As the news media put it so dismissively in headlines after the Manson Family murders, actress Sharon Tate was murdered along with “four others.” Those “others” were in fact Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent and Jay Sebring. The latter is the subject of the documentary Jay Sebring….Cutting to the Truth, directed by Anthony DiMaria. The filmmaker is Sebring’s nephew, adding a deeply personal and heartfelt patina to a film that seeks to expand the portrait of his uncle beyond being a tragic victim in one of the most sensationalized crimes of the 20th century.
Sebring was a pioneer in men’s hairstyling, a stylist to the stars of his time including Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Peter Lawford, Bobby Darin and countless others. He styled Jim Morrison’s iconic tresses as The Doors hit the big time, and he helped his friend Bruce Lee get the job playing Kato in the Green Hornet television series that launched his career. He designed Kirk Douglas’ hair for Spartacus and McQueen’s for many films including The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt.
Sebring’s Hollywood salon became the go-to place for male celebrities, and he expanded his empire to include haircare products and franchised salons in cities throughout North America and Europe. That all ended tragically on Aug. 8, 1969, when he was murdered along with Tate, with whom he once had a serious romantic relationship before her marriage to Roman Polanski (and possibly afterward, as the film hints).
Director DiMaria, who bears a striking resemblance to his uncle, has made it his mission to restore Sebring’s prominence. That mission clearly was many years in the making, since the documentary includes interviews with such long-gone celebrities as Dennis Hopper, Dominick Dunne and Andy Williams, among others. The late singer Vic Damone recalls being Sebring’s first celebrity client. “It was like I never had a haircut before!” Damone exclaims, adding that he paid Sebring $100.
The film extensively recounts Sebring’s life and career, benefiting from copious amounts of archival and promotional photographs and footage. Born Thomas Jane Kummer, Sebring changed his name when he moved to Los Angeles after serving four years in the Navy, where he had begun cutting hair. He was an instant success as a hairdresser, incorporating such new ideas as washing his clients’ hair before styling it and using scissors instead of clippers.
He bought a house in Hollywood that had once belonged to Jean Harlow, where her husband Paul Bern either killed himself or was murdered. Sebring was proud to own a home of such notoriety, a friend recalls, adding, “Ironically, Jay’s story became bigger.”
The filmmaker takes pains to debunk several myths about the murders, such as that Sebring and Tate were sexually mutilated. A lengthy section deals with the crime, and its subsequent commercialization and appropriation in popular culture. Quentin Tarantino, who presented a fictionalized version of the events in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, points out that he made Sebring a significant character (played by Emile Hirsch) rather than a peripheral figure.
DiMaria takes aim at Time magazine and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which presented an unflattering portrait of Sebring. Bugliosi, who died in 2015, declined to be interviewed for the film, while the Time piece strangely had no byline. Polanski also declined to comment, although he’s heard in a police interrogation tape made shortly after the murders.
Jay Sebring….Cutting to the Truth is less than polished in stylistic terms, suffering from its disjointed, choppy editing and lack of objectivity. Nonetheless, it makes for compelling viewing, thanks to its fascinating subject matter and the charismatic central figure on ample display. The film certainly succeeds in its goal of rescuing Sebring from the relative anonymity of merely being one of the “others” killed in the grisly murders.
Production companies: 1010 Films, Halation
Distributor: Shout! Studios (on digital platforms and VOD)
Director: Anthony DiMaria
Producers: Johnny Bishop, Anthony DiMaria
Executive producers: Chad Layne, Voss Boretta
Music: Jeff Beal
Editor: Johnny Bishop