What’s True In ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and What Did Tarantino Make Up?

Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the fateful summer of 1969, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, just enjoyed the biggest box office opening of the writer-director’s career. The movie tells the story of events surrounding the Manson murders. Some of the events actually happened. Many did not. 

The film is not “about” the Manson case or Manson himself. Manson, as played by Damon Herriman, has only one or two brief scenes and not more than five lines. Tarantino’s story centers around the trials of a washed-up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mysterious stuntman/gofer (Brad Pitt), and what happens when their paths cross with the Manson family and Sharon Tate. 

Just as he did in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino rewrites history, and that’s caused a lot of controversy. At the same time, Tarantino has an uncanny fetish for details. Here’s what’s real and what’s not in his 10th film.

Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino | Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Bruce Lee trained Sharon Tate

Sharon Tate really did meet Bruce Lee, who trained her in martial arts for The Wrecking Crew, a spy comedy where Tate played a klutz. However, according to People, Lee’s family has objected to a scene where Lee challenges Brad Pitt’s character to a fight, saying Lee was not so cocky and arrogant in real life. 

In Once Upon, Tate goes to a movie theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew and is delighted to hear people laughing at her character’s antics. We can’t find evidence that Tate really did that, but the scene creates an eerie, touching synergy when Robbie as Tate watches the real Tate onscreen. 

Tate’s sister Debra applauded Margot Robbie’s performance, telling Vanity Fair, “She actually touched me in a way that convinced me that she was Sharon. She did such a damn good job that, for me, personally, the visit was a little short. I had Sharon back in front of me again, and it was too short a visit,” she said.

Did the Manson family really live on a movie set?

At the time of the murders, Manson and his crew lived on the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, where low-budget western movies and TV shows were filmed. In Once Upon, Pitt’s character gives one of Manson’s girls (Margaret Qualley, the daughter of Andie MacDowell) a lift to the ranch, where he hopes to say hello to his old friend George Spahn (Bruce Dern). 

Qualley’s character is fictional, but the meeting between her and Pitt is reminiscent of the real-life incident when Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson picked up two hitchhiking Manson girls and fell in with the family. Manson wanted to be a rock star, and Wilson tried to use his connections to help him, introducing him to Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son and producer of the Byrds. Melcher checked Manson out and passed. Manson was not amused.

Melcher had lived in the house where the Tate murders would take place, and as depicted in the movie, Manson really did scope out the house and eye Sharon Tate from afar.

Tarantino rewrites the Tate murders

Here’s where we’ll get into spoiler territory. We’ll try not to give the major points away, but if you haven’t seen Tarantino’s movie, it would be best to stop here. 

In real life, three members of the Manson family – Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel –  murdered Tate and her unborn child, her friend and former fiance Jay Sebring, and their friends Voytek Frykowski and Abigail Folger.

Watson also killed a visitor on the property, Steven Parent, and a somewhat different crew went on to kill Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next evening, but these events do not factor into the film.

In the movie, the Manson family members instead encounter Pitt and DiCaprio, who live down the street.  A fourth member of the Manson clan, played by Maya Hawke, flees the scene. She is only called “Flower child” in the movie but is based on Linda Kasabian. She did not flee the scene, although she said she wanted to. She witnessed but did not participate in the murders, later turning state’s witness to testify against the family. 

Tarantino’s new version of history, depending on who you talk to, is either a self-indulgent bore with an ending that is offensive to Tate’s memory, or it’s an intriguing “What If” story that turns Tate from a murder victim to a real person. Judge for yourself, and learn about the real story, which is stranger than anything Tarantino creates.