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The Problematics: Examining Roman Polanski’s Traumatized Take On ‘Macbeth’, Financed By None Other Than Hugh Hefner

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The Problematics: Examining Roman Polanski’s Traumatized Take On ‘Macbeth’, Financed By None Other Than Hugh Hefner

William Shakespeare’s action-packed tragedy of ambition, betrayal, murder, and pesky stains that just won’t wash out, Macbeth, has a vexed reputation among Real Theatre People. Legend has it that the blood-drenched five-act is cursed, and hence must not be referred to by its name when in rehearsal or production. Instead, they call it “The Scottish Play,” because it’s set in Scotland, you see. This idea is one of the hooks for Dario Argento’s rather good 1987 Opera (one of the directors last rather good movies as it happens), except in this case, as the title implies, they’re doing Verdi’s opera, not the play. (Argento himself directed a staging of the actual opera, which I’ve seen a video of, and consider rather bad.) ANYWAY, despite this lore, Macbeth has an excellent track record — and very few recorded production mishaps — in the film world. 

By this critic’s lights, World Cinema has produced four truly masterful adaptations of the play. Not just masterful, but unusual, idiosyncratic, peculiarly and particularly dynamic. In 1948, Orson Welles — who once directed for the theater a “voodoo” Macbeth, relocated from Scotland to a Caribbean island and featuring an all-Black cast — cast himself in the title role in a version he made for shoestring-budget studio Republic. He didn’t have a lot of money for sets, but fog is cheap, and the Expressionist mode he brought to bear when shooting the minimalist décor of the piece resulted in a Macbeth that could be taken as a film noir. In 1957 Japanese titan Akira Kurosawa made Throne of Blood, a ruthlessly forward-moving vision of Shakespeare that ends in the most startling moving-forest attack in the canon, complete with a terrifyingly realistic bow-and-arrow attack (because real arrows were actually shot). This year sees Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which makes the usurping Macbeth couple an older couple, played with breathtaking power by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Coen, leaving his sarcasm home, crafts a vision highly influenced by silent film, the dark visions of Dreyer and Murnau. It’s a real horror movie, among other things. And not without humor — Stephen Root is perfectly cast as a comedic porter and makes a meal out of his screen time. 

Now on to the fourth. In 1969, as you well know, Charles Manson commanded some of his followers to commit a series of grisly, inhuman murders in the hills above Hollywood. Among the victims of this horrific spree was the actress Sharon Tate. Tate was recently wed to Polish-born director Roman Polanski and was carrying their child at the time of the murder. 

The movie Polanski chose to make immediately in the aftermath of this tragedy was an adaptation of Macbeth, a film celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. At two hours and twenty minutes, it’s the longest of the four in this critic’s Macbeth pantheon, which means that it’s got the most of Shakespeare’s text. Which isn’t to say it’s not cinematic, or that it’s slavishly bound to the text. Its treatment of the character Ross is rather uncanonical (that’s true of the Coen film, too), for instance. And the movie has several elaborate dream sequences. Very effective ones at that.

The press, particularly the gossip columnists, were second-guessing the movie even as it went into production. It was made in association with “Playboy Films” and executive produced by “Hugh M. Hefner” himself. Hefner took his first steps into cinema seriously. Unlike Penthouse magazine’s Bob Guccione, he didn’t try to cast any of his magazine’s own models in the movie. The production afforded Polanski the tech values he was looking for: location shooting in the cumbersome Todd AO format, for instance. But in those times the mere mention of Hefner set eyebrows raising, and would-be wags making jokes about whether Macbeth’s witches would be incarnated by Playboy playmates. And while one of the witches does indeed flash Macbeth (in a long shot, and the gesture is a mocking rather than lascivious one), they are most certainly not portrayed as at all seductive. 

Working with theater critic Kenneth Tynan as a consultant and co-screenwriter and harvesting his cast from British theater rather than film, Polanski constructed a properly purposeful and grim world for his movie, teeming with seemingly accurate Middle-Ages period detail. Opening with a stunning sunrise, Polanski dissolves to a barren beach on which the witches meet and assemble a ghastly three-dimensional rebus (complete with severed human forearm).

Jon Finch’s Macbeth, when we first see him, is a relatively baby-faced brooder. He’s got rock star hair too.  Polanski’s interpretation of the play ties Macbeth’s — and his wife’s — ambition to their youth. (And the couple are very attracted to each other, physically close, more so than in any other screen version of note.)

MACBETH JON FINCH

While English is Polanski’s second, or maybe actually third, language, he’s very good at handling Shakespeare’s cadences — or maybe it’s just that he left it to his superb, experienced actors. In any event, when Malcolm (played by Stephan Chase) remarks after the execution of the Thane of Cawdor, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it,” he makes the observation sound both poetic and tossed off, natural. 

What was controversial about the movie when it saw release boiled down to Polanski’s artistic choices. While in Shakespeare’s play the murder of Duncan takes place offstage, in the film Polanski devotes a nearly three-minute sequence to it. It’s excruciating. Macbeth makes to stab Duncan in his sleep. But Duncan awakes and sees the man he thought loyal with a dagger. Macbeth stabs Duncan seven times in the chest; there’s a lot of blood. In a medium close-up, he drives his dagger into Duncan’s neck. Later, MacDuff’s son is killed on screen. And we see the other children of MacDuff’s household, bloodied. It’s like a crime scene. And the viewer can conclude these visions were informed by the Manson murders. Is Polanski’s vision morbid or traumatized? It would seem to me the latter. 

Later, Polanski has Lady Macbeth, a very fine Francesca Annis, do her sleepwalking “out damn spot” soliloquy in the nude. But those looking for a leering male gaze won’t wind it. Annis’ hair obscures her breasts; she’s mostly shot from the shoulders up, as her servants observe her. The nudity signals a terrible vulnerability more than anything else. And as for the nude witches’ coven that Macbeth is hustled into during one of his dreams/visions, it’s inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, not Playboy.

Roger Greenspun got it right in his review for the New York Times: “So much has been written and rumored about the nudity and violence of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth that it seems worth insisting that the film is neither especially nude nor unnecessarily violent.”

What it is is potent, not just in its immediate drama but its more expansive observations. Like his 1974 film Chinatown, Polanski’s Macbeth casts a gimlet eye on power. Not just power in men, but power in institutions headed by men. Most of his other films stick to power relations in interpersonal affairs (but even there, we catch implications — and more — of a larger outline, as in, for instance, 2011’s overtly allegorical Carnage). Macbeth can in fact be viewed as Polanski’s first overtly political film; Chinatown, 2010’s The Ghost Writer, and 2019’s An Officer and a Spy are the others.

In 1977 Polanski was arrested and charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old. While he did not dispute certain of his actions, he pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyers negotiated a plea bargain. On learning the judge in the case was not going to accept that arrangement, Polanski fled the United States and remains to this day a fugitive from the American justice system.

Polanski’s crime has had the effect of retrospectively tainting the entirety of his body of work, and his personal character. For instance: Accounts of Polanski hitting on women in the immediate aftermath of Tate’s death, for instance, seemed more credible attached to a man who would drug and rape a teenager than they might have when attached to an admittedly prickly and hard-partying filmmaker who’d endured remarkable suffering in his childhood —and never turned criminal.  

For this film, you need not consider separating the art from the artist. Like Chinatown, this film is a portrait of where Polanski’s heart and soul were at in a particularly fraught time for him. The movies examine corruption and bestial behavior from a certain distance, at a point before Polanski himself opted to give full free rein to his own corrupt and bestial side. 

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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