'Don't Look Now': The truth behind one of Hollywood's most controversial sex scenes

Tom Beasley
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were rumoured to have had sex for real on the set of 'Don't Look Now'.

Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, one of the most celebrated British horror films of all time, is back in cinemas this week in a new 4K restoration, ahead of a special Blu-ray release on 29 July.

Almost 50 years after the movie first hit cinemas, it is rightly acclaimed as a classic of the genre. But there’s still one scene in particular that people can’t stop talking about.

The 1973 adaptation of a novella by Rebecca author Daphe du Maurier features a grieving couple, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, as they work to restore church buildings in Venice while grieving the death of their daughter in a tragic drowning accident.

Sutherland’s character, John, begins to experience visions of a childlike figure wearing his daughter’s red coat, while Christie’s Laura befriends a blind medium who claims she can communicate with her child.

But it’s not the scenes of the supernatural that remain notorious today. Midway through the film, the couple have sex, in a sequence Roeg intercuts with quiet images of them calmly getting dressed for dinner.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nic Roeg's 1973 horror classic 'Don't Look Now'. (Credit: Studiocanal)

The scene is raw, sensitive and was controversial at the time for its frank depiction of a married couple being intimate with each other in a way that was seldom showcased on the big screen at the time. Indeed, it remains rare today.

In the midst of concerns from the censors, Roeg was able to earn an R rating from the MPAA by cutting just nine frames of footage, while the BBFC in the UK judged the scene to be “tasteful and integral to the plot” and gave it an adults-only X certificate.

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But the most persistent factor that has kept the scene in the public conversation is a simple question: did Sutherland and Christie have sex for real?

Speculation that the scene was unsimulated was rife for years, but it was reignited in 2011 when producer Peter Bart described his account of the filming in his memoir Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex).

Variety editor Peter Bart gives an interview before an audience at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, Saturday, March 11, 2006. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

He wrote: “My gaze shifted to the actors, and I was riveted. By their shifting positions, it was clear to me they were no longer simply acting: they were f***ing on camera.”

This account sparked swift denials from the parties involved, with Sutherland issuing a statement denying that Bart was even in the room when the scene was shot. He said the only people present were himself, Christie, Roeg and cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond.

Richmond, quoted in the production notes for the new release, agrees with Sutherland’s take.

“There was already a great deal of trust between Julie and Nic, who'd done four movies together,” he says. “And the other thing is that in the script the love scene is an integral part of the movie, it's not just put in gratuitously. “

Julie Christie stars as Laura in 'Don't Look Now'. (Credit: Studiocanal)

He adds: “We did a good job, it's very real. People still say they actually made love, but they didn't."

Screenwriter Allan Scott, also quoted in the new notes, is even clearer in refuting Bart’s account, saying the producer’s claim to have been in the room is “bulls**t”.

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Christie later added her own denial in an interview with Film4, saying that it was “pretend sex” that left both her and Sutherland “dreadfully embarrassed” as it happened towards the beginning of the shooting schedule.

She added: “After the film came out, my stepfather said to me, 'I hope you're not doing any writhing in your next one.’”

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie during "Go-Between" Premiere at Museum of Modern Art in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Christie’s stepfather wasn’t the only person upset when the scene became public, with Warren Beatty - who was dating Christie at the time - furious with Roeg about the scene.

“Warren Beatty flew around the world, trying to get the film killed and prevent it from being distributed,” says Scott.

Richmond adds that Beatty was “outraged” when he saw the movie and told Bart he wanted to “cut that scene, pubic hair by pubic hair”.

Whatever Beatty’s concerns, it sounds as if they were unfounded, because shooting the scene, as is the case with so many big screen love scenes, was anything but sexy.

While promoting The Leisure Seeker last year, Sutherland told Vulture that Roeg and Richmond filmed the sequence using Arriflex cameras without a sound blimp to minimise noise. Sutherland said the cameras sounded “like a Singer sewing machine on methamphetamines”.

Donald Sutherland portrays a father grieving the loss of his daughter in Nicolas Roeg's classic 'Don't Look Now'. (Credit: Studiocanal)

He added: “I’m never naked in front of somebody. I’m not even naked in front of my children. I’m naked in front of my wife — that’s it.

“I was shy. For a couple of very specific reasons, [Julie] was physically shy.

“But we got over our shyness, went into the room, and were standing like Adam and Eve waiting for somebody to give us an apple.”

Sutherland said Roeg shot very short, 15-20 second, takes that were silent as any sound would be unusable over the noise of the cameras and added he was “very proud” of what Roeg was able to put together.

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Whatever the truth of the on-set events - and it seems the gossip is mostly misplaced - the scene stands as an instantly memorable moment in a masterful example of the horror genre.

Don’t Look Now is back in UK cinemas now and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from 29 July.