How the Manson murders killed off old Hollywood

Early posters for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his comic drama built around the Manson Family murders of 1969, show Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt decked out in garish 1960s attire and looking pretty pleased with themselves.

DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, star of a TV western series whose attempts to branch out into movies have spectacularly failed, while Pitt is his stunt double, and best friend, Cliff Booth.

Al Pacino plays Rick’s agent, Damian Lewis is Steve McQueen, Damon Herriman is Charles Manson and Margot Robbie is the unfortunate Sharon Tate, who happens to live next door to Rick. But the Tate/LaBianca murders will only form part of a narrative that aims to capture the moment when the golden age of Hollywood died.

In 1969, Tinseltown was under siege, threatened on several fronts, on the verge it seemed of extinction. Many of the old stars, like Cary Grant and Doris Day, had recently retired, others, like John Wayne, had begun to seem irrelevant. The collapse of the stultifying Hays Code and the rise of the hippie and anti-war movements had totally changed the atmosphere in America, and the studios’ attempts to address the rising counterculture were clumsy to say the least.

Then there was television, the ubiquitous box that seemed to existentially threaten the entire film industry, which was already struggling with falling box office takings and rising costs.

All of this was a body blow for Hollywood’s elites, who for 60 years had lived as America’s proxy royals. But the event that shook the film community to its core and convinced it that the party was over was the Manson Family murders. Charles Manson, a grandiose nobody from the midwest, was clever enough to get others to do his killing, and would become a looming cultural bogeyman. He’d drifted south to California in 1967: then in his mid-30s, he’d already been imprisoned several times for pimping and rape.

The flowery chaos of the counter-culture allowed many men with nasty agendas to pose as gurus and take advantage of gullible hippies, but Manson was more convincing than most, and began identifying as a singer-songwriter after making the acquaintance of The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. The Beach Boys even recorded a Manson song, and Wilson introduced him to some influential people, including producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son.

In 1968, Manson moved to the Spahn Ranch, a 55-acre site in Los Angeles that had formerly been a set for film and TV westerns. He brought with him the mainly female entourage who’d come to be known as the Manson Family.

Skinny, slight and just 5ft 2in, Manson seemed to have the mesmerising charisma of a snake charmer, and managed to convince his acolytes that he was a kind of god, the manifestation of Jesus, who had come to Earth to witness an impending apocalyptic race war which the ‘Family’ would survive in an underground city below Death Valley.

All of this, he insisted, had been predicted in code by The Beatles on their White Album. All that remained was to provoke the cleansing riots by showing the blacks how to do it.

How much of all this Manson believed himself is debatable, because his apocalyptic visions were intermingled with a less lofty interest in acquiring drugs and money. He was also vindictive, grandiosely paranoid.

The Manson Family’s brief but spectacular violent spree began on July 1, 1969, when Manson shot a black drug dealer called Bernard Crowe, following an altercation with Manson’s brutal follower, Tex Watson. Though Crowe survived, Manson was convinced he’d killed him, and expected prompt retaliation from the Black Panthers. It was time for broader action.

On July 25, Manson sent Bobby Beausoleil, Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins to the house of Gary Hinman, a kindly music teacher who’d had the great misfortune to befriend members of the Family. Wrongly believing Hinman was wealthy – Manson was after his money – when it became apparent he didn’t have any, Hinman’s fate was sealed. On August 6, the not-so-bright Beausoleil was stopped while driving around in Hinman’s car: the knife used to kill him was found inside. Out at the Spahn ranch, Manson told his followers, “now is the time for Helter Skelter”.

Actress Sharon Tate’s involvement was tragically accidental. The wife of director Roman Polanski, and an up-and-coming actress, she was pregnant when she and Polanski moved into 10050 Cielo Drive in February 1969. The house had previously been rented by Terry Melcher, and on March 23, 1969, Manson showed up at the property, prowling around, saying little, presumably looking for Melcher, who’d promised him a record contract that never materialised. Tate saw him, and would later describe him as “that creepy looking guy”. He saw her, too, and she must have stuck in his mind.

On August 8, Manson told Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian to go to 10050 Cielo Drive and “destroy everyone in it, as gruesome as you can”. Roman Polanski was away in Europe working on a film called A Day at the Beach, but Tate, now eight months pregnant, was home, along with her friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and an 18-year-old student called Steven Parent.

All inside were stabbed and shot, slaughtered in the most brutal ways, mainly by the singularly vicious Watson, and as the group left the horrific scene, they remembered Manson’s instruction to “leave a sign – something witchy”, and scrawled the word ‘pig’ on the front door in Tate’s blood.

The embodied Christ, though, was not happy with the sloppy and panicked way in which the murders had been carried out, and the following night sent Watson and five others to the home of businessman Leno LaBianca, who was murdered along with his wife in equally grotesque fashion.

Manson had planned a simultaneous murder in the Venice area, but it was thwarted by the quick thinking of Linda Kasabian, who had no stomach for violence.

The Tate murders sparked panic across Hollywood. Stars and executives retreated behind their compound walls, bulking up security and fearing they’d be next. The mood of the swinging Sixties suddenly soured.

Bizarrely, the LAPD initially decided there was no link between the LaBianca murders and the Tate killings. When Manson was arrested at the ranch on August 16, it was on suspicion of car theft, and it was only after detectives had begun investigating the Hinman murder that they made the connection to the Family.

The resulting trial was a circus. Manson had a judge recused, and carved an X on his forehead when denied permission to legally represent himself. His adoring, murderous female entourage carved identical marks on their heads, disrupted the trial and attacked jury members. All for nought: with the help of Linda Kasabian’s testimony, Manson and three others were found guilty of planning and executing the Tate/LaBianca killings and sentenced to death.

Those sentences were commuted, and Manson died in prison on November 19, 2017. During his 47 years in jail, Manson will no doubt have been cheered by his continuing fame: during the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of books on the Manson Family murders were published, his wildly staring eyes made magazine front pages, and when one of his imps, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975, Charles must have thinly smiled. Some misguided souls even seemed to admire him, and musicians have recorded his half-baked, nonsensical songs.

All of this disguises the fact that Manson was a vicious non-entity who, from his own psychotic viewpoint, happened to be in the right place at the right time – Hollywood, as the hippie dream was becoming a drug-addled nightmare. In Tarantino’s film he’ll be played by the Australian actor Damon Herriman, but may only be a peripheral player in a broader story. That sounds about right.

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