Premium

Beautiful and damned: who was the real Sharon Tate?

Sharon Tate, circa 1965
Sharon Tate, circa 1965 Credit: moviepix

Sharon Tate was beautiful, and then she was murdered. For many, there is little else to Tate’s story; her death at the hands of the Manson Family defined much of what we know about her today, and is often talked about as the decade of counter-culture hedonism. The life and movie career she had before the night of August 9, 1969, save for her marriage to the filmmaker Roman Polanski, is often barely a footnote.

In fact, Tate’s story has more often than not been defined by men both in and out of her life – the older male figures who once knew her, Polanski himself, and the filmmakers who have used her murder as inspiration for their own work. The latter has been particularly exacerbated in 2019, the 50th anniversary of her murder, with projects including the ghoulish Hilary Duff vehicle The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which uses Tate’s demise as the basis for a true-crime horror movie complete with supernatural premonitions, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, featuring Margot Robbie as Tate.

Few reflections on Sharon Tate choose not to simultaneously revolve around Charles Manson or his acolytes - it seems impossible to talk of Tate without using her life as a mirror image to the horror Manson represented. But her story is often most fascinating when focused on the career she had before her death at the age of 26. Men had constructed and shaped her image even before she became a cultural martyr figure. And when cast in the right role, she was good.

Watching Tate on-screen, in any one of the six films she had under her belt prior to her murder, is a jarring experience. So immortalised via photoshoots and stills as an image of beautiful tragedy, seeing her emote, smile or even speak feels almost uncanny, as if you can’t quite believe Tate lived, let alone had a legitimate career and public reputation long before she was killed. It doesn’t help that few of her films are must-sees.

Unlike, say, Marilyn Monroe, there are no true gems within Tate’s credits, nothing that particularly distracts from her existence as a tragic Hollywood image on which to place wider narratives. And even the one or two worth seeing can only truly be enjoyed ironically.

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate in the 1960s Credit: getty

Like so many stars of her era, Tate never intended to act. Instead she was lured into showbusiness the old-fashioned way, transitioning from pageants and modelling to extras work in film and television. A military brat, having been raised in El Paso, Texas and Verona in Italy, Tate had an international allure but an all-American beauty, with an odd English inflection in her voice and a hint of a southern drawl somewhat akin to Jerry Hall.

As did many young women on the fringes of Hollywood in the early Sixties, she would fall into the arms of a variety of men as she sought acting work, including the cult Los Angeles hairdresser Jay Sebring, who she would remain close to for the rest of her life and who would also be killed by the Manson Family, and the actor Richard Beymer.

Beymer, enchanted by Tate’s beauty and sure she could be a star, put her in contact with film producer Martin Ransohoff, then co-founder of the production company Filmways. Ransohoff reportedly cried when he first lay eyes on Tate, and excitedly demanded his secretary sign her for a seven-year contract with Filmways. He would first keep her hidden from the public, however, until a time where he believed that she, and the culture he was sure she would define, were ready.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Credit: sony

“For 30 months nobody outside of Filmways knew I existed,” Tate said. “I was told I was a secret. I was being taught speaking, walking, dancing, fencing, calisthenics, and, of course, acting. And sometimes Mr Ransohoff would give me a TV bit, but always in a black wig and under another name. People are calling me an instant star. But it really isn’t true. Mr Ransohoff discovered me three years ago. He’s been grooming me for stardom. You know, the Cinderella bit, like in the old Hollywood days.”

The controlling Ransohoff permitted Tate to appear on TV, in guest spots on shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, and as an extra in several of the films that he produced, but it wasn’t until 1967 that Tate was allowed to take on her first real roles. They were both in low-budget B-movies shot in Europe, the occult thriller Eye of the Devil and Roman Polanski’s horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers, but were projects that finally allowed Tate to act all the same.

In what would become a bleak running theme in Tate’s work, The Fearless Vampire Killers would cast her as a blank sex object. Sporting a red wig, she is the ludicrously beautiful daughter of a rural innkeeper who falls prey to a vampire while in a bathtub. The bath scene, published as a series of nude stills in Playboy Magazine and decorating the film’s poster, remains iconic, but it doesn’t particularly utilise Tate in any way beyond mindless titillation. In truth, she barely has any lines in the rest of the film.

Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on the set of The Fearless Vampire Killers Credit: getty

Regardless of her uninspiring work on-screen, Tate found the film to be radically affecting in her personal life. She would end up dating Polanski, and the pair married in a star-studded wedding in 1968. “I’m in love with Roman Polanski because he is beautiful and a genius to the bone and he has the unruliness of a man who is truly wise,” Tate told an Italian magazine that year.

Polanski would frequently clash with Ransohoff, particularly after he left 20 minutes of The Fearless Vampire Killers on the cutting room floor without Polanski’s approval. They also clashed over Tate, both believing they knew best when it came to her career. While Polanski was determined to mould his young wife into a serious movie actress, Ransohoff continued to promote her as a Sixties sexpot.

Returning to the United States, Ransohoff placed Tate in what would become her American debut. A bizarre satire of the then-ubiquitous surf movie, 1967’s Don’t Make Waves is a depressingly unfunny sex farce in which middle-aged men attempt to understand the Sexual Revolution, with Tony Curtis cast as a bemused and henpecked tourist suddenly plunged into a world of beach blankets, muscle men and sexually adventurous young women in bikinis. Tate is Malibu, a vacuous blonde and object of Curtis’s endless curiosity and bafflement – and allegedly the inspiration for the Malibu Barbie doll, which debuted in 1971.

Sharon Tate in Don't Make Waves Credit: moviepix

For a Hollywood that then liked to give its ascendant stars elaborate backstories designed to enhance their almost supernatural allure, it is difficult to ascertain where the truth ended and fantasy began in Tate’s casting in the film. But according to reports at the time, she was a last-minute replacement for a fired Julie Newmar, who was apparently unable to lift Curtis on her back for a scene in which Malibu rescues him from drowning.

Tate, just as delicate as Newmar, couldn’t lift Curtis either, but begged director Alexander Mackendrick to alter the script rather than fire her too. Mackendrick, so enamored with his star, happily acquiesced.

Despite not being very good in the film, Tate attempting to convey a vacant vapidity that ends up being more cringe-inducingly wooden, her performance was accompanied by a flood of sensational press. “Cinderella Is a Colonel’s Daughter” proclaimed a newspaper report from 1967, one that played up the idea of a beautiful, patriotic military brat who fell into overnight stardom by accident. “I’m a trick done with wigs, aliases, teachers, and, I guess, a lot of money,” Tate told the newspaper – a quote betraying a cynicism largely alien to the era.

Sharon Tate in the early 1970s Credit: rex

Tate reportedly hated working on the film; she was frustrated that it took her away from Polanski, and unimpressed by the script. It likely didn’t help her mood that it so often reduced her to little but her looks. Introduced in the film butt-first, her wet bikini bottoms taking up the entirety of the screen as she drags Curtis out of the sea, Tate is leered at throughout her screen-time. Mackendrick’s camera is fixed almost entirely on her breasts and legs. Two whole minutes are spent surveying the bodies of Tate and her stunt double as they leap up and down on a trampoline.

She would have greater success with her next project, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. Adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s campy bestseller, the film was critically reviled but financially successful, and is today considered a trash classic. It is also far and away Tate’s best-remembered film project.

Ransohoff only begrudgingly allowed Tate to work on the film, loaning her out to 20th Century Fox despite her being contractually beholden to his every creative wish. But it proved to be Tate’s most satisfying creative experience. She expressed in interviews that costar Lee Grant had shown her what real acting could be, and was proud that she had won the role of doomed model Jennifer North over bigger names.

“Since the book was a runaway bestseller, I was sure the leading roles would go to big name stars,” she said in 1967. “You know, like Natalie Wood or somebody like that. But I was just thrilled to get the role. I liked Jennifer as I read the book. I think she is the most sympathetic girl in the group. She’s sweet, unspoiled and unselfish. She doesn’t mean anyone any harm, and yet terrible things keep happening to her.”

If Valley of the Dolls was the Showgirls of the Sixties, Tate was one of its many Elizabeth Berkleys, young actresses thrown to the wolves after playing ironic, deliberately camp characters with unnecessary self-seriousness. As Jennifer, Tate is sweet and vulnerable, but also oddly blank. There is possibly some method to be found in the stone-faced blubbering of her final scenes, in which she overdoses on pills after learning that the treatment she requires for her breast cancer will likely destroy her figure, but you have to really want to see it.

At this point in time, Polanski was dismissive in the press of Tate’s work. “If Sharon wants to quit [acting], I would not change her mind,” he told Germany’s Brigitte Magazine in 1967. “If she continues to act, I want her to be a good actress. She has not been given the chance to really show off her talent. So far she has only made one movie with a good director. And that was me…”

Valley of the Dolls may have been a critical disaster, but it was also the sixth highest-grossing film of 1967, one that finally gave Tate the kind of visibility she had long dreamed of. Spurred on by its success, and an unexpected Golden Globe nomination for “Best New Star”, she finally decided to cut ties with Ransohoff and bought her way out of her contract with him to the tune of $200,000.

“I had great confidence in my own producer,” Tate told L’Europeo Magazine in 1968. “I loved him, and I put up with all of his nonsense. Practically lived in a prison. I was forbidden to go out at night, forbidden to go to the movies, forbidden to go to the theatre, forbidden to be photographed. Forbidden everything. Martin said that the public should not see me before I was ready. I become the puppet that he wanted.”

Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew  Credit: Bettmann

Subsequently desperate for money, she signed on to what would become her most high-profile role at the time, that of the female lead in The Wrecking Crew – the fourth and final film in the Matt Helm franchise, a much-forgotten American variation on James Bond. Alongside Dean Martin as Helm, Tate is Freya Carlson, a bumbling Danish tour guide who accompanies the secret agent on an espionage mission through Denmark.

Critics praised Tate for her comic timing, but it is difficult to find it when watched today. She’s not helped by her character, a woefully incompetent flibbertigibbet the film appears to actively despise, but she delivers an awkward and mechanical performance all the same. The only scene of note is her climactic fight sequence with actress Nancy Kwan, one choreographed by Bruce Lee no less. It’s a mess of stiff acting and punches that don’t at all connect, but vaguely enjoyable all the same.

Less can be said for what would prove to be Tate’s final movie, the oddball farce 12 Plus One. Despite toying with retirement from acting, Tate was lured back to film by the men involved in the project – both Orson Welles and Bicycle Thieves director Vittorio De Sica would provide cameos. It is a bizarre comedy, with Tate trying her best as a plucky antiques dealer who partners with an eccentric con man to retrieve 13 antique chairs sold at auction, one of which is speculated to have a fortune in jewels stitched into its lining.

12 Plus One is uncomfortable viewing, not only for its depiction of a “comedic” assault endured by Tate’s character, but primarily because of her visible pregnancy during much of the movie. Tate often sports billowing shirts and dresses, and is endlessly shot with bags or objects covering her belly. Shot months before her murder and only released posthumously, Tate finally receiving top billing only in death, it is less a rewarding celebration of her talent and more a deeply traumatic experience that likely shouldn’t have ever seen the light of day.

Sharon Tate visiting the set of her husband, Roman Polanski's film Rosemary's Baby, New York City, 1967 Credit: getty

Returning to Los Angeles after completing her scenes in 12 Plus One, Tate had plans to resume her acting career, with Universal Pictures particularly eager for her to reprise her role as Freya in an ultimately abandoned fifth Matt Helm movie. But, possibly out of respect for the virulently misogynistic Polanski, who was alleged to have had a controlling and svengali-like power over Tate, she also began to downplay her acting ability in the press, talking up her newfound interest in motherhood instead.

Speaking to Germany’s Jasmin Magazine shortly before her murder, Tate was asked about her hopes for the future. “Certainly not [in] my career,” she answered. “I just don’t have the ambition. I hope my child will be the most beautiful and the healthiest child in the world. And it shall be happy. A happy person who can see, understand and enjoy the beautiful things in life. This is also the hope I have for my own life. Just carry on living like I do now, perfectly happy… Or is this maybe asking a bit too much?”

As an actress, Tate left behind little in the way of a legacy. And in truth, few of her performances could be considered particularly good. But there is one role that lingers in the mind long after it comes to a close, haunting not because of the tragedy that surrounds Tate as an individual, but because of the sheer power of it as a singular bit of acting. Unusually, it can be found in her very first movie.

Sharon Tate in Eye of the Devil (1966) Credit: moviepix

There has been endless debate over the years as to how much of Tate is actually in 1966’s Eye of the Devil, or whether it is as disrespectful towards her actual talent as some of her later, more sexually exploitative films. As Odile, a powerful witch targeting a society woman played by Deborah Kerr, she sports a cut-glass English accent so good that many have assumed her entire performance was dubbed in post-production. It is a likely scenario, but one that doesn’t particularly hamper her work, primarily because she’s so brilliantly charismatic in the film.

Tate’s beauty was of a sort that often made it impossible to take her seriously playing ordinary women, be it antique dealers or even aspiring actresses struggling to make it. But casting her as a literal otherworldly being, in a film that actually utilised her doe-eyed sleepiness as a performer rather than attempting to cut around it, proves enormously successful. Dressed in Emma Peel leather and an Austin Powers fembot wig, Tate renders Odile not only impossibly seductive but also disconcertingly eerie, as if she is in a perpetual trance, but conscious enough to trap you in it too if she wanted.

Eye of the Devil doesn’t entirely work as a movie, but it marks one of the few times in Tate’s short acting career in which she appears in complete tandem with the tone of the film she has found herself in, and justifying of the “great, untapped actress” mythos that surrounds her to this day.

In exploring the Sharon Tate typically left out of the biographies or movie adaptations, it is disappointing to discover an individual not yet able to come into her own as a performer or as the protagonist in her own life story. Instead she was less a full and whole woman as she was a collection of fairy tales and images crafted by the controlling and toxic men around her. Any chance for true emancipation was cruelly snatched away from her in the most unimaginable of circumstances.

As an actress, only brief glimpses of the Sharon Tate that could have been can be found on screen, so often buried beneath lascivious ogling or bad direction. But when they’re there, in a suggestive pout, a deadpan line reading or an otherworldly glare, they’re quietly extraordinary.