Book review: ‘Real subject of Tate biography is Charles Manson’s twisted family’

SharonTate

My first book review in a few months recently ran in the Sunday Buffalo News.

It is nearly impossible to look at the image of Sharon Tate and not think about the slaughter that ended her life. That undeniable truth presents a major obstacle for any biographer. Everything that comes before her encounter with Charles Manson’s doe-eyed acolytes – her early days as a model and actress, her marriage to filmmaker Roman Polanski, her glamorous life in the public eye – feels like a grim coming attraction to the sad feature presentation.

Clearly, the public narrative of Sharon Tate’s life, sadly, is focused solely on her ending. And in many ways, the latest Tate biography is more of the same. However, “Sharon Tate: A Life” by Ed Sanders is not really about the life of Sharon Tate – despite its title. The doomed icon is instead an entry point for a chilling dive into a fantasia of violence, sex, drugs, and celebrity.

As a biography of Sharon Tate, then, Sanders’ book is a failure. As a gripping, comprehensive, relentlessly involving revisiting of the Manson murders, however, it is a stunner. Once Sanders turns his attention from Tate’s life and career to the story of her death, “Sharon Tate: A Life” becomes the most engrossing read I’ve encountered in 2016.

Before then, we have the standard chronicle of Tate’s life: Success in beauty pageants during her youth, discovery by producer Martin Ransohoff, stardom in “Valley of the Dolls,” falling in love with Polanski during the filming of “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”

Sanders – who wrote of Manson in the bestseller “The Family” – does unearth some unique, very personal details I’ve not come across before. For example, the first meeting between Polanski and Tate’s father Paul, aka “The Colonel,” was a telling view into the couple’s unconventional relationship:

“She’s too nice,” Polanski told Tate’s father. “I’ve been trying to toughen her up.”

“I wouldn’t try too hard,” he replied. “She doesn’t get mad too often, but when she does, oh, son, you better watch out. And when she’s done with you, then you’ve got me to reckon with.”

The author certainly captures the slightly menacing vibe of the time, especially as we draw closer to “that fatal night.” Anyone who has read “Helter Skelter” or watched any of the dramatic recreations of the Manson story knows the broad strokes of what comes next. But the skilled Sanders brings the era to vivid life. It all starts on page 115, in a chapter titled, with chilling blankness, “1969: Cielo Drive and Pregnancy.”

Sanders recounts the murders with fascinating detail, including the killers’ strange life at the Spahn ranch and the backstory of the small gathering at the Polanski household that night. It all culminates, of course, in a nightmare:

“Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were chatting in Sharon’s bedroom when the knife stabbed into the gray screen, slicing an entrance into the empty nursery at the far end of the house.”

The remainder of the book is a chronicle of real-life horror and its aftermath. And it’s enormously effective.

There are significant issues with “Sharon Tate: A Life,” and they start with the title. This is a book about death, not life. And as stated previously, Tate feels like a secondary character in her own story. At times the focus is so removed from Tate herself that things feel slightly disrespectful.

The illustrations by Rick Veitch don’t help matters. The work of the underground comic artist is generally fascinating, but here feels overly cartoony. A final illustration depicting Tate clutching her unborn baby in the clouds (called “Sharon in the Sky”) is particularly silly.

Interestingly, there was a very strong book about Sharon Tate released last year, one that focused on her life, rather than her death. “Sharon Tate: Recollection” is a lush, gorgeously composed visual appreciation by her sister, Debra, that restores Tate to her rightful place as the vibrant style icon of her era. This bold, bracing approach divorces her from the too-often-used classification of “Manson victim.” Debra Tate rescues her sister from being known by many as simply a casualty.

One image in particular – a shot of pregnant Tate in 1969, wearing a black headband – carries more emotional weight than any moment in “Sharon Tate: A Life.” She appears breathtakingly alive, a stunning force of power and beauty.

Comparatively, the Tate that appears in Sanders’ book is constantly surrounded by danger. She is emotionally scarred and threatened at all counts by a system that saw her only as a sex symbol. She is quite simply, doomed, and her collision with the Manson family feels almost predestined.

Was her murder, in fact, predestined? Was it a wrong-place, wrong-time scenario? Was Tate chosen? These questions haunt us, and Sanders. The author saves his final flourish for the afterword, nine pages of mind-detonating theories, rumors, and could-bes. It sent me racing to google “English Satanists,” and, typically, more dead-ends.

The book ends with Sanders reaching out to Charles Manson himself via letters. Sanders asks several key questions, but of course, these pleas go unanswered. This hammers home a sad truth. We’ll never really know why Sharon Tate was massacred. As Sanders puts it, “So far, no answer, no phone call.”

Interestingly, the finale successfully turns the focus back to Tate. The sad miasma of conspiracy theories that make up the afterword are, in a way, the author’s attempt at understanding and rationalizing something that can never be understood or rationalized. Whatever led to the murders, Sanders believes, is secondary to the result. In the end, it’s the deaths of Sharon Tate and her friends that truly matter:

“[E]ven though the world moves on, decade after decade, that does not prevent loose ends flapping in the multi-decade breeze, and no loose ends can prevent our sense of outrage and anger for the horrible injustice perpetrated upon Sharon Tate and her friends.”

In “Sharon Tate: A Life,” Ed Sanders brings that horrible injustice to life once more. Even if he fails to capture the life force that made Tate one of the 20th century’s most tragic icons, he succeeds in shedding new light on the horrors of 1969. This is true crime lit at its most grimly compelling.

Review: Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir

roman

Recently, I reviewed the documentary “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” for The Playlist, and came away … semi-satisfied. Here is my review.

“I’ve been through a lot of tragedies, but I’ve also had lots of compensation for that. It’s not all dips—it’s up and down.” So says Roman Polanski, the Oscar winner in exile, in Laurent Bouzereau’s compelling, occasionally insightful, but wildly frustrating documentary “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” It is a film that takes great pains to allow the man behind “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” to talk, explain, and elucidate on his childhood, his career (to some degree), the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate, the rape that eventually led him to flee to Europe, his later life, and eventually, his arrest in Switzerland and possible extradition on sexual misconduct charges. Yet, for an artist whose stylistic flourishes changed the course of modern cinema and continue to fascinate, ‘A Film Memoir’ is a stiff, by-the-numbers affair.

It feels like an extension of Bouzereau’s usual work as directory of making-of docs and DVD special features; the Polanski documentary would not feel out of a place as the extra disc in a box set of the director’s work. And that’s too bad. Because it has something that Marina Zenovich’s more aesthetically ambitious Polanski studies—”Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” and “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out” lacked: Polanski himself, as he lives today. To be more specific, Bouzereau shot this extended conversation with the director and his friend (and producer of “Macbeth,” “What?” and “The Tenant”) Andrew Braunsberg during Polanski’s 2009 house arrest in Switzerland.

That access is a major score, yet the use of Braunsberg as an interrogator is…odd. And quite foolish. It is difficult, after all, to find a filmmaker whose name carries more baggage—good and bad—than Roman Polanski. Allowing a friend and collaborator to interview him for the documentary is a choice that leaves Bouzereau and his film open to all manner of critique. Even when Braunsberg asks questions that could be construed as pointed, he does so as a friend. And why wouldn’t he? Braunsberg is not at fault here—Bouzereau is. Perhaps Polanski only agreed to participate if someone like Braunsberg was asking the questions. Who knows? Whatever the circumstances, the end result is an interesting disappointment.

After establishing our location—a lovely Swiss chalet, the site of Polanski’s detainment following 10 weeks in maximum security prison—the likable Braunsberg takes his friend back to his birth. The early years are, of course, essential to the director’s tale. Polanski’s is “a life that was quite unlike anybody else’s, full of such tragedy, such triumph, such disasters,” as Braunsberg puts it, and his house arrest provided ample time in which to ponder the past. Braunsberg says Polanski told him that he had “never had much time for myself, and I’m looking at this as my monastic retreat,” adding, “I’m thinking a lot about my childhood.”

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of his life is aware of Polanski’s harrowing youth. He was born in Paris—ironically, the city to which he would flee in 1977 (after a quick stop in London), but his father moved the family to Krakow, Poland, just before the Nazis invaded. The move “was a big mistake, of course,” Polanski says. Young Roman was sent with his mother and sister to Warsaw, and a life of starvation and catastrophe (Polanski recalls his mother finding a can of pickled cucumbers, a scene that he eventually used in “The Pianist”). His father returned, but the memories of what followed soon after still brings him to tears: “Father burst into tears and said, ‘They took mother.’ I wasn’t crying. And I said, ‘Stop crying, because they will pick us up.’ “ Polanski later learned that his mother was pregnant. This is without question the most involving portion of “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Polanski’s tales are devastatingly sad, especially those of the other children he knew. One memory, of a young boy named Stefan constantly clutching the one photo he has with his mother—by then likely in a concentration camp—is particularly moving.

Polanski was sent into hiding and survived, as did his father and sister. Clearly, he remains haunted by these years, and brought many specific elements into “The Pianist.” The genesis of Polanski the filmmaker, however, is rather an afterthought in Bouzereau’s documentary. We learn of his early days as an actor, meeting Andrez Wadja, his acceptance into film school after several acting school rejections, then, suddenly, we arrive at “Knife in the Water.” The film is hated in his homeland, but wins a prize at Venice, and lands the cover of Time magazine.

Bouzereau moves too quickly through the remainder of Polanski’s life. “Repulsion” (“I was never very fond of ‘Repulsion,’ Polanski states. “It was a bit of a prostitution.”), “Rosemary’s Baby,” Sharon, Manson…  While there are some interesting comments from Polanski about his late, eight-month pregnant wife’s almost inconceivable slaughter—his time with Tate was, he says, “An extremely happy period of my life which lasted unfortunately not very long”—we positively hurtle along to the rape of Samantha Geimer. Braunsberg introduces the topic with rather shocking casualness: “Then suddenly you had your experience with Samantha.” And we thrust back into the world covered in Zenovich’s docs. Here, however, tough questions are not asked. Polanski owns up to his actions, telling the interviewer, “Of course it was wrong; I have not changed my views about it.” And he explains his decision to flee in a way that is quite understandable. But it all feels…a little too calm. A little too restrained. Polanski answers every question—but are these the right questions?

The rest of the film brings us up to speed on Polanski’s life in Paris, his marriage and his children, and argues that the man speaking to us now is very different from the one in archival footage. “What I have now would have never occurred if what had happened before had not taken place,” he tells his friend, and that’s certainly an admirable viewpoint. This, it seems, is Bouzereau’s goal: to give us the human Polanski, not the Polanski of tabloid headlines. Undoubtedly, in  an attempt at presenting a full portrait of Roman Polanski the man, not enough time is spent on Polanski the filmmaker. The films are almost an afterthought. “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” is a rare opportunity to hear a master filmmaker speak about his life. Both his haters and fans will agree, it is a highly watchable documentary. But don’t expect either group to feel they have heard the whole story. [B-]