By Tia Price
It has been 48 years since Sharon Tate was murdered and the memory of the woman Mia Farrow described as a ‘beautiful and gentle soul’ continues to live on. Try as you might (go on, try it) it is impossible to find an image of this woman that does not shine, stun and glimmer.
Was it her undeniable beauty, life in the public eye or the sheer brutality and senselessness of her murder that has immortalised Tate’s image? She died just two weeks from her due date, pregnant with the baby boy devastatingly laid to rest in her arms at the Holy Cross Cemetery near Los Angeles. Tate is said to have pleaded ‘give me two weeks so that I can give birth and then kill me’, her death, and all subsequent representations in homage or deference have affected many lives, laws, and wallets since.
Recently I was researching the Museum of Death in Hollywood and was struck by the display of crime scene photographs from this murder. The exhibit focus was not on Tate at all, rather the perpetrator or to be specific, inciter, the notorious Charles Manson. Photographs, headlines, paintings, and other memorabilia line the walls, tracking Manson’s journey. Charting his progression from man, to criminal, to brand, Tate and her fellow victims, being just that: victims. Sprawled, bloody, medicalised specimens, if it were not for their combined Hollywood status this is all they might have been to the world.
They were ‘important’ socially; owned and photographed, they were not just victims of crime, they had a social worth. It marks the tragedy that as publicly consumed their death seemed that little more ‘real’, the celluloid immortals or kids of fat cats can die, or be killed. If you type into google the name ‘Sharon Tate’ the third link will tie her to Charles Manson, you will also see the fifth or sixth tab read: ‘Sharon Tate baby cut out’ and ‘baby autopsy pictures’. This emphasises a theory termed ‘Wound Theory’ by Mark Seltzer, whereby we are drawn to view the body ripped apart; it also emphasises that human beings really need a boundary sometimes. Sharon Tate herself never got to see her child, was unable to name him yet she is buried holding him and the public clamour to view that grave as though by association it is a commodity to be consumed, and voyeuristically enjoyed.
“Her death, and all subsequent representations in homage or deference have affected many lives, laws, and wallets since.”
Through her short career, Tate tired of her looks, aware that it denied her more interesting parts in favour of the beautiful girl typecasting; referring to herself somewhat sardonically as ‘sexy little me’. Her penultimate film Valley of The Dolls was released in 1967 and rather hauntingly, she plays the character of Jennifer North, a beautiful but floundering actress who falls pregnant. Critics at the time were either entirely derogative or blasé, and yet after her death it was re-released and became a cult classic. Tate posthumously commended on her performance. That same year, in Don’t Make Waves Tate plays Malibu, a bikini beach maiden who spends most of the film semi clad, and this character is said to have inspired Mattel’s Malibu Barbie. The range of dolls making a strange parallel with her real life experiences as a commodified beauty. When asked about fate once, Tate is said to have stated, ‘of my life I have never had a hand in anything that has happened to me.’
Interesting that the film itself was inspired by beach parties and beach music, like The Beach Boys, a curious coincidence that the Manson Family had been seeking a member of the band the night of the murders.
Tate’s family have been instrumental in many aspects of Tate’s memory and legacy. Tate’s mother Doris campaigned up until her own death, as did Tate’s sister Patti, against the parole of the Manson Family members. In fact, such was their involvement that California State Criminal Law was amended to allow the family members of victims to be present at parole hearings and speak in their place. Doris Tate, in what became her last public appearance in 1992, was commended by President George Bush as one of ‘a thousand points of light’ for her work for victim’s rights.
“Of my life I have never had a hand in anything that has happened to me.”
In 2009 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Tate’s death, Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell contemporary artist created a mixed art exhibition, again involving many stunning images to commemorate this ‘icon’. A 2014 book released by Debra Tate featuring various images and personal photographs alongside many quotes from her famous peers of the time has had many positive reviews. Her sister, in the same year, petitioned Hollywood to give Sharon a posthumous star on the walk of fame, this was denied. Personally, I cannot help but feel, given what I have read of her, Sharon would not have felt she had earned that, it would have been borne from her death and thus her victimhood, not her talent. It also reinforces this notion that Tate, did not have much control in her life, her goals and ultimately her death and how she is remembered. It is through the lens of her family, her sisters and all those famous folks she knew for a time until she was 26.
A film currently in the writing stages proposed by Quentin Taratino, presumably to be released in time for the 50 year anniversary will perhaps threaten this ideal of ‘Icon’ which the family have sought to preserve. Given that Tarantino is known for his visceral representations and has not dealt with ‘real’ situations but has rendered fictional happenings for viewing many fans have suggested he steer clear of this. As Manson has become synonymous with a counter cultural narrative there is concern that Tarantino may be tempted to represent ‘the wrong side’ in favour. Tate’s sister Debra recommended Margot Robbie over the actress Jessica Lawrence to play Tate as in her opinion Lawrence was not ‘beautiful enough’. If then her sister is inclined for this to go ahead, how Sharon is perceived will affect her subsequent ‘immortality’. Much as the family or next of kin legally ‘own’ the corpse after death, so then too does the legacy of their memory.
“How Sharon is perceived will affect her subsequent ‘immortality’.”
Susan Sontag said that ‘all photographs are memento mori’ and in this case, it’s true. Those that capture ‘the air’ (Barthes), the real and genuine the images, the more as a consuming commodifying viewing member of the public I find these images only highlight that we will die. We may die beautiful or complicated or real and tragic. We may end up in a grotty downtown museum gawked at as the trophy of a psycho or we may die behind a curtain in a hospital, but we will die and years from now someone may remember us, or they may not. Surely then, with this is mind, isn’t it beautiful to breathe in and out and laugh and smile and jump and think about how stunning Sharon Tate was; how unfair that she could do nothing to make her face look in any way ‘wrong’ and how incredible it is that we can marvel in this beautiful existential way about this gorgeous girl who should have had a little longer, have that big break and actually feel the little baby she shares her grave with? Her most significant legacy then, truly, is for us to take stock in every moment and do everything to fulfil our goals, push against limitations and love in our lives because really, who knows what might happen or rather, when.
January 24, 1943 – August 9, 1969
Tia Price originally studied Drama graduating in 2003. Drawn to mysticism, New Age Spirituality and Pagan practices, Tia has been working from an experiential perspective since; reading Tarot cards and leading workshops in related subjects. She is currently studying the ‘Death, Religion & Culture’ Master’s Degree at The University of Winchester with an aim to focus further research on Vodou/Voodoo practices and related representation. She works part time in Adult Social Care, has an avid love for performing Shakespeare and has two young sons Newton (4) and Felix (2).