The truth behind Donald Sutherland's controversial sex scene in Don't Look Now

Donald Sutherland starred in the iconic 1970s horror movie

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film Don't Look Now
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film Don't Look Now. (Alamy)
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Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was one of the late Donald Sutherland's most iconic movies.

Over 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.

Read more: Donald Sutherland dies aged 88

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.

Don't Look Now (1973) Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie,     Date: 1973
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland played a grieving couple in 1973's Don't Look Now. (Alamy)

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.

Read more: The unglamorous truth of movie sex scenes

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)
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)
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”.

Read more: What happens to your brain when you watch a horror movie?

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
Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were dating in the 1970s. (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)
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.

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 streaming on Studiocanal Presents and ITVX.

Editor's note: This story was first published in 2019