The following contains spoilers for The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate is objectively bad.
Starring Hilary Duff as the titular Tate, it follows the heavily pregnant movie star’s last days with her friends, hairdresser Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett), coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Lydia Hearst) and her boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski (Pawel Szajda), at her home in the Hollywood Hills before they were slain there by Charles Manson’s followers fifty years ago this month.
In this movie, Tate encounters Manson several times and he plays on her mind, appearing in her dreams and—it was rumoured—in premonitions of her death at his command. The Haunting of Sharon Tate flips the horrific murders that are widely believed to have been “the end of the ’60s,” as Joan Didion wrote, by having Tate and her friends fight back and prevent their own deaths.
Sound familiar? This is also the premise of Quentin Tarantino’s recently released retelling of the murders, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. His version is preoccupied with washed up TV star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively. Their debauched lifestyles in Hollywood orbit around the Manson family, while Dalton lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive, whose murder they preempt by killing the Manson followers themselves.
While Hollywood appears to be the better film, starring today’s elite of the town in which it’s set, crafted by a famous auteur and raking in millions at the worldwide box office, it’s representation of women has been the subject of hot debate.
This film first came onto my radar when a reporter made headlines at Cannes for asking Tarantino why Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate had dismal lines. He shot the reporter down by snottily replying that he rejected her hypotheses. In this respect I would argue that Haunting is actually the superior film, because it gives Tate agency, whereas Hollywood casts her as a bit player in her own would-be murder.
That reporter was right: Robbie is wasted in Hollywood, but what little scenes she does have she shines in. On the contrary, Duff could never be accused of being a good actor (except in her luminous role as book publisher Kelsey Peters on Younger), but she imbues Tate with hopes, dreams and participation in her own life as the main subject of Haunting. The only inkling of these traits we see in Hollywood is when Tate sees herself on screen at an impromptu matinee of her movie The Wrecking Crew. Even the final scene of Hollywood, it is not the most famous and pre-occupying figure of the Manson murders that weren’t who checks on the commotion next door, but Jay Sebring. This is an excuse for him—and, by extension, the movie, which never lets up in this respect—to fawn over Dalton’s fame and acting talent instead of contemplating the tragedy they just escaped.
Sebring is problematically cast with Emile Hirsch in the role. In 2015, Hirsch allegedly choked a female film executive unconscious at Sundance Film Festival. This speaks to the larger theme of the movie of violent and repulsive men taking up most of the storyline, while the women are silent, objectified and sometimes both. The revelation that Booth allegedly killed his wife yet is the saviour of the movie by subsequently killing two more women (Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle of the Manson family, with an assist from Dalton’s flamethrower [yes, really] for Atkins) is pretty revolting. Could we expect anything less from a director who is accused of sexually harassing Rose McGowan, pressuring Uma Thurman to do a dangerous stunt that caused her permanent injury and defending the statutory rape committed by a character in his movie, Polanski?
The final scene of Haunting reveals that Tate and her friends’ foiling of their murders was a way for the characters to gain closure, ownership of their fates and move into the spirit realm. This is undeniably hokey, as is the movie as a whole, but Haunting doesn’t objectify female characters and portrays them as the fully realised heroines of their own stories. Even though they ultimately don’t survive, Sharon Tate and Abigail Folger were people worthy of memorialisation, and Haunting does so thusly. For those reasons, it is the superior Sharon Tate film of 2019.