‘MACBETH’ (1971) – Polanski’s take on The Bard


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Roman Polanski and writer Kenneth Tynan shared similar views on what this production of Shakespeare’s play should look like. They intended to have Lady Macbeth do the sleepwalk scene stark naked; they wanted to depict death more realistically and they wished to inject a lot more violence than was usually seen in such productions. But first they had to raise the money. Almost as a last resort, Polanski mentioned it to his pal Victor Lownes, the vice-president of Playboy International. He in turn emphasized the prestige value to his boss, Hugh Hefner, of Playboy financially backing a mainstream movie and Hef agreed to throw in $1.5 million. Polanski would later hit Lownes for an extra $600,000 and cause a rift between the two men that would last for years.

Polanski’s notorious ‘smart mouth’ also didn’t help matters. When a journalist asked him why he had stooped to accept Playboy cash to finance a Shakespearian production, he replied: ‘Pecunia non olet’. (Money doesn’t smell.) Lownes was incensed and considered the comment to be a personal insult. Polanski and his then wife Sharon Tate had once given Victor a gift, a statue cast in pure gold in the shape of an erect penis that they all referred to as ‘The Golden Prick’. He angrily returned it, accompanied by a note stating that he could no longer bear to have this ‘life-sized portrait’ of Polanski around his house, but was sure his former buddy could find another ‘friend’ to shove it up! It has often been claimed that the statuette was of Polanski’s erect penis but that is simply not so.

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Victor Lownes, V-P Playboy Int.                  Roman Polanski

A lot of supporters of Roman Polanski argue that his detractors should cut him some slack, that his terrible time in Poland during the Second World War and the horrendous murder of his pregnant wife entitle him to be judged less harshly than those of us who have led less traumatic lives. I do not agree. The world is full of people who have suffered as badly, even worse than he, yet they have not sunk to drugging and raping an under-aged girl. That appears to be the feelings of American Law Enforcement as well, for they are still hoping to get him back to the USA to face sentencing.

It was reported by the cast and crew on the set of Macbeth that his response to their polite suggestion that Macbeth was, perhaps, a little too unrealistically gory for its own good, came in the form of an insensitive quip about the Manson murders. ‘I know violence’, he reportedly said. ‘You should’ve seen my house last summer.’ Surely, the man would not have said that? It has been quoted in several places, but I have my doubts about it. For one thing, the Manson killings took place three years earlier – not ‘last summer’.

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Lady Macbeth’s naked sleepwalk

British pop singer Marianne Faithfull auditioned for the part of Lady Macbeth, but claims she missed out on the role when Polanski noticed the scars from her heroin addiction during the test. Sexy actress Tuesday Weld was his first choice for the role, but she would have no part of it when he advised her that she would be required to sleepwalk naked. Francesca Annis was not so prudish and landed the role. Polanski and writer Kenneth Tynan received their motivation for the nude sleepwalk by researching the Middle Ages and discovering that people in that era always slept in the buff. Well, there’s nothing like a little historic precedence as an excuse for screening a bit of ‘tits and ass’. Who are they kidding? No doubt they also dug up some kind of historical precedence for having two actors in their twenties play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, instead of the usual elderly stars. If you are going to present a naked Lady Macbeth, you might as well present a young naked Lady Macbeth. So, Jon Finch (29) and Francesca Annis (26) were cast. The Three Witches (and others) perform ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ – and they are in the nude as well! He even had a few of the elderly extras sing ‘Happy Birthday’, naked, on a video which he sent to Hefner for his 45th birthday.

Jon Finch and Francesca Annis fell in love while they were making this picture and lived together for a while. Now 72, Francesca has been a successful actress for five decades in movies, television and on stage. She met Ralph Fiennes when they made ‘Hamlet’ together in 1994, (he was Hamlet and she played Gertrude), and they remained together until 2006. Francesca’s crowning achievement as an actress would have to be her British Academy Television award for Best Actress for the mini-series Lillie in 1978, a tour de force that saw her portray the notorious Lily Langtry from the age of fifteen to seventy-five!

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Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in Macbeth

Jon Finch was an English actor who was content to make a single movie a year and enough money to live comfortably without the pressure of being a recognizable big star. In 1973 he turned down the chance to play James Bond in Live and Let Die. Six years later he was all set to play Kane in Alien, but fell ill with bronchitis on the first day of shooting and was hospitalized in intensive care for three days. John Hurt replaced him. It was probably his last chance at fame, not that it bothered him in any way whatsoever. He liked relative anonymity. Sadly, he passed away in 2012 at the age of 70.

Macbeth was a box-office disaster. It lost around $3.8 million, half of which was Playboy’s loss. Critics blamed the picture’s excessive violence on Polanski and his troubled past, in particular his connection to the Manson murders, despite the fact that he was not even in the country when they were perpetrated. He was away in France at the time. The nudity was laid at the door of Playboy, as if there would not have been any nudity in the movie if it had been financed by some more respectable institution. The New York Daily Mirror said audience reaction was minimal, unless one counted the spontaneous laughter that erupted when the words: ‘A Playboy Production’ appeared on the screen.

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