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The Many Faces of Charles Manson, Movie Star

Manson’s the closest thing to a real-life bogeyman America has produced — and Hollywood has struggled to grapple with his legacy

Toward the end of Manson, a documentary shot in the midst of the trial of Charles Manson and his followers for the Tate-LaBianca murders that terrorized L.A. and gripped the nation in 1969, director Robert Hendrickson lets the camera linger on Manson’s face as he walks from his cell to the courtroom. Manson knows it’s there, and plays to it. Beneath a shaved head and behind a scraggly goatee, his face cycles through one expression after another. He arches an eyebrow as if pondering a question, widens his eyes in surprise, pouts as if on the verge of tears, then breaks into a weird grin and sticks out his tongue, all within a span of seconds. Manson almost look like a robot trying its best to simulate human emotions but not quite getting it right. 

The moment plays beneath a long Manson monologue about the police, Christopher Columbus, Nixon, the war and so on that doesn’t make that much sense but which Manson delivers as if it were the Sermon on the Mount. And for a handful of desperate, disturbed, drug-addled followers, some variation on that monologue became a kind of gospel even if, in this context, it just plays like the free-associative musings of an unhinged man. 

How a diminutive, scraggly ex-con attracted disciples willing to kill for him, and preach his teachings even after his arrest, remains a tough question, one that film and TV depictions of Manson have struggled to answer, including the new Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in…. Hollywood. I mean, how do you depict someone with such extraordinary power? Do you treat him as a guru, monster, madman, bullshit artist, or some combination therein? And how, as the years pile up and 1969 starts to seem further and further away, do you reinterpret him for new generations?

The first depiction of Manson has, in many ways, also become the definitive one in the most literal sense. When it aired in over two nights in April 1976, the Tom Gries-directed TV movie Helter Skelter, an adaptation of Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling account of the crimes, helped a struggling CBS catapult back to the top of the ratings. The second half of the film even attracted more viewers than that year’s Oscars, which had run earlier in the week, despite not airing in L.A., where Bugliosi was running for DA. Taking some cues from Dragnet, the film mostly takes the form of a dry, docudrama-like investigation, focusing on Bugliosi’s investigation into the crimes and prosecution of Manson and his followers, a journey that leads him to unearth details about Manson’s cult and its core, Beatles-inspired belief that they’d help usher in Helter Skelter, a race war that would lead black people to wipe out white people. (Not to worry: Manson and his followers would survive by driving dune buggies into a cave and then emerge to become the leaders of the war’s survivors.)

Though the film looks very much like the product of 1970s television, the unglamorous approach serves it well, contrasting with the delusions of Manson’s followers, and the fevered personality of its Manson, played by Steve Railsback as a kind of maniacal camp counselor. Early in the film, Manson and his followers are arrested at the Spahn Movie Ranch, where they’d been living, on unrelated auto theft charges. On the way to jail, Manson leads them in a singalong. And when they’re released, Manson turns it into a cause for celebration. It makes following him look kind of fun.

Even Manson seems to be having fun, at least for a while. Railsback plays him with a punkish determination not to take his arrest and subsequent trial seriously, disrupting it at every possible moment. But as the trial proceeds, his demeanor hardens. In one scene, he throws himself across the courtroom, but the look in his eye just before he leaps toward the bench is scarier than the gesture itself, as is the deepening of his dead-eyed stare as he senses the trial isn’t going his way. When he takes the stand, he uses the opportunity to critique the system he feels made him and the killings he ordered inevitable. 

“The people you call my family were people you didn’t want,” he explains, as his followers eyes start to swell up. “So I took ’em to my garbage dump and I fed ’em and I taught ’em that in love there’s no wrong.” And, at least in that moment, he sounds persuasive (even if he soon devolves into violent ravings). His message is crazy, but Railsback seems so sincere delivering it that he makes it easy to see how an impressionable hippie looking for a better way of life might fall for it, even if it meant eating garbage (as Manson’s followers did).

His performance also helps explain why Manson was able to succeed when he did. The openness of the 1960s counterculture proved inviting both to free spirits and the creeps willing to take advantage of them. Manson prodded his followers to let go of their inhibitions through a combination of affection, drugs and abuse. Then he kept breaking them down, pushing them well past the point of free love to a place without taboos of any kind, where even killing could be justified in the service of triggering apocalyptic slaughter that would be, for the Manson Family at least, a net positive.

“I had to play this character as if he’s right. Nobody thinks they’re wrong,” Railsback told the L.A. Times in 2004. That he did the job so well helped earn him fame in the 1970s, but he came to regard it as “a dual-edged sword.” He’d go on to star in the Richard Rush-directed cult classic The Stunt Man opposite Peter O’Toole and has remained a working actor, but for a while, he found himself “pigeonholed,” called up for parts as crazies and little else.

Helter Skelter enjoyed a long afterlife in reruns and in video stores, and its success might also help explain the long gap between significant depictions of Manson. Railsback and Helter Skelter gave the 1970s the Charles Manson movie it needed: a clear-headed attempt to sort through the facts with just enough distance from the crimes and the era in which they took place to feel objective. 

By the 1990s, however, Manson became a little more open to interpretation. He’d become, in some circles at least, an icon suitable for ironic appropriation, as with the once-ubiquitous “Charlie Don’t Surf” T-shirts that featured Manson’s face on the front and a quote from Apocalypse Now on the back. Shot whenever its Dayton, Ohio-based cast and crew could find the time between 1988 and 1997 (but not fully finished and released until 2003), Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family ends with some Manson true believers murdering a 1990s punk kid wearing that shirt as a fashion statement, a death that arrives at the end of a film that goes out of its way to make Manson look anything but glamorous.

Though bookended by 1990s-set segments featuring an investigative reporter working on a Manson story, The Manson Family looks and plays like a 1970s grindhouse movie that never was — a grimy, quasi-psychedelic recreation of the Manson cult and crimes told in lurid color and with unrelenting violence. 

That makes it at once fascinating and hard to watch. In a 2004 review, Roger Ebert noted it had “scenes so foul and heartless they can hardly be believed” and “an act of transgression so extreme and uncompromised, and yet so amateurish and sloppy, that it exists in a category of one film — this film.” He also liked it, more or less, admiring its effectiveness while recoiling at its graphic depictions of the Tate-LaBianca murders. (It’s one thing to read about one Manson follower repeatedly stabbing a corpse’s exposed buttocks, another to witness it.) 

As played by Marcelo Games, the film’s Manson is an obvious lunatic, which suits Van Bebber’s approach. The film doesn’t feel the need to explain Manson, whose story was, by that point, already well-known. Instead, it recasts him as a menacing horror movie villain whose hold over his followers works almost like a superpower. It’s a grotesque but effective movie that doubles as a reminder of the dangers of trivializing a man who could orchestrate such atrocities.

On the other hand, trivializing Manson had its place in the 1990s, too. When he joined the cast of The Ben Stiller Show, Bob Odenkirk brought with him an uncanny Charles Manson impression, playing the cult leader as a prison-based giver of advice as the host of Ask Manson (Letter writer: “How do you remove a tomato stain from a Persian rug?” Manson: “You can’t get a stain out. You think I’m the stain. They say Charlie is a stain, and they try to rub me out…”), and in Manson, a dead-on parody of Lassie with Manson taking the place of the beloved family pet. 

One of the first ripples of a new wave of Gen X comedy (Mr. Show, also co-starring Odenkirk, would be another), The Ben Stiller Show dragged a previous generation’s bogeyman out of the shadows for mockery. In its own way, the sketches worked toward the same end as Van Bebber’s film, robbing Manson of his status as an edgy icon — the same status that could invest a band like Marilyn Manson with menace just by invoking his name — and exposing him as a heartless manipulator (as seen in Van Bebber’s film) and a raving lunatic (as seen in Odenkirk’s sketches).

2004 saw the 35th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca killings and with it a new version of Helter Skelter. Like the 1976 film, the 2004 Helter Skelter looks a lot like the TV airing around it at the time, as might be expected of a movie directed by Ghost Whisperer creator John Gray. It’s dull in look and execution, and the restrictions of even post-C.S.I. network TV force it to offer a fairly tame vision of life on Spahn Ranch. It would be a total waste of time except for one element — star Jeremy Davies makes for a deeply disturbing Charles Manson.

Davies deeply researched the part before he was cast, studying Manson’s interviews and speech patterns to play him for a movie that ended up never happening. Fortunately, it wasn’t a total loss. Davies videotaped himself as Manson, tapes his agent passed around and which Davies believes helped landed him a role in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris. (If you’ve seen the movie, you can understand why.) Maybe that’s why his Manson seems so upsettingly authentic, particularly whenever the film lets Davies move. No chilled-out hippie, his Manson has a panther-like physicality that lends him a fearful charisma. In his scenes opposite Christopher Jacobs’ Dennis Wilson, he looks more like a rock star than the actor playing an actual rock star. It captures yet another way Manson might have fit into the milieu of 1960s California. He lived on garbage but carried himself with the confidence of a king. (A few years later, Game of Thrones Gethin Anthony would bring a toned-down version of this quality, and a disconcerting sexiness, to his work as Manson in the two-season NBC summer series Aquarius.)

Inevitably, the 50th anniversary of the Manson crimes has brought a wave of new Manson projects. One of the most tasteless movies ever made, The Haunting of Sharon Tate reimagines the murders at Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s Hollywood home as a schlocky home invasion thriller with a dumb metaphysical twist. Apart from a couple of fleeting shots, it keeps Manson off screen as Tate (Hillary Duff) and her friends meet their fates. 

Still, Manson has a presence in the film anyway. As Tate wanders the house that once belonged to producer and Manson acquaintance Terry Melcher, a reel-to-reel recorder starts playing one of Manson’s songs. And in one of the more questionable choices in a film filled with them, we hear an actual Manson recording of “Cease to Exist,” the song reworked and recorded by the Beach Boys as “Never Learn Not to Love” for the group’s 1968 album 20/20. The film makes him both a rock star and a demonic specter. Manson would probably have loved it.

The more ambitious Charlie Says comes at the Manson story from a different angle, focusing on social worker Karlene Faith’s (Merritt Wever) attempts to connect with Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins, three Manson followers still under his spell as they sit in an isolated prison block three years after the killings. Directed by Mary Harron and written by Guinevere Turner, who’d previously teamed up for The Notorious Bettie Page and American Psycho, it’s less interested in rehashing the grisly details of the killings — though it doesn’t shy away from them — than exploring the psychology of the Manson Family and how young women from middle-class families could end up living in filth and obeying his commands. (Possibly relevant: Turner grew up in the 1970s as part of the Lyman Family, a group she refrains from calling a cult; others have freely applied that label, however.) 

Brit Matt Smith plays Manson as a controlling abuser, prone to fits of rage between sermons of love. It might take a moment for Doctor Who fans to shake off the memory of Smith’s kindly work on that show, but he’s scarily convincing as a man who takes every perceived blow to his ego out on those around him, playing the cult leader as an extreme example of fragile masculinity. The film ultimately ends up spinning in circles, but it’s notable as an attempt to rob Manson of any glamour. He’s scary, but also pathetic.

The highest-profile 2019 Manson has only slightly more screen time than the one in The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood keeps Manson, letting him make only a brief appearance at Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s Hollywood home, where he asks for Terry Melcher in the stoned voice of an annoyed hippie. Played by Justified’s Damon Herriman, who’ll soon reprise the role for the upcoming season of Mindhunter, he’s absent in the sequence set at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which is just as well. It’s a spooky enough scene without him, watching as his followers turn against an unexpected visitor. His absence leaves open the question of how anyone, much less this man, could bend so many to his will.

Maybe, in the end, there’s just no making sense of it all. To watch Hendrickson’s 1973 documentary featuring the real Manson Family is to be plunged into the heart of darkness. Nominated for an Oscar, it remained unreleased until 1976 due to a series of legal conflicts. Then it largely disappeared again after Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, only resurfacing for a 2016 screening hosted by Hendrickson shortly before his death. By that point, the filmmaker had taken to espousing some questionable theories about the Manson story. (Unsurprisingly, it’s become a magnet for the conspiracy-minded.) 

Yet though Hendrickson fills his film with psychedelic flourishes, it’s the moments in which he lets the cameras roll as Manson’s followers speak that make it so haunting. Echoing Manson’s wild-eyed rhetoric, they talk casually about how death is no big deal and killing doesn’t really matter. They’ve bought into his teachings so thoroughly that they’ve become unmoored from any sense of good and evil. They’ve fallen into a madness particular to their time and place, L.A. at the end of a long, confusing decade, that left many looking for answers and sometimes finding them in all the wrong places. 

Maybe that’s the real question, one bigger and more confusing than how Charlie Manson was able to compel those around him to do the unspeakable: How did so many find themselves so lost? And what answers do we hope to find by returning to their story?