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Macbeth

(United Kingdom, 1971, 140 minutes, color, 35 mm)

Directed by Roman Polanski


Cast:

Jon Finch . . . . . . . . . . Macbeth
Francesca Annis . . . . . . . . . . Lady Macbeth
Martin Shaw . . . . . . . . . . Banquo
Terence Baylor . . . . . . . . . . Macduff
John Stride . . . . . . . . . . Ross
Nicholas Selby . . . . . . . . . . Duncan

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

For Roman Polanski, August of 1969 was a time rich with the possibility of happiness. The man who said, "Whenever I get happy, I always have a terrible feeling," had long had good reason to dread every new day. He had barely escaped the Krakow ghetto ahead of the Nazis; his mother had been killed at Auschwitz. Raised in the gray austerity of postwar Poland, he had managed to make brilliant, quirky art films like KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962) which had brought him to the attention of Hollywood. After an affectionate horror film parody, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), he had married Sharon Tate, the film's beautiful star. Then had come ROSEMARY'S BABY in 1968. Hugely popular, the film had turned Polanski into an "A" list director. He was already in pre-production on one of the season's big money projects, DAY OF THE DOLPHIN. Financially secure, happily married, expecting his first child, installed in the requisite plush house in Beverly Hills, Polanski was now a certified member of the film aristocracy. It seemed as if the demons of his youth had retreated.

Overseas to scout locations for DAY OF THE DOLPHIN, Polanski rushed home when word of the Manson family's savage ritual murder of Tate and three friends reached him. Instantly at the center of the most celebrated criminal case in the world, blaming himself for Tate's death, suicidal, Polanski fell back on the old ways of emotional survival tested in his youth. He haunted the house on Cielo Drive looking for clues, brought in a medium, made himself a familiar figure in the investigation, and was, for a moment, considered as a suspect. When Life magazine asked for a picture, he complied enthusiastically, posing himself seated on the bloodstained stoop, the door to the house and its grisly contents standing open behind him. When word came out that Polanski had "directed" the shot, the film community shunned him. The slaughter at Polanski's house had finished Hollywood's brief era of flirtation with the emerging youth culture. The chemical days and the decadent nights in the dark canyons behind Sunset Boulevard ended. Polanski's art director on ROSEMARY'S BABY, Richard Sylbert, said "You can hear the toilets flushing all over Beverly Hills. Everybody became Presbyterian. That marked the end of the fun and games of the 60s. . . It was the end of the joke."

DAY OF THE DOLPHIN got away from Polanski. He gave up quickly a project about cannibalism, and tried to get the rights to Henri Chariere's bestseller Papillon. Exile in Europe, a year of ceaseless sex, and idling about ski slopes passed before Polanski asked critic Ken Tynan to work with him on an adaptation of Macbeth. The two had met when Tynan was writing Oh, Calcutta!, his notorious erotic revue. Polanski was to shoot two miniature films which were to be shown as part of Oh, Calcutta!. Each just a few moments in length, the two films depicted obscured views of sex acts, seen through windows. Unmade, the films' bizarre predilections raised Tynan's understanding that Polanski's deepest anxieties were also his likeliest subjects. He considered Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY "one of the very few films that made one consider the possibility that there was any such thing as absolute evil."

Screenwriting on MACBETH in London went smoothly. The two did not discuss the murders, or Polanski's increasingly hysterical right wing politics. Instead, they acted out sections of the screenplay, even Duncan's murder, until neighbors became shocked by the sight of the two men wrestling each other in Polanski's bedroom. The process of financing the film went unsmoothly. Shakespeare was passe to distributors. First Allied Artists and then Universal turned the project down. Finally, Polanski contacted Victor Lownes, his close friend and a senior executive at Hugh Hefner's growing Playboy empire. Tynan, a Playboy contributor, knew Hefner as well. Hefner was adding movie and book publishing entities to Playboy's corporate holdings, and Polanski's outrageous lifestyle and the art film aura of a Shakespearean adaptation proved irresistible to him. The presence of the film's celebrated nude sleepwalking scene was later widely ascribed to Hefner's interference, but in fact it had been an integral part of the script before the Playboy connection had been established. The scene caused Polanski's first choice, Tuesday Weld, to turn down the part of Lady Macbeth.

The striking youth of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was an innovation that Polanski and Tynan felt strongly about. Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth was another actress in an already noticeable Polanski line of naive and winsome nymphets, from Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY and Nastassia Kinski in TESS. Polanski's was a novel understanding indeed of Lady Macbeth, usually portrayed as middle-aged and calculating.

Location shooting in Wales consumed four weeks. The weather there was wretched, and the film's gray, rainswept look mirrored Polanski's continuing depression during the filming. As always, he sought catharsis for his inner turmoil in actions both grotesque and cryptic. On Hefner's birthday, for instance, Polanski sent Hefner a short film of three aged naked women, intended to evoke MACBETH's witches, singing "Happy Birthday, Dear Hef." He was ruthless to his actors, muscling them about, japing them pitilessly, seeking a control over the filmic world that had eluded him offscreen. Critics of MACBETH were amazed at its torrent of violence and cruelty, and indeed, Polanski drags much of the offstage mayhem in the play into audience view. Still, MACBETH, for all its depravity, was less violent, less ironic, and less shadowed by evil—by far—than Polanski's own life had been since his earliest days. For a man who had known the depredations of Hitler, Stalin, and Charles Manson quite intimately, the intrigues of Cawdor looked delicate by comparison.

Polanski lost himself in the shooting, finding in the freezing winds of Wales and the closed world of Shepperton studios the kind of crowded solitude he preferred. He seemed loath to surrender his hard-won mastery, and the film began to run alarmingly over budget. By the time shooting was over, he had spent ten extra weeks and $600,000 more than the film's small budget. The film would still manage to lose 3.5 million dollars. Hefner stood by Polanski, providing him with more money and intervening for him in a dispute with the completion bond company which threatened to halt shooting. In gratitude, Polanski gave a pre-opening interview at Hefner's London Playboy Club. He began by ostentatiously sending back his meal as inedible and finished by mocking Hefner's generosity. The whole thing, from the overcooked trout almondine to the insults, made the Evening Standard.

It got worse. The film opened in February 1971, in a misguided attempt to showcase Playboy's hipness and its aspirations to high society respectability at the same time. The event was a full-dress benefit for spina bifida and hydrocephaly victims, a singularly inappropriate association with a film like MACBETH. As squadrons of Playboy Bunnies served cocktails, Lownes introduced Polanski to Princess Anne, the event's royal sponsor. Looking closely at Anne's famously long face, Polanski joked, "I'll never make another film with horses in it." Lownes's friendship with Polanski was at an end. Angrily, he returned a cherished gift to Polanski, the life-sized gold penis Polanski had modeled for during happier days. Lownes wrote that "I'm sure you'll have no difficulty finding some friend you can shove it up."

Meanwhile, the film lost money precipitously. Polanski was unwilling to participate in the publicity effort at all, preferring to lose himself in work on a tiny documentary on Grand Prix driver Jackie Stewart. It made no difference, for it seemed no one wanted to see a Shakespearean film, a horror film, or a documentary in 1971, and MACBETH was all three. Polanski's MACBETH, wrote one critic, was "a world flooded with blood." It was, in a manner of speaking, Polanski's blood. When it came time to shoot the murder of Lady Macduff and her children, the cast and crew were edgy, nervous, aware of the tragic resonances the scene would have for Polanski. Instead, they found him eerily calm, apparently reconciled to a fate that condemned him to relive his worst agonies in order to make his greatest art. As he wiped fake blood on a child actress, Polanski did not even seem surprised to find out that her name was Sharon. When Terence Bayler, the film's Macduff, argued with Polanski over the character's reaction to the massacre, Polanski quietly ended the dispute, saying, "No, you'll do it this way. I know."

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.