April 12 was Shakespeare’s birthday. The real Shakespeare, I mean: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I thought a little celebrating was in order, so I watched one of the best Shakespeare films ever made: Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth.
When I was a kid, that was one of my favorite plays. Still is. The language!
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
I should have used that one to get dates, but I never seemed to be able to work it into a conversation with the girls in my class. Airheads.
Anyway, I got really hooked on Shakespeare when I saw a televised production with Maurice Evans as Macbeth and Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, the role she was most famous for. Talk about undaunted mettle!
You may remember her as Mrs. Danvers, the domineering housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. She was almost too scary as Lady Macbeth, and though I admired her no end, I vaguely wondered why Macbeth would marry her. Yes, a man wants a woman with her share of undaunted mettle, but there are reasonable limits. How do you pop the question to a battle-ax like Mrs. Danvers? And where do you take her for a honeymoon?
Roman Polanski took a daring new approach. Working with the brilliant critic Kenneth Tynan, he made the Macbeths a young, attractive couple on the make, instead of the usual plummy-voiced, middle-aged folks. Jon Finch played Macbeth as a handsome warrior, and Francesca Annis was a gorgeous Lady Macbeth. When Macbeth had qualms about murdering King Duncan, she didn’t humiliate him with reproaches; hurt and disappointed, she melted him with tears.
A kinder, gentler Lady Macbeth was certainly a new departure, but it was a brilliant success. Most Shakespeare productions make me wince; this one is a triumph. By making this formidable woman weaker and less tough than her husband thinks she is, Polanski prepares us for her panic and crackup later. Guilt destroys her. Macbeth is almost undone by it at first—“O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”—but learns to live with it. Her madness leaves him completely isolated as he goes from one atrocity to another.
When Macbeth was released, it was rated “X.” Annis played Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene nude, but it was so discreetly shot that Hugh Hefner, who financed the film, must have been, well, hurt and disappointed.
What’s really shocking is the violence. After a rough opening battle scene—seen a man killed with a mace lately?—we see the Thane of Cawdor brutally executed and King Duncan murdered (these deaths happen offstage in the play), but that’s the least of it. Banquo gets a broad-ax through the spine and is pitched into a stream; then his ghost makes a hair-raising appearance at dinner; a little later, Macduff’s young son is dispatched in a horrifying way; finally, Macbeth kills several men in single combat and is himself beheaded by Macduff (again, it happens offstage in the play).
But Polanski really excels not in extremes of mayhem, but in the unexpected, unsettling little touches. Think of Jack Nicholson’s nostril in Chinatown; you remember that moment (Polanski himself wielded the switchblade) long after you’ve forgotten a thousand movie shootings. One of the Weird Sisters is an eyeless, toothless old crone, ugly enough to give you nightmares; where did they dig her up? On the night of Duncan’s murder, even the cleansing rain startles.
The scenery is gorgeously filmed. The natural beauty of the settings only underlines the unnatural doings going on within them, just as the poetry celebrates the normal order Macbeth is destroying. The terrible evil is accentuated by the goodness it violates, the darkness by the daylight. The film’s images capture the story’s paradoxes. Banquo’s killers, though thugs, are also a pair of oddly touching losers.
Of course we go to productions of Shakespeare for thrilling acting, but here we have to settle for competence. The peerless Laurence Olivier could never raise the money to film his legendary Macbeth, sneaking quick furtive glances at his own hands to make sure they weren’t bloody; and the world is forever the poorer for it.
But Polanski’s inspired direction almost allays one’s regrets that Jon Finch can’t fill Olivier’s shoes. He shows that even fidelity to Shakespeare can leave plenty of room for surprise.
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