Charlie is ready for his closeup
“It was just there to do. I didn’t relate to Sharon Tate to be anything but a store mannequin…she sounded like an IBM machine—words kept coming out of her mouth, begging and pleading, begging and pleading. I got sick of listening to her, so I stabbed her. She fell, and I stabbed her again. I just kept stabbing and stabbing.”
— Susan Atkins
By Mark Cromer
The Tiffany network’s glossy recycling of Charlie Manson’s Traveling 1969 Road Show was a real hoot last night, a neatly packaged 3-hour Sunday Night Movie that gave the MTV generation a Cliff’s Notes primer course on what LIFE magazine once famously declared the ‘Love & Terror Cult.’ Of course as with most things on TV these days, the truth—or getting as close to it as possible—was of little consequence in the production.
The concept-development sessions at CBS must have gone something like this:
“Ok, we’re going to remake Helter Skelter, because the original mini-series we broadcast in 1976 remains the highest rated ever, but let’s keep this one simple, people! Think hippies! Think murder! Think music! Rather than raise questions about the Myth of Manson, let’s embrace it! Charlie’s role is that of Satan-meets-Timothy Leary, with a dash of Hitler thrown in for good measure. His Family, especially the women, are confused and abandoned youngsters who have been duped and hoodwinked by this evil charlatan. This time around, let’s forget the trial—too much detail requires concentration—and focus on the violence. Remember, people actually want to see Abigail Folger running for her life across the yard, her white nightgown turning crimson, as Patricia Krenwinkel chases her like Michael Meyers, a knife raised over her head and maniacal grin fixed on her face. Speaking of which, let’s go big on maniacal grins, ok? The chiefs want to see maniacal grins all around!”
This may explain why Jeremy Davies portrayal of Manson (a delivery in which he undeniably nailed Charlie’s voice and intentionally digressive syntax) was ultimately reduced to bizarre aping about with some acid-laced Vaudeville soft-shoe shuffle. Whether he was playing guitar or issuing orders to ‘kill them all,’ the writers at CBS determined that Charlie couldn’t just walk across the ranch, but rather had to jerk and glide to and fro, twitching his fingers like some dark Merlin casting a spell on his hapless followers.
I imagine even Manson winced at this, presuming he got to watch his portrayal on cable in prison. Despite the weak caricatures of Manson and his followers (Not to mention their beautification. Take a look at how Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten actually looked back in 1969-70 and contrast that with what CBS aired last night), what really caught my attention were the fabrications and outright factual errors. In the CBS movie, the entire killing spree is triggered by producer Terry Melcher’s insult not showing up at the Spahn Ranch so Manson could audition for him. In fact, Melcher did go to the ranch to watch Charlie audition, not once but twice. Melcher recorded several of Manson’s songs at the ranch the second time, using a mobile unit.
In the movie, Linda Kasabian is a poor, victimized pawn of every male figure in her life (dad, husband, Charlie, et. al.) who answers the call of justice and testifies against Manson and the killing crew. In reality, Kasabian assisted with the slaughter at Cielo Drive (she was a lookout, a role that qualified her for the death penalty) and only later fled the Family when it seemed they might kill her too (as they had a habit of doing with wayward Family members). In the movie, we are treated to Linda Kasabian-turned-Patty Hearst, a meek prisoner who cries a lot and is paralyzed with fear. In reality, Kasabian was on the lam and only came forward when she was named in the murder indictments. Bugliosi made a Faustian bargain with Kasabian to attain her testimony in order to achieve certain convictions against the others.
This happens all the time in prosecutions, but why CBS had to transform Kasabian into a sympathetic ‘victim’ is beyond me and downright shameful. I guess we could ask seven people who were slaughtered like sacrificial goats if they are grateful for her “help,” but they’re all dead. And by the way, if you’re wondering how the rest of the killers are doing, several of them have their own websites, are married, have children and, in Bobby Beausoleil’s case, has recorded his own album in prison.
Most correctional experts believe that all three women in the Tate/LaBianca slayings are likely to be paroled at some point. As for Manson, well, he continues to sell big for news reports that feign shock and outrage over “the ramblings of a madman!” as they tease his diatribes to the end of every segment in high rotation.
A mere shadow of the clever lunatic who graced the cover of Tuesday’s Child as ‘Man of the Year’ in 1970 (and who Rolling Stone declared to be the most dangerous man in the nation that same year), I still can’t help but feel he’s in his cell laughing at it all. A master con whose greatest scam left him seared into the nation’s consciousness as the ultimate boogey man, leaving us collectively terrified of things that go bump in the dark.
I see him slapping his knee and letting out a roaring laugh as he watches us replay the terror time and again, ignoring perhaps Manson’s most potent rhetorical question about his Family members that actually did the killing: “Who sent them to me?”