If you see the new Quentin Tarantino movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but are not particularly attuned to what goes on or went on in Hollywood, you might get a little lost. Admittedly, the fun of Tarantino’s movies is being a little lost, with surprises at regular intervals, but we don’t want to be so lost that we find ourselves unable to even comment on the movie the next day.
You can guess where the movie, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood takes place — in Hollywood, a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles. The story is set in 1969, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays the part of Rick Dalton, a former TV star whose career is on the decline, and who happens to live next door to a young couple who are both rising stars, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Brad Pitt plays DiCaprio’s stunt man, Cliff Booth, who remains a loyal friend as Rick Dalton’s career goes down the tubes. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski were real people. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are just movie characters.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is supposed to be homage to the summer of ’69, when Hollywood’s Golden Age ended. That was the time when the baby boomer generation was taking over what was called “Old Hollywood” and pushing out high-budgeted, low-earning movies like Hello Dolly. Tarantino’s movie is set right in the middle of the giant shift from those sweet, romantic movies that lost money to movies like Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, and Roman Polanski’s movie Chinatown, which were all new style moneymakers.
You don’t need to know much about the characters in order to enjoy the movie. The TV show, “Bounty Law,” that DiCaprio supposedly starred in did not really exist, but Sharon Tate and Polanski were a real couple. So was the blind character George, and he really did live on the run-down Spahn Ranch where a hippie cult lived. But most importantly, the character named Charlie was a real person. For those that remember the summer of ’69 and the name Charles Manson, suspense begins to build in the movie at the first mention of his name.
I don’t want to give anything away, especially since we all know that Tarantino likes to rewrite history. But what everyone who doesn’t know needs to know is that Charlie is Charles Manson. He was the head of what was known as The Manson Family, and if you are not American, or were not able to read in the sixties, you might miss the flow of the movie.
You don’t need to be an expert on the Manson murders, but you do need to have a bit of an idea, in order to appreciate Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Charles Manson was a cult leader, and some say a serial killer. Others say he was insane, but as he never allowed anyone to do psychiatric tests on him, we will never know. He was born an unwanted baby who was brought up in all the wrong ways, and he acted out in every imaginable way. By the time he was 32, he had spent more than half of his life in prisons or juvenile institutions.
When Charles Manson was released from prison in 1962 after serving a 10-year prison sentence, he found the world had changed. Women had started to wear jeans like men, and men had started to let their hair grow long like women. Small prostitution rings like he used to run were no longer business opportunities because people had become so open and free about sex. Everything was different, but Manson had a Plan B.
He thought he had another talent, one that was not illegal. Manson had taken guitar lessons from a fellow inmate named Creepy Karpis while in prison and gotten good enough to become respected as a prison rock & roll talent. And maybe he was a promising singer-songwriter. While in prison, he had become an avid reader of Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, and also studied the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology. He practiced the philosophies he learned from books, and they worked well to manipulate other prisoners.
Out of prison and not making it as a rock star, he began to recruit girls with poor self-images, which wasn’t very hard. The more women he recruited, the more men he was able to recruit. They began to live on what was known as the Spahn Ranch, owned by 80-year-old George Spahn. The ranch had previously been a place for filmmaking, especially TV shows such as The Lone Ranger and some episodes of Bonanza. As George was going blind and needed help, he allowed the Manson family to live on his property rent-free in exchange for their help in running the place, which mainly rented out horses at that time. Charles Manson would occasionally send a girl from his family to have sex with George Spahn. The Manson family regularly broke into wealthy houses in L.A. to steal things that could easily be converted into cash, and, curiously, used to rearrange the furniture in the homes before they left. Old George and the Spahn Ranch are part of the movie.
Manson was crazy about the Beatles. In particular, the song, Helter Skelter, from their 1968 album, a song that was supposedly McCartney’s attempt to create a sound as loud and as dirty as possible. Manson’s primary way of preaching to his followers was by playing his guitar and singing, sometimes the Beatles’ music, and especially Helter Skelter, which he said contained hidden messages to commit violence. In 1968, Charles Manson got a break in the music world. The Beach Boys recorded one of his songs, Cease to Exist although they changed its name to Never Learn Not to Love. He got a foot into the door of the music industry enough to record a record, “Lie, The Love and Terror Cult,” but it sold only 300 copies. After that, still in 1968, one of the Beach Boys introduced Manson to Terry Melcher, a record producer, and the only child of actress/singer Doris Day, America´s sweetheart.
The two were introduced at 10050 Cielo Drive, where Melcher was living with his then-girlfriend, Candice Bergen. At first, Melcher was interested in both Manson’s music and in making a film about the Manson family and their hippie commune life. However, Melcher decided against working with Manson after he visited the Spahn Ranch and saw Manson get into a violent fight with a drunken stunt man who worked there to help George Spahn with the horses. Melcher dropped the project. Manson felt rejected by the music industry, and became bitter. By coincidence, Melcher and Bergen moved away from the Cielo Drive address. The house was subsequently rented to Roman Polanski and his young wife, Sharon Stone. Most researchers are sure that Charles Manson knew that the man he thought rejected him didn’t live at 10050 Cielo Drive anymore. You are going to see actors playing the part of Sharon Stone and Roman Polanski in the movie. You are also going to see the actor who plays Charles Manson (who only appears once in the movie) when he goes to the Tate/Polanski house and asks to see Terry Melcher. That actually happened in real life.
Manson used to tell his followers that once someone began recording his music, they would recruit many more people into their family. He got them to believe that the song Helter Skelter was created especially for them and that it foresaw an apocalyptic race war in which black people would destroy all white people. Charles Manson said he would lead his people into hiding during the war, and eventually emerge as the new leader of the human race. To begin the war, the family would commit murders and blame them on African Americans, in particular, The Black Panther Party. There are conflicting theories as to whether Charles Manson really believed he could start a race war, or even if he wanted to.
On August 9, 1969, four members of the Manson family went to 10050 Cielo Drive, invaded the house, and violently killed Sharon Tate and the four people who were keeping her company. She was 8 ½ months pregnant at the time and her husband, Roman Polanski, was working on a film in Europe. They also killed an 18-year old boy who was just leaving the grounds of the house after visiting the caretaker. The next day, another four members of the family murdered grocery store executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, stabbing them to death. The words Helter Skelter were found written in blood on the LiBianca’s refrigerator door. Other words, such as “Death to Pigs” and “Rise” were also scrawled in blood at both murder scenes. Charles Manson ordered the first killing spree, but was not present. But he was present during the torture and killing of the LaBiancas.
It happened that a month before, on July 25th, the family had also killed a man named Gary Hinman. Hinman, only 34 years old, had a degree in chemistry from UCLA and was working on his Ph.D. He was also a talented musician, a kind person, and taught music. He lived in a nice home and, in keeping with the times, had a mescaline factory in his basement. Also in keeping with times, he had an open door policy and any friends who needed a place to crash were welcome at his home. Charles Manson and some of his cult had stayed at Hinman’s home. On that night in July, Manson cut Hinman with a samurai sword that he liked to carry around, and then left, stealing one of Hinman’s cars. He ordered his loyal followers to finish the job. They did, and drew a paw print on the wall, using Hinman’s blood. The paw print was supposed to lead the police to believe that the Black Panthers had killed the young musician, and begin the impending race war that Charles Manson was preaching. But the police didn’t have a clue.
The horrific crimes created panic in Los Angeles; people cancelled parties or removed acquaintances from their guest lists. Mia Farrow, who had starred in Roman Polanski’s hit film Rosemary’s Baby, was too afraid to attend the funeral, even though she was a friend of Sharon Tate’s. Frank Sinatra went into hiding; Tony Bennett moved from a bungalow to a protected suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Steve McQueen began keeping a gun under the front seat of his car. But the police didn’t connect the three murder scenes at first.
Then, on August 16th, the police raided the Spahn Ranch because of reported car theft. About 100 Manson followers were living there at the time. Twenty-six members of the family were arrested, but not Charles. Remember the stuntman that Manson got into a fight with during his interview with music producer Terry Melcher? After the police raid, Manson became convinced that the stuntman/ranch hand Donald Shea was the snitch who tipped off the police. On August 26th, Manson ordered Shea killed. Manson never liked Shea much anyway, supposedly because he was married to a black woman named Magealena, who liked to receive her black friends on the ranch. Shea, whose nickname was “Shorty” although he was 1.93 meters tall, was tortured and killed on that night in August; he was 35 years old. They buried his body in a remote place on Spahn Ranch. Years later, one of his killers, incarcerated for the Tate- LiBianca murders, drew a map for the police to show where Shorty had been buried. His skeleton was exhumed in December 1977 and the person who drew the map was later paroled, the only member of the killer part of the Manson family ever to be paroled.
One of the 26 Manson followers arrested on the ranch and sent to prison a week after the Tate-LiBianca murders was a blabbermouth. She was 21-year old Susan Atkins, nicknamed Sexy Sadie, and she boasted to cellmates of the Tate murders. Not only did she blab about her participation, she claimed the family had a death list of celebrities to be killed, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Tom Jones, Steve McQueen, and Frank Sinatra. Atkins, who later said that she thought Manson was Jesus, was the one who wrote “pig” on the Tate-Polanski front door using Sharon Tate’s blood. After her revelation, the police knew where to look and what to do. By the end of the year, all of the killers had been caught.
Their trial began the following June and lasted 9 ½ months. During the trial, Manson showed up with the letter X carved into his forehead. So did the three girls who were on trial. They said it was to show that they had been Xed out of society. Not too long afterwards, Manson had his X transformed into a swastika. The girls also shaved their scalps and sang creepy Mason-written songs and laughed throughout the trial. That wasn’t the only entertainment. At one point, Manson tried to jump over the defense table when he yelled at the judge, “In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.” After that, the judge began to exercise his right to carry a gun. Then-president Richard Nixon also weighed in and almost caused a mistrial when he declared publically that Manson was guilty, “directly or indirectly.” But in spite of Nixon, all on trial were found guilty and sentenced to death in January 1971. However, the state of California abolished the death penalty in 1972, and the five convicted members of the Charles Manson family lived out their lives, mostly in prison.
Members of the family who were not incarcerated threatened “retaliation murders” during the trial and there were 5 or 6 murders of people linked to the family after Manson went to prison, but we will never know if they were committed because of retaliation. We do know that Terry Melcher lived in fear for many years. Followers who had not gone to prison carved the letter X into their foreheads, just like their convicted family members.
Charles Manson went to San Quentin and Folsom Prison and joined an Aryan Brotherhood, although he never became a leader. He was tried again in 1971 for the murder of two other men, one of whom was Shorty Shea. He died of a heart attack along with complications from colon cancer in November, 2017 when he was 83 years old.
The family continued to make regular headlines for years after the trial. In August 1971, a Manson follower named Catherine Share participated in a violent robbery, with the intent to acquire weapons in order to free Charles Manson. They stole 143 rifles. Their idea was to hijack a Boeing 747 and threaten to kill one passenger every hour until Manson was released. Share, nicknamed Gypsy, was a Manson family member but not directly involved in the 1969 murders. However, during Manson’s trial, she testified against another family member in an effort to absolve Charles Manson of any involvement in the murders. She was also charged with attempted murder during that period, after trying to kill a fellow family member and witness against the family. Gypsy and her friends tried to poison this witness with a hamburger laced with an overdose of LSD, but the girl, probably accustomed to drugs, survived. Share served only 90 days in jail for her participation in that incident. Share spent five years in prison after her weapon heist. After her release, she had the “X” in her forehead surgically removed.
Gypsy carried out the robbery and police shoot-out with a group, among them Mary Theresa Brunner, one of the mothers of Charles Manson’s 3 children. Mary Theresa acquired a lot of nicknames, including Mary Manson. She had a degree from a good college and a good job when she met Manson. Actually, she was his first recruit. Both Brunner and Gypsy were injured by police bullets and apprehended. Brunner went to prison for the crime, but was paroled in 1977 and completely disappeared from the public eye after she was released. Her son, Valentine Michael Manson, was raised by his maternal grandparents in Wisconsin under another name, gives interviews once in awhile, assuring us all that he is normal.
In 1974 the prosecutor in the Charles Manson murder trial published a book that he named Helter Skelter. It became a best seller.
That was the same year that old George Spahn died. After the murders and the trial, he married and moved to North Hollywood. George was the one who gave the Manson family their nicknames. The Spahn ranch burnt down in 1970. It was rebuilt and then burned down again in 2005. It burnt for a third time in 2016. Part of the ranch is featured in one scene in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
In 1975, the Manson family again made the headlines when a member named Squeaky Fromme attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford. This attempt took place in Sacramento, where Squeaky had moved to be near Manson, who was incarcerated in Folsom Prison at the time. Squeaky received a life sentence for that crime, but managed to escape from prison in 1987, after she heard that Manson had testicular cancer. She tried to get to him, but was apprehended after just a few days.
In 1993, Guns N’ Roses recorded a version of Manson’s song, Look at Your Game, Girl. Their version used an acoustic guitar and congas, plus elements of Brazilian and Caribbean music. Nonetheless, it was received negatively because some feared that Charles Manson would profit from the release. It ended up that Manson’s royalties went to Bartek Frykowski, the son of one of the victims at the Sharon Tate murder site.
In 1996, a Manson website was set up by two former members of the Manson family. He also did a couple of TV interviews, the last one being in 2017.
You are not going to see all this crime in the movie, you just need to be aware of it. Quentin Tarantino calls Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a “hang out movie” meaning that for us, the audience, to spend time with appealing, memorable characters is more important than what happens to the characters. And it is delightful to spend time with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, especially after we know what they are talking about when they speak of Charlie.
The word cliffhanger comes from cliffs. Duh. Cliffs are vertical, or nearly vertical, rocks that have been formed by erosion and weathering. There are lots of famous cliffs, but the first ones that come to my mind are the White Cliffs of Dover, probably because there was a popular World War II song about them that was part of my childhood, and also because they are on the historical English coastline.
When one thinks of cliffhangers, England and its gothic novels always come to mind. Cliffhangers are the kind of story, book or movie that uses suspense either at the end of an episode or a scene. A good example was the way the final episode of Game of Thrones, season 5, was done. Jon Snow was dead. Or was he? Those of us who sweated it out until season 6 was aired were never really sure. The writers used old-fashioned melodrama, suspense and uncertainty, and the audience was left as if hanging from a cliff in a state of tension and apprehension. And that’s a true cliffhanger.
This part of the blog will not be able to offer any nail-biting cliffhangers, but it will have classes in series, and I hope they will be interesting enough that you will want to come back and read what happens next, even if you don’t lose sleep anticipating the next chapter. Enjoy.
I really don’t know how long Betsy has been my teacher. I do know she is the best teacher I have ever had. She can join daily happenings with an admirable sense of humor that makes her classes quite unique. She is intelligent, smart, very confident and besides everything she became a close friend of us. It’s a privilege being her student.
Betsy is the best english teacher I’ve ever had! Her classes are always an amazing experience. She guides our conversation with different and interesting topics each day, what allows us not only to improve the vocabulary but also learn/ discuss about other cultures and subjects. I know I’m going to be totally addicted to this blog!
É um prazer falar das aulas da Betsy. São empolgantes, temas variados e atuais, envolventes, bem preparados e com muito amor, com certeza. Acredito que seu blog será “helpful ” para todos aqueles que têm interesse em aprender a língua inglesa ou simplesmente intensificar seu conhecimento. Um abraço carinhoso e sucesso!
I have known Betsy for a long time, and in all these years I have learned so much from her… not just English, but from her vast experience as a teacher and as a person. Being an excellent teacher is not just about knowing your subject perfectly (which is of course the case since English is her first language) but also about loving to learn and to relate to people from all kinds of backgrounds and ages. I had as much fun in her classes as a nerdy Star Wars / Elvis teen fan as I do now as busy working grown up!