Sharon Tate: A Life
Perseus Books Group/ DeCapo Press, 2016
We are lucky to have had Sharon Tate for the brief 27 years she lived. She hardly began to fulfill her potential before her death, but she never wasted a moment, quickly finding screen success and demonstrating a blooming comedic talent. The actress was also a remarkably kind soul, sometimes generous and humble to a fault. Her jaw dropping beauty was stunning in photographs, but more compelling in motion, where you could see the way she glowed with kindness, and how she was remarkably attentive to and respectful of the people in her orbit.
Now in a new biography, Ed Sanders explores Tate's life, in addition to the sinister events of her death. It's a quirky take on her story, but well researched and with several fascinating new interviews with friends and professional contacts.
In some respects, Sanders has a long history with Tate. He published The Family, his book about the Manson family murders, in 1971. He approached that publication, and this biography with the curiosity of a determined detective, drawing from his own contacts and using strong investigative skills to get closer to the truth. With this book, his diligence leads him to new theories about the reasons Manson ordered the murders, though it still remains impossible to be certain what actually happened.
The book is written as a sort of dual biography of Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, tracking both of their lives from an early age. I might have been more receptive to this approach if it had been presented as a dual story, but as it is, it feels like a distraction from Tate. I thought perhaps it was necessary to take up Polanski's story at such an early age in order to have enough information to fill a book , as this isn't the only time the narrative feels padded as a way to compensate for the few years Tate lived.
Of course, Polanski did play a significant role in Tate's life, and here he is shown to be deeply in love with the actress, but also controlling of her and unwilling to show sensitivity to her concerns about his promiscuity. It is through this relationship that she can be best understood, as the actress was completely focused on making the director happy, not entirely unaware of her own needs, but making her husband a priority. Sanders also describes her other relationships, including significant romances with actor Richard Beymer and Philippe Forquet and she clearly was drawn to controlling men.
The book focuses mostly on Tate's personal life, though it does go into detail about her fast rise to fame. While she was so beautiful that a certain amount of success was guaranteed her, the actress worked hard to learn her craft, and within a few years she had become an accomplished performer. There isn't much here about what specifically made her an appealing screen presence, but you can see how while some things came easily to Tate, she made certain she earned her success and made movies that would make her parents proud of her. It is bittersweet that she never got to hear her father's praise about her performance in The Wrecking Crew (1968); he watched the film the night she was murdered, and left the theater with plans to call to congratulate her the next day.
Sanders has an unusual take on the English language, using words like "stunningness", "unsureness" and "rebegan". Whenever an event in Tate's life seems to foreshadow her violent end, he is fond of ending the paragraph with "oo-ee-oo", which I imagine you are supposed to imagine him saying under his breath. You often sense his presence in the narrative, as if you are watching him at work.
After taking a look at Sanders' own bio. on Wikipedia I'm guessing he's a bit of a character and is letting his personality come through in the text. I can respect that this "poet, singer, social activist, environmentalist, author, publisher and longtime member of the band The Fugs," who has "been called a bridge between the Beat and Hippie generations" and is "considered to have been active and "present at the counterculture's creation" is marching to the beat of his own drum, and perhaps trying to liven up the sometimes unimaginative biography genre, but I felt it distracted from Tate to put so much of his own personality into her story. I can explain it best by sharing my typical comment to chatty movie audience members: "I didn't pay admission to listen to you talk buddy."
These quirks almost entirely disappear when Sanders begins to tell the story behind Tate's death, and as a result, the text becomes much more compelling. He is compassionate in his exploration of Tate's horrific last night and the LaBianca murders that would follow. The author even warns readers when he gets to the graphic material, suggesting that some may wish to skip the rest of the chapter. I was appreciative of that, because it made me stop a moment to reflect, and I realized I'd rather not have those details on my mind the rest of my life.
I picked up the story again after the night of the murder, and didn't feel like I missed anything I needed to understand the impact of what happened. While I was glad I skipped the recounting of the murders, there was still plenty of disturbing information about the aftermath and the activities of the Manson family throughout this period. It isn't an easy read.
The first half of the book is satisfying in itself as a chronicle of Tate's life and career, but there is a lot of suffering in the final chapters. More sensitive readers may wish to skip the book entirely. Devoted fans will find plenty to interest them in the early chapters.
Many thanks to Perseus Books Group/ DeCapo Press for providing a copy of the book for review.
As I read Sharon Tate: A Life, I looked up some of the videos mentioned in the text. These clips feature Tate in both personal and professional moments. Here are a couple of my favorites and a couple more I found as I searched.
Tate takes Merv Griffin on a tour of Carnaby Street in London during its 1960s heyday. She was the perfect tour guide for this influential center of fashion and culture:
This clip features Tate make-up-free, relaxed, getting stoned and enjoying herself at a house party with a handful of friends. I love the sense of fun here:
Here's some footage from the set of The Wrecking Crew (1968) and a few home movies featuring Tate. You can really get a sense of what a presence she was just by watching her talk. She actually glows. (You might want to turn the volume down; the music isn't a great fit.)
I like this interview with Tate at the premiere of Valley of the Dolls (1967), because you can see how she could be simultaneously innocent and wise: