Charles Manson and #MeToo

New films from Quentin Tarantino and Mary Harron reflect on the Manson killings—and show starkly different sides of their industry

A collage of characters from Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Half a century on, no one knows exactly when the sixties dream died. Altamont, the free concert staged near San Francisco four months after Woodstock, is usually cited as ground zero—specifically because of the killing of Meredith Hunter, the teenager who was stabbed and beaten by a group of Hell’s Angels as the Rolling Stones played onstage. But as Joan Didion wrote a decade later in her book of essays The White Album, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” That was one week before Woodstock, the day police found five people slaughtered in a luxury home above Benedict Canyon. The dead included actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant with her and Roman Polanski’s child. The word pig was scrawled in her blood on the front door.

The legend of cult leader Charles Manson, whose disciples carried out the massacre as part of a deranged plan to ignite a race war and bring on Armageddon, has since fuelled over two dozen movies and TV shows. By Manson’s death, in 2017, the puzzle of this ex-con and frustrated musician, who channelled Christ and the Beatles in his maniacal quest for fame, had been spun more ways than a Rubik’s cube. He’s no enigma, though. He’s just another man trying to carve his name into the cosmos. But what compelled Manson’s dedicated “family” of followers, in particular the young women among them, to murder strangers at his bidding remains mysterious, or at least misunderstood.

This summer, the fiftieth anniversary of the killings coincides with the releases of two movies that present diametrically opposed visions of the women who became known as “the Manson girls.” Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, released on July 26, is a lavish blockbuster in which the Manson cult serves as a sinister backdrop for an otherwise feel-good romp through the golden age of showbiz. Charlie Says, an indie drama by Canadian director Mary Harron, is devoted to the story of the three Manson women convicted of murder. While Tarantino demonizes Manson’s female acolytes and buries them even deeper within the Gothic folklore of pop-culture legend, Harron searches for their lost humanity, showing how it took years in prison for them to escape Manson’s spell. In light of the #MeToo movement, the odd convergence of these two films raises questions about how women and violence are portrayed onscreen and how the sexual “liberation” of the sixties provided cover for men who preyed on the vulnerable.

Tarantino’s nostalgia trip through LA’s counterculture canyons in the summer of ’69 is not really about the Manson women—they lurk like sirens on the far shore of a comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as, respectively, Rick Dalton, a faded TV star, and Cliff Booth, his invincible stuntman. Most of the movie rolls along as a largely plotless joyride. Rick frets about his failing career, while a carefree Cliff offers moral support, gets high, and drives the actor’s Cadillac around town. As a buddy movie, Once Upon a Time glows with a sweetness and passion unlike anything found among the hard-boiled gangsters and samurai outlaws in Tarantino’s eight previous films.

But the Manson B-story gathers like a thundercloud on the horizon. Rick discovers that he’s living next door to the Tate-Polanski house, which he thinks might be a career opportunity. Meanwhile, Cliff picks up a hitchhiking Manson girl, who tries to reward him with a blow job as he gives her a lift to Spahn Ranch, the cult’s spooky homestead in the mountains outside LA. Tarantino can’t resist the tabloid cliché of “the Manson girls” as a coven of she-devils, and he slams that vision into overdrive with a gonzo finale that goes out of its way to provoke controversy—but which I would not divulge, even with a spoiler alert.

A dash of disclosure: I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when I saw it last May in the helium stratosphere of its Cannes premiere. In an era when the movie biz is overrun with Marvel superheroes, Tarantino has crafted a bespoke blockbuster of a kind we won’t see again, a $90 million (US) mash note to old-school filmmaking shot on 35 mm celluloid, in which Pitt and DiCaprio, evenly calibrated as hero and antihero, deliver the most sublime one-two punch of golden-boy testosterone since Robert Redford and Paul Newman tore up Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. But I haven’t seen the movie since, and as this story went to press, Tarantino was busy reediting it. By its theatrical release, the overheated alchemy of hype, reviews, opening weekend box office, and backlash may have turned the experience into something quite different from what I remember.

A quarter century after Pulp Fiction, the film marks a milestone for its director. After building a body of work riddled with homages to other movies, he’s finally made a film about the movies. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, American cinema’s punk renegade is now entrenched as its old guard. This is also the first movie Tarantino has made without disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein and the first since he was bruised by a bit of scandal when it became known that he put Uma Thurman in harm’s way on the set of Kill Bill.

It is curious that, after creating some of cinema’s most kick-ass heroines with Kill Bill and Jackie Brown, Tarantino is doubling down on white male heroism with a whiz-bang bromance that aims to resurrect the nobility of the American cowboy. Yes, Margot Robbie gets star billing as Sharon Tate, but she has virtually no dialogue. When a female reporter asked Tarantino why this was the case during a press conference in Cannes—implying it was a poor decision—the director snapped back with a one-line rebuke that subsequently went viral: “I just reject your hypothesis.”

Mary Harron administers a sobering antidote to Tarantino with Charlie Says, which reconsiders the Manson killings from a female gaze. Her story is based in part on prison testimony from Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel—the three young women sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison) for their roles in the Manson massacres.

The central character is Van Houten (Hannah Murray), who was not involved in the Tate killings but did participate in the murder of two other strangers, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, the following night. Van Houten was a suburban two-time homecoming queen who first took LSD at sixteen before hitting the road as a barefoot hippie. Her travels took her from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood to her fateful meeting with Manson at Spahn Ranch when she was nineteen. She was the only one of the convicts who had recoiled from the act of killing—though she tried to make up for her “failure” by stabbing Rosemary LaBianca more than a dozen times after she was most likely already dead.

Harron’s screenwriter, Guinevere Turner—who has previously written about her own childhood experience growing up in a cult—drew much of the story from The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, a 2001 book by Simon Fraser University criminology professor Karlene Faith. As a grad student at the University of California in 1972, Faith had been hired to tutor Van Houten and fellow inmates Atkins and Krenwinkel for several years in the Special Security Unit of the California Institution for Women.

Charlie Says toggles between flashbacks of Van Houten’s life with Manson and scenes of the three inmates sitting on the floor of a cell that serves as their classroom. Faith (Merritt Wever) teaches the women the ABCs of feminism, passing on now classic primers such as Our Bodies, Ourselves. The women are model inmates, irrepressibly cheerful, considerate, and eager to learn. But, even three years after their crimes, they remain devoted to Manson, merrily singing his praises. “It’s almost like they had a tape in their head with him talking,” says Harron.

Harron doesn’t diminish the culpability of the women or the horror of their crimes. But she portrays them as vulnerable girls who fell under the LSD-spiked spell of an older man, a guitar-slinging guru who hung out with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (Portraying Manson is a snaky and mercurial Matt Smith, in an Olympian stretch from his role as Prince Philip in The Crown.) The girls are seduced, broken down, and reborn as Manson’s sex slaves and soldiers. Before they became killers, they were victims.

Aided by their sessions with Karlene Faith, the three women would gradually disown Manson and express profound remorse for their actions. Atkins became a born-again Christian and died of brain cancer in 2008. Van Houten, seventy, and Krenwinkel, seventy-one, remain in prison after repeated denials of parole. Moral rehabilitation notwithstanding, in the eyes of much of the public, they are forever branded, slow burning at the stake.

“I’m not trying to justify what they did,” Harron told me, over the phone from New York. “I’m trying to understand how it happened to pretty normal girls. They were very young. Their victims were completely innocent, and the killers didn’t even know them . . . . That is so irrational and disturbing. Like stuffed toy animals suddenly coming to life and attacking you.” The story, she added, “Has the fascination of nightmare and fairy tales, when people come out of the dark.”

Unlike Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which makes the Manson girls a creepy sideshow in a carnival of sixties nostalgia, Harron’s film is not a fable. By turns poignant, harrowing, and cathartic, its no-nonsense realism is so tightly focused and modest in scale that it seems unfair to put it on the same page as Tarantino’s comic extravaganza. At sixty-six, Harron is a decade older than Tarantino and has done her share of subverting pop-culture tropes. But she’s a provocateur of a different stripe, a feminist with an acid wit whose work has run the gamut, from the arch satire of American Psycho (2000) to the period drama of CBC miniseries Alias Grace (2017). And Charlie Says has a docudrama style all its own.

Charlie Says premiered at the Venice Film Festival but has otherwise slid under the radar—though it is now available on video-on-demand platforms. To Harron’s surprise, it was turned down by the Toronto International Film Festival. She was told that a TIFF programmer found the violence in it “exploitative.” “If you’re going to present a film from the viewpoint of these women, you have to present the violence,” Harron told me. “Otherwise you’re not being fair to the victims, and you have to do it in a fairly graphic way to be true to the story.”

At Tarantino’s Cannes press conference, I asked him to address how depicting brutal violence by women or against women has turned into a minefield in the #MeToo era. He sidestepped the question and instead offered a vague memory of visiting a horse farm outside LA as a six-year-old in 1969. He doesn’t remember where it was but said, “I like to think in my mind that maybe we went to Spahn Ranch.” The moment seemed telling: it’s easier to romanticize the past if you didn’t live through it.

Tarantino’s vision of 1969 is a construct, built from his memories of films, TV, and music. Harron’s has roots in reality—as a teenage girl in 1969, she says, “I really did experience the sexism of hippie culture.” But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the movie that will leave its dent in pop culture. True to its title, it’s a fairy tale about a made-up world where the boys just want to have fun and hot hippies are not to be trusted. As a summer flick, it’s the ultimate guilty pleasure—for some. But it remains to be seen whether Tarantino can get away with an ode to retro masculinity that leaves women in the dust.

Brian D. Johnson
Brian D. Johnson is a long-time film critic. He has also written fiction and directed a movie, Al Purdy Was Here.