Back when I was with Harper’s Magazine, I received a letter from one of Charles Manson’s followers threatening to kill me. The publication had turned down his article, a piece that promised to tell where all the parts of Shorty Shea’s body were buried. Not pleased with this rejection, he said he was going to come into my home at night and murder me. Several senior staffers received a similar warning.
The fact that you’re reading this shows he didn’t do that.
The location of Hollywood stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea’s body was discovered later in 1977.
Death threats from the Manson family are scary.
As you will recall, Manson and several of his followers were convicted of murdering pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others. The book “Helter Skelter” was written about the murders. Authorities believe the Manson family killed at least 35 people.
So you can see why I might have mixed feelings about a movie that fictionizes the story of Manson and his cult of psychopathic killers. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” does just that, turning a horrific historical event into a “comedy drama.”
However, Tarantino’s new film focuses more on a failing TV star named Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two Hollywood characters who come into contact with the Manson family in 1969.
Also, you will meet Manson (Damon Herrimon) and his followers — some of the names have been changed — ranging from Tex Watson (Austin Butler) to Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Leslie Van Houten (Victoria Pedretti) to Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Catherine Share (Lena Dunham) to Patricia Kerwinkle (Madisen Beaty), et al. There is also Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a sexy family member who catches the interest of ol’ Cliff.
You will find them all at the movie ranch owned by George Spahn (Bruce Dern), an 80-year-old nearly blind man who let Manson and his followers stay at his ghost town in return for sex with the girls.
Other familiar figures in the film include actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), hairdresser Jay Seberg (Emile Hirsch), Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) and heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson).
Plenty of other well-known Hollywood types are found here too, among them Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker), Mama Cass Elliot (Rachel Redleaf), Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Joanna Pettet (Rumer Willis), Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry), James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and even Meryl Streep (Julia Butters).
This being a Tarantino film, you can count on encountering a video store’s array of familiar actors in both large and small roles. Among them: Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Rebecca Gayheart, Clu Gallagher, Brenda Vaccaro and maybe even Jack Nicholson. Burt Reynolds was supposed to play ranch-owner George Spahn, but he died before his scenes could be shot.
A Tarantino film is like a Tinseltown dictionary — the cast made up of A-listers, B-listers, C-listers and D-listers — actors ranging from the famous to nearly forgotten.
Tarantino made his mark as a director with “Reservoir Dogs,” followed by such popular fare as “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill 1 & 2,” and “Django Unchained.”
Remember how he twisted history around in his war film “Inglourious Basterds” by having the heroes kill Adolf Hitler?
Same here. History as he wants it to be, not as it is.
While snooping at the Spahn movie ranch, Rick and Cliff discover a murder plot and turn the tables on ol’ Manson. Together with a very-much-alive Sharon Tate and — yes! — a surprise appearance by martial artist Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), they “brutally defeat the family in a shoot-out/kung-fu showdown.”
Spoiler alert: They kill Manson.
Fact check: Charles Milles Manson died in 2017 from cardiac arrest connected to colon cancer after spending 46 years behind bars. His parole was denied 12 times.
Tarantino’s film? Brilliant, yes. Funny, yes. But at the end of the day, I don’t find a real-life cult of killers a laughing matter.