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Though there have been many versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth over the years, only one has ever treated the subject as though it was a horror film, Roman Polanski's extraordinary retelling of the play made in the wake of the horrific murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and several of his friends. The appalling events of Friday 8th August 1969 at 10050 Cielo Drive inform Polanski's film much more vividly than the Bard and what we get is a stunning, brutal revision of the story that retains the integrity of the original while allowing Polanski a quite extraordinary public exorcism of his pain.
In the wake of Tate's killing at the hands of Charlie Manson's deranged 'Family', Polanski, by his own admission (in Roman by Roman Polanski, 1984), rather went off the rails. Instead of immersing himself in a new project (he was set to direct Day of the Dolphin, eventually made in 1973 by Mike Nicols), Polanski took it upon himself to track down his wife's killers, going to quite extraordinary lengths in his paranoid search. Eventually, after a cameo appearance as a young drinker serenaded by Yul Brynner in drag in Joseph McGrath's weird The Magic Christian (1970), Polanski vented much of his anger and rage in this beautifully shot ballet of violence.
This is Shakespeare as you always knew he would have been presented had the Bard of Stratford not been hijacked by the middle class intelligensia. And clearly it was a film that could never have been made had not Tate met such a repulsive end. It's a bitter film, full of hatred and passion and it's almost impossible to see it as anything but an exorcism for Polanski. Polanski has always denied the influence his wife's death had on the film, though his tale of being influenced by the activities of brutal Nazi troops in a Polish ghetto (ibid.) may offer clues to other sources of inspiration.
Polanski's first stroke of genius was to approach Kenneth Tynan, playwright, theatre critic and literary director of the National Theatre, to help him adapt the play for the screen. Together, they deliberately set out to cast the Macbeth's as a much younger couple than was usually seen on stage. They argued that the traditional view of them as middle aged stemmed entirely from the fact that the actors usually called upon to play the roles were themselves middle aged.
Tynan was the first to notice the similarities between Polanski's Macbeth and the killing of Sharon Tate and was concerned about the way the project would turn out. When they came to write the murder scene, Tynan questioned Polanski about the amount of blood he was planning to show and Polanski chillingly told him "You didn't see my house last summer. I know about bleeding" (in Polanski by John Parker, 1993, p.177). Despite his assertions to the contrary, there can be no doubting that Macbeth was conceived and executed by Polanski purely as an anguished attempt to confront and deal with the atrocities that had changed his life forever. As Polanski's former producer Michael Klinger noted, "Without a doubt, this work has got to be a reflection of Sharon's death" (ibid, p.179).
Funding came from the British wing of Hugh Hefner's Playboy organisation, under the supervision of Hefner's right hand man in London and a long time friend of Polanski's, Victor Lownes. Polanski had been forced to approach Lownes, against the wishes of Tynan (though the latter was not averse to writing for the magazine) when no one else would touch the project - Polanski and Shakespeare just didn't seem to be ideal bed partners in most eyes. The US based parent company were initially less than keen, but Lownes persevered and got Hefner to come up with $1.5 million, persuading Columbia to come aboard, with plenty of reservations, with another $1 million.
Jon Finch is perhaps an unexpected choice for the title role, as is former Compton starlet Francesca Annis as his long suffering spouse, but Tynan was determined to give his Macbeths a different look and attitude, removing some of the sense of doom that usually surrounds them. After all, as Tynan put it "They don't know they're involved in a tragedy - they think they're on the verge of a triumph predicted by the witches" (in Roman by Roman Polanski, 1984, p.290). The majestic battle scenes are truly breathtaking and the gore is both copious and surprising. The final scenes are particularly revealing - Macbeth is alone in his castle having been deserted by his followers, his best friend and wife lying dead beside him.
The shooting of Macbeth was another ordeal for all involved and again Polanski faced dismissal when his money men got jumpy - by January 1971 he was way over budget and well behind schedule and insurance brokers Film Finance pulled the plug, demanding that Playboy fire Polanski. Hefner was forced to fly to London and hammer out a deal, one which had Polanski giving up a third of his fee and he and Andy Braunsberg stripped of their producer credits. Film Finance remained unconvinced and put Peter Collinson on a retainer in case Polanski had to be removed.
On completion, things just got worse. Columbia got in a tizz when they saw the rough cut and cancelled a planned Royal Command Performance scheduled for December 1971 and instead planned to open the film in Hefner's Playboy Theater on West 57th Street, New York in January 1972. It was a disaster - January has traditionally been a no-go zone for film releases in the US and the stigma attached to the Playboy name had the critics lining up with their hatchets at the ready. Most Stateside critics remained obsessed with the Tate killings and the death of the hippie ideal to the extent that for most of them "it was not Polanski's movie that was to be reviewed, but his life" (Parker, 1993, p.189). There was some comfort to be had when the National Film Board of America awarded it their Best Film award, and by the kinder reception from British critics, whose distance from the Tate murders helped them to retain some objectivity.
The fallout from Macbeth deeply hurt an already unstable
Polanski. Ill advised
words in an interview with Sydney Edwards of the Evening Standard
had ruined his long standing friendship with Victor Lownes and the whole
debacle left him virtually penniless and more depressed than ever. He
wound up back in France where he shot the obscure sex comedy What?
(1973) for Carlo Ponti, a film that seemed at the time to be
the last nail in his career's coffin. But Hollywood was to offer him
a shot at redemption with the magnificent Chinatown (1974),
though sadly he was never to make another film in Britain, resettling
in France after being exiled from the US following his alleged rape
of a thirteen year old girl.
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