Sony opens Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” on July 26, close to the 50th anniversary of the murder of Sharon Tate and four others. A front-page Variety story on Aug. 11, 1969, two days after the killings, said police described the scene as “a ritualistic mass murder.” Showbiz has since then offered many tasteless depictions of the killings via low-budget exploitation films and TV offerings. Even with a “classy” production like the 1976 “Helter Skelter,” Variety reported that Lorimar intended to “spice up” the four-hour miniseries for overseas by adding more violence and sex.
In November 2018, Debra Tate (Sharon’s sister) wrote a piece for Variety’s special issue on criminal justice reform, American (In)Justice. A victims’ rights activist, she lamented Hollywood’s glamorizing of the Manson family and urged no parole for its remaining members in prison. She offered a few details from 1969 that served as a reminder: No matter how awful the descriptions, the real thing was much worse.
In the weeks after the murders, Variety reported on updates in the police investigation of the Aug. 9 murders on Cielo Drive, and the killings the following day of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Police didn’t immediately link the two crimes.
The media was obsessed with the killings, often trying to blame the victims, as if their lives were filled with drugs and debauchery. For example, on Aug. 27, Variety reported that Life entertainment editor Dan Merriman had commissioned a series of “think pieces” for the magazine, including one that would address the murders and “their ramifications on the whole Hollywood drug scene.” Print and broadcast journalists, as well as talk-radio callers, offered theories trying to connect the Satan worshippers in “Rosemary’s Baby” with the lifestyle of Tate’s husband, director Roman Polanski.
Five months after the killings, Variety reported that New American Library was rushing to print a book “The Killing of Sharon Tate,” written by newspaper reporter Lawrence Schiller and one of the accused women (Susan Atkins). A blurb on the book promised that reading it would require “A strong stomach and an overwhelming curiosity.”
Other low-lights, as reported in Variety:
- Jan. 20, 1971: A story said the film “The Other Side of Madness” “presents a lengthy, graphic reenactment of the Sharon Tate murders in such detail that lawyers for Charles Manson have expressed amazement at the accuracy of depicted events.”
- Sept. 1, 1971: A review of a drama “Sweet Savior” said the film “capitalizes on the Sharon Tate tragedy in an offensive grab for quick box office. Events are keyed to the more publicized aspects of the killings, though hyped with an inordinate amount of sexploitation material.”
- Jan. 12, 1972: A review of the New York production “22 Years” said playwright Robert Sickinger “compiled loosely knit scenes based on accounts of the slayings. The result is listless theater with dull B.O. potential.”
The fascination never went away. In 2004 CBS offered a new miniseries of “Helter Skelter,” again based on the book by Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi. In his May 13, 2004, Variety review, Brian Lowry said the new edition was timely “due to the enduring fascination with Manson along with media hysteria.” Lowry said this three-hour version made clear that Manson was impatiently waiting for a race war between blacks and whites, so he decided “to trigger those events through a series of disturbingly random murders, hoping blacks will be blamed.”
Several years after the killings, Polanski lamented the media hysteria to the New York Times. “What happened was reviewed in terms of my films,” he said. “Suddenly Sharon became responsible for her own death. The press was despicable. They sensationalized something that was already sensational. They were criminal.”
In her recent Variety piece, Debra Tate said: “Members of the Manson Family have left a permanent stain on our culture. The entertainment industry has helped them reach almost mythic status by churning out seemingly never-ending anniversary shows, recordings of Manson’s music, books, television programs, movies and documentaries.”