murders. Given the director’s work, it’s not all that surprising; as evidenced by Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, revisiting historical atrocities and making sure the good guys win (and in as badass, comically violent a fashion as possible) is kind of his thing. In this vein, Once Upon a Time takes significant liberties with the major event at the heart of the film: The August 9th, 1969 Manson Family murders, in which three of Charles Manson’s followers rounded up the occupants of 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills — most notably movie actress Sharon Tate — and brutally murdered all of them. Not only does Tarantino invent two fictional neighbors of Tate (played by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio), but it also significantly alters the historical record with its fairytale twist ending.

Few have pointed out, however, that the film actually gets more about the Manson Family right than it gets wrong. In plumbing the extensive body of research on the Manson Family, Tarantino clearly did his homework, and when viewed through the lens of what we actually know about the cult and its leader, the movie is a testament to Tarantino’s keen eye for detail. That’s why a handful of self-styled Mansonologists at Rolling Stone decided to dig deep into the body of research surrounding the Manson murders and point out exactly what little details about the Manson family Tarantino got right in his film  — many of which you might have missed upon first viewing.

The setting of Spahn Ranch
According to the lore of the film, Rick Dalton, the washed-up actor played by DiCaprio, started out his career shooting the Western series Bounty Law; the opening scene of the film, a black-and-white interview with Dalton from the 1950s is set against the backdrop of an ersatz Western town, later revealed to be Spahn Movie Ranch. In reality, Spahn Movie Ranch was a real, 55-acre property in the mountains of Los Angeles County that was owned and operated by George Spahn, who rented out a fake Western set on the property to B-movie producers in the 1950s. Prior to his purchasing the property, however, the ranch had once been a thriving movie set, most notably serving as the backdrop to The Outlaw, a 1943 Howard Hughes film starring Jane Russell. But as Once Upon a Time documents, by the late 1960s it was largely in disrepair. Now blind and infirm, Spahn agreed to allow the Manson family to live there in exchange for free labor and sexual favors from the Manson girls, most notably his favorite, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who was thusly dubbed by Spahn for squeaking when he touched her, according to Manson follower Paul Watkins’ book My Life With Charles Manson. Spahn died in 1974, four years after the structures on the land burned down as a result of a wildfire. As for Spahn Ranch itself, it’s now part of the Santa Susana Pass State Historical Park.

The Manson family girls scavenge for food in dumpsters while singing Charles Manson songs
In one scene early in the film, the Manson girls are seen in Once Upon a Time scavenging food through a dumpster and singing “Always Is Always Forever,” one of Manson’s songs which eerily advocates for ultimate submission. While the scene is cast in a relatively cheery light, in reality, the Manson family members did rely almost solely on dumpster diving for their daily meals — and in keeping with the misogyny central to the Manson ethos, the girls were primarily tasked with searching for food. Whatever they brought back from their dumpster diving sessions went to the men first, with the women eating whatever was left on the guys’ plates, according to Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, which devoted a season to the Manson murders.

Roman Polanski did not spend a lot of time at 10050 Cielo Drive
When Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) are first introduced, Dalton comments that the couple moved in next door last month, and that this is the first time he’s seen Polanski, implying he hasn’t been around much. While Tarantino’s time frame is a little off — the film’s 1969 timeline begins in February, which is the month when Polanski and Tate actually started renting the property —  it’s true that Polanski wasn’t really in the picture during much of Tate’s pregnancy. In March 1969, Polanski flew to London to shoot The Day of the Dolphin. While Tate briefly flew out to join him, she returned to the home to L.A. in mid-July, with Polanski slated to come back on August 15th. In fact, part of the reason why Sebring, Frykowski, and Folger were at the house on August 9th is because Polanski had tasked them to keep an eye on Tate during the late stages of her pregnancy.

Margot Robbie star in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

Margot Robbie, as Sharon Tate, dances to the music of Paul Revere and the Raiders. Photo credit: Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures


The band Sharon Tate listens to on her record player had a strong Manson Family (and Tate/Polanski) connection
One of the more light-hearted moments in the film is when Tate dances around in her bedroom to the 1960s bubblegum pop band Paul Revere and the Raiders, with Sebring (Emile Hirsch) walking into the room and lightly mocking her for her taste in music. While it’s not confirmed whether Tate herself was a fan of the band, there is a legit Manson connection there: record producer Terry Melcher, Tate and Polanski’s friend who previously occupied the Cielo Drive house (and who famously denied Manson a record deal, inciting his ire) produced most of the Raiders’ hit records. Lead vocalist Mark Lindsay even lived at 10050 Cielo Drive for a time, and claims that he once met Manson at a gathering there.

Tate and Polanski were friends with Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas, and with Steve McQueen
At a party at the Playboy Mansion, Tate is shown dancing with Sebring, Cass Elliott, and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas as Steve McQueen looks on. While the star-studded moment appears to be merely an evocation of Hollywood’s Swinging Sixties, it’s certainly conceivable the five would have attended the same party together: Tate was friends with Elliott and Phillips, as was McQueen, who was also a client of Sebring’s. In fact, McQueen’s widow gave an interview to the National Post in 2017 claiming that McQueen was invited to dinner with Tate the night of the murders and likely would have been in the house at Cielo Drive, had he not “ran off with a chickie” he’d met that night instead.

Jay Sebring was a consummate third wheel
The film depicts Sebring as Tate’s former-lover-turned-BFF once Polanski entered the picture, and that the three were inseparable; it also strongly implies that Sebring was still in love with Tate and that his intentions were not 100% platonic. It’s true that the two dated for years and that Sebring intended to marry Tate right before she met Polanski. According to Karina Longworth’s Manson podcast, Sebring was initially upset at being replaced by Polanski, until the two actually met and (somehow, improbably) became fast friends. While we’ll never know whether Sebring was actually still in love with Tate at the time of their deaths, one tragic detail pointed out by Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders author Greg King may give us some insight: at the time of his death, he was still wearing the class ring she had given him while they were dating.

Yes, Sharon Tate walked around barefoot a lot
Much has been made of Tarantino’s obsession with female bare feet in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (and, well, most of his other movies), with some critics suggesting that the preponderance of close-up shots of, say, Sharon Tate’s bare feet at a movie theater, came at the expense of her character development. But as the Hollywood Reporter noted in an interview with Robbie, “Sharon apparently hated wearing shoes and she would sometimes put rubber bands around her ankles to make it look like she was wearing sandals so she could get into restaurants.” So while the close-up shots of dirty bare feet might not be super appetizing, they are, in fact, historically accurate.

After Tate and Polanski moved in, Manson show up to the house on Cielo Drive looking for Melcher
At one point in the film, Manson arrives at 10050 Cielo Drive looking for Terry Melcher, only for Sebring to tell him that Melcher no longer lives there. While accounts vary depending on the source, some version of this did apparently happen, according to trial testimony from Rudy Altobelli, the man who owned the house that Polanski and Tate were renting. Altobelli testified that on March 23rd, 1969, Manson showed up to the property looking for Melcher. Contrary to what is presented in Once Upon a Time, however, it was photographer Shahrokh Hatami, a friend of Tate and Polanski, who answered the door and interacted with Manson — not Sebring. In his own testimony, Hatami backed up Altobelli’s version of events, saying that he spoke with Manson that day and that he sent him to talk to Altobelli.

The Manson family recruited new members in part by hitchhiking
When Pitt’s rugged stuntman Cliff Booth picks up Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a comely (and fictional) Manson family member, she’s hitchhiking on the side of the road, and she immediately tries to curry favor with him by offering him a blow job. This was, apparently, a pretty standard recruiting tactic for the Manson family girls, who recruited many followers and associates in a similar fashion. In fact, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson first encountered the family when he picked up Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey on Sunset Boulevard, who immediately proceeded to set up shop in his home — and, for a time, refused to leave.

This is a general view of the 500-acre Spahn Movie Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains of southern California, seen 1969. The ranch was where Charles Manson and his "family" lived at the time of the Tate-LaBianca murdersManson Spahn Movie Ranch 1969, Los Angeles, USA

This is a general view of the 500-acre Spahn Movie Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains of southern California, seen 1969. Photo credit: AP/Shutterstock


Members of the Manson family gave tourists visiting Spahn Ranch trail rides
When Booth arrives at Spahn Ranch, Manson family members Lulu (Leslie Van Houten, played by Victoria Pedretti) and Tex (Charles Watson, played by Austin Butler) are seen giving trail riders to visitors. While the prospect of amphetamine-zonked cult followers giving horsey rides to wide-eyed tourists might seem bizarre, this is apparently exactly what the Manson family did on the ranch, according to David J. Kracjek’s Charles Manson: The Man Who Ruined the Sixties. Horseback rides were a cornerstone of Spahn’s floundering business, and it was part of the deal the Manson family struck with Spahn to care for the horses and lend them out for rides.

Tex was Charles Manson’s second-in-command
In the film, the wild-eyed Tex is portrayed as Manson’s deputy who’s called in while Manson is on a trip to Santa Barbara to handle the situation when things go awry. This apparently squares with Watson’s real role on the ranch, according to Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which quotes an investigator saying that he and Manson “were the real brains at the ranch.” Unlike Manson, Watson did not have a criminal record and was, by all accounts, a relatively normal kid before joining the Manson family while hitchhiking in L.A. in 1968. (Dennis Wilson, coincidentally, is the one who picked him up.) After he was convicted of his role in the Tate murders, Watson converted to Christianity; he has appealed the parole board 17 times for his release, to no avail.

Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme had sex with the then-80-year-old George Spahn
As mentioned above, the Manson girls were instructed to trade sexual favors for various material goods, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (as portrayed in the film by a foul-mouthed Dakota Fanning) was no exception. As depicted in Once Upon a Time, she regularly slept with Spahn and was one of his favorite girls at the ranch, reportedly coming close to convincing him to leave the entire property to her and the other members of the family. Though she was never charged in connection to the Tate murders, she later achieved another kind of infamy when she attempted to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975; she was reportedly still so enamored with Manson that she begged to have him attend her trial.

Steven “Clem” Grogan was not the brightest bulb
While none of the Manson family members are depicted as particularly bright, special mockery is reserved for Steven “Clem” Grogan (played by James Landry Hebert), the skinny, long-haired rube who sticks a knife in one of Booth’s tires before Booth pummels him and forces him to change the tire himself. This depiction appears to stem almost directly from prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, in which a member of the Straight Satans, a biker gang affiliated with the Manson family, refers to Clem as a “certified idiot,” pointing out that he mimicked whatever Manson said and escaped from Camarillo, a state mental hospital. (He did not escape, but was sentenced to a 90-day incarceration after exposing his penis to schoolchildren.) While not present at the Tate murders, Grogan was later convicted for his role in the murder of ranch-hand Donald “Shorty” Shea, who worked on Spahn Ranch; his death sentence was later overturned by a judge, who wrote that Grogan “was too stupid and too hopped up on drugs to deicide anything on his own.” Grogan was released on parole in 1985.

On the day of her death, Tate’s nursery was fully furnished
In a heartbreaking montage leading up to the night of her murder, Tate is seen having lunch with actress Joanna Pettet at her home and putting the final touches on the baby’s nursery. At the time of her murder, the nursery was sadly fully furnished, according to Julian Wasser, a photographer who accompanied Polanski to take Polaroids of the house during the police investigation to provide to a psychic. “When he went into the nursery, he opened a drawer and it was full of beautiful pictures of Sharon. She was such a good-looking girl,” Wasser told The Guardian in 2014. “And he started crying: it really hit him, the loss.”

Tate and her friends had dinner and margaritas at a Mexican restaurant the night of their deaths
The restaurant, El Coyote, was one of Polanski and Tate’s favorite hangouts. It’s still in operation to this day.


Brad Pitt plays a former stuntman in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ Photo credit: Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures

Andrew Cooper

Watson’s chilling message to the occupants of the Tate house were “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business”
When Watson says this in the movie, it’s to Cliff Booth — but in real life, he said it to Voytek Frykowski, a friend of Polanski’s and the boyfriend of Abigail Folger, according to trial testimony from Linda Kasabian. “I heard Tex say to Charles something about he told the people that he was the Devil,” Kasabian testified, referring to when the family returned to the ranch. “He was there to do the Devil’s work and then he started saying that there was a lot of fear and a lot of panic and it was really messy and that, I don’t know, bodies were all over the place but they were all dead.”

Members of the Manson family were high out of their minds when they committed the murders
In Once Upon a Time, Tex, Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) — the real Cielo Drive murderers — are extremely drugged-up when they arrive at the Tate-Polanski cul-de-sac; in fact, it’s something of a source of dark comedy. But it’s true that they were extremely high when they committed the murders; moreover, they were pretty much high the entire time they were living at the ranch, with Manson giving them LSD daily in order to command influence.

Sharon Tate was, by most accounts, a pretty lovely person
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the film — which ends with Tate and her friends being spared — is knowing the actual fate of the people whose lives we closely follow throughout the film. And it’s most devastating to watch Robbie’s portrayal of Tate as a sweet, whimsical young woman at a turning point in both her career and her personal life as a soon-to-be mother. It’s a depiction that is fairly true to the real Tate, according to those who knew her best. “She was so sweet and so kind, intelligent, and lighter than the air in every way…And Margot did a beautiful job at portraying that,” Tate’s sister Debra told Vanity Fair, adding that she cried when she heard Robbie’s voice as Tate for the first time “because she sounded so much like Sharon…I actually got to see my sister again.”


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