How 'Once Upon A Time In Hollywood' Honors Sharon Tate's Life and Legacy

Quentin Tarantino's film remembers her as so much more than a victim.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Sharon Tate
Sony Pictures

“The girl from Valley of the Dolls.” That’s how Sharon Tate as played by Margot Robbie identifies herself during perhaps the best scene in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. While out running errands, Sharon comes across a theater that is showing her latest movie, The Wrecking Crew. Curious and a bit tickled, she walks up to the ticket booth and inquires about getting a free ticket because she’s in it. When she isn’t immediately recognized, Sharon reminds the owner about her role in Valley, a 1967 delightfully campy melodrama from director Mark Robson that is still to this day her most famous role. The reminder works. Sharon walks into the matinee and takes a seat. With the audience, she laughs along to the film and is especially overjoyed that her moments of physical comedy land with the audience. During a fight scene in The Wrecking Crew, Sharon in the audience reenacts some of the choreography she learned. She put work into this film and — at least in Tarantino’s imagining — for a couple of hours, sitting in the darkened theater surrounded by amused strangers, she gets to watch it pay off.

For most of the time we spend with Sharon in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Robbie’s touching and pitch-perfect performance ensures that we view her as someone bursting with life. We see this in her dancing her heart out at a party at the Playboy mansion, but her zeal is present in even the smallest moments. The way she sways in time to the music on the radio as she drives or the bounce in her step as she walks down the street. Robbie’s stunning beauty made her an ideal casting choice, but her work in the film is exemplary for how she consistently brings energy and nuance to someone who is typically remembered mostly for her death. While Tarantino’s script covers only a few days, he uses this time to showcase Sharon Tate as a star on the rise with the passion to take her career beyond only being recognized as “the girl from Valley of the Dolls.” 

In real life, her career was initially rocky and some doubted her. Tate herself commented that she was shy, and this could come across as being aloof. But her airy disposition was soon wielded so as to make her appear ethereal. It’s possible that such a reading of Tate is influenced by the knowledge of her tragic death, but watching footage of her now, it’s hard to not feel that her presence is fleeting, that there’s something ungraspable and unknowable about her, that she’s always just a little bit beyond our conception of her.

One of the most significant films in Tate’s life and career was 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. She met her future husband, Roman Polanski, on set, as he directed and starred opposite her. Tate portrayed Sarah, the daughter of an innkeeper in Transylvania whom the titular vampire killers, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski), meet while on their way to vanquish their immortal foes. Things don’t exactly go according to plan and Sarah is eventually turned into a vampire, a fact that goes unnoticed by the lovestruck Alfred. The film frequently figures her as the object of our gaze and offers her little opportunity to subvert this, but the narrative does utilize her otherworldly beauty to its advantage. That she can so easily seduce men is no surprise. That they view her as a gorgeous object and fail to see the subtleties of her actions or changes in her personality after she is turned is no surprise either.

After The Fearless Vampire Killers, she filmed Valley of the Dolls. Tate starred as Jennifer North in the film alongside Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles and Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara. The three women are as ambitious as they are unlucky in love, and their tumultuous professional and personal lives take them from New York to Hollywood as they seek to use their beauty to their advantage and gain success in the worlds of modeling, singing, and acting. Jennifer is especially objectified, and it’s made clear that for her entire life her looks have been valued above all else. As a model and performer, there’s often many a quip made about her physical appearance. In her introductory scene, she’s wearing a headdress and a tight shirt and the men around her snidely laugh about her being “top-heavy.” All the while, Jennifer maintains her composure and acts in a demure manner, but Tate holds herself resolutely, creating the impression that her character is uncomfortable but trying to bear it for the sake of her career.

When Jennifer settles down and marries nightclub singer Tony (Toni Scotti), the good fortune of their relationship doesn’t last long and she soon finds herself doing whatever she can to pay the bills. But before things take a turn for the worse, there are a handful of scenes where we see Jennifer more relaxed, even happy. In the home of her new husband, Jennifer sits crosslegged on the floor watching TV the way a child would. She has an air of innocence that sets this scene apart from others, and this impression is buoyed by her radiant, genuine smile. Jennifer is watching Neely accept an award and is nothing but happy for her friend’s success. The bedroom eyes that we saw from Tate earlier are replaced by a look of sincere eagerness.

It’s touching to see her thrilled by Neely’s acceptance speech, but heartbreaking to realize that this is the real Jennifer. She isn’t the ingenue with a come-hither look that we’ve seen in her other interactions. When she’s happy — really, truly happy — she’s zealous and grinning, not demure and seductive. As much as she has accepted that her looks will get her far, these moments with Jennifer alone reveal that she hasn’t internalized this to the point that she’s unaware she must still put on an act. Being beautiful isn’t enough; Jennifer has to project coyness and withhold the brazen enthusiasm that is part of her real personality. Tate plays all of this masterfully.

While the film failed critically, Tate’s performance was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year. She didn’t win, but it seems clear that she was beginning to be recognized for her ability to convey inner turmoil and bring depth to characters who were assumed to be nothing more than a beautiful, serene surface.

Before Tate had the ability to grow into her own as an actor, her life was tragically cut short. The actions of the Manson Family have become regarded as the crime of the century, and the gruesome details of Tate’s death have dominated our cultural understanding of who she was. But her life and her legacy are so much more than that.

Following Tate’s death, her mother, Doris, became an advocate for victims’ rights. She was part of a campaign for the Victims’ Bill of Rights, which passed in California in 1982. One of the most significant aspects of the bill is its inclusion of victim impact statements. Because of the work that Doris Tate did on behalf of her daughter, those most affected by crimes can address the court directly and share their stories. According to the National Center of Victims of Crime, being able to do so can help people with the recovery process and can allow them to find closure.

Sharon Tate started her career portraying women valued for their surface but not their depth. She was a promising young actor who, even with a limited filmography, had begun to get recognition for conveying the nuances of women who are undervalued by the world around them. After her tragic death, her mother and others who have pioneered campaigns for victims’ rights have fought to remind us that Tate is more than the brutal crime that took her life. Because of Tate’s legacy, victims and their families have a voice in the court system.

Sharon Tate never got to see her career pay off the way she really deserved to. She never made a film more well known than Valley of the Dolls. She never got to truly prove her dramatic and comedic talents on a bigger scale. She never got to see her passion and commitment take her to the level of success she desired. Her family members and others who fight for victims’ rights have made progress in honor of her, but of course, nothing done now can undo the tragedy of her death.

Likewise, his film can’t change the events of history, but with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino has brought a representation of Tate’s life to the forefront of popular culture. By keeping the Manson family largely at the periphery of his film, he localizes Sharon’s story around her life. He gives Robbie every opportunity to dazzle in the role and she makes her portrayal incredibly memorable and genuinely resonant.

One of the details that make the scene of Robbie as Sharon watching The Wrecking Crew so perfect is that we see the actual film. Tarantino didn’t recreate the footage with Robbie starring in it. Instead, we see the real movie and the real Sharon Tate projected onto the big screen while Robbie as Sharon watches. In the context of a movie that wrestles with the ’60s as a bygone era, this moment also comes across as an invitation for those who might be unfamiliar with Tate’s work to seek it out. Tarantino gives us a glimpse of the real Tate’s ability and it’s near impossible for this to not create a desire to see more of her. This scene is a poignant reminder of just how hopeful, how passionate, and how alive Sharon Tate was, once upon a time…

Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.