Probably no one would dispute the three most important facts of Roman Polanski’s life. First, in 1943, the concentration-camp incarceration of his father and murder of his pregnant mother by the Nazis — from whom Polanski, then still a boy and essentially on his own, escaped. Second, in 1969, the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family — to whom many journalists wantonly presumed the director, then most recently of Rosemary’s Baby, somehow was connected. Last, in 1977, the “unlawful sex” he pleaded guilty to having with a 13-year-old girl — whose subsequent forgiveness still doesn’t change the corollary fact that Polanski has since been a fugitive from American justice, self-exiled to Paris indefinitely.
Nor should it be controversial to suggest that these episodes remain inescapably significant to Polanski’s filmmaking, just as his work remains inescapably significant to American movies. So what can any new biographical treatment, be it a detail of the life or a full survey, on film or in prose, possibly hope to add? And what does it say that the two most recent efforts get by quite nicely without even interviewing the man himself?
As if faintly anxious about requiring extra justification, both Marina Zenovich’s recent documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and Christopher Sandford’s new book, Polanski: a Biography, flash their credentials early and often. As it turns out, Sandford’s formerly sealed court transcripts aren’t any more revelatory than Zenovich’s familiar ones are cinematic. Yet neither of these new journalistic endeavors seems superfluous, and we’re left to decide whether in the final analysis that’s to Polanski’s credit or our shame.
Not so long after the Manson murders made him a pallbearer for American innocence, Polanski found himself officiating the unholy marriage between American jurisprudence and celebrity journalism. Meanwhile he’d managed both to catalyze the visionary, personal filmmaking of 1970s Hollywood and arguably to pilot its irrevocable descent into indulgence. Thus our stance on the man basically comes down to which application of Jack Nicholson we consider more significant to American culture: directing him in Chinatown or borrowing his hot tub to dope and sodomize a minor.
With that in mind, Zenovich wants simply to reiterate that regardless of Polanski’s guilt or guile, his trial was a mockery of justice. That’s thanks especially to absurd encouragement from the testily star-struck judge Laurence Rittenband, for whom the filmmaker proved a formidable goad. Roman Polanski:Wanted and Desired has much damning evidence to present against the media circus.
And Polanski: A Biography has more. One scene Sandford describes is so visually concise that it could have been a cartoon in the New Yorker: “Amidst the commotion,” he writes, “one enterprising young man stationed himself at the front door, selling T-shirts inscribed with the slogans ‘FREE POLANSKI’ and ‘JAIL POLANSKI’.”
In both Zenovich’s film and Sandford’s book, Polanski comes across simultaneously as libertine and fatalist; as outgoing trouper and proud, brilliant creep; and as a major artist superbly matched to the technically sophisticated showmanship inherent to his chosen medium. Both of these accounts, while not approving, necessarily, or even entirely charitable, seem protective of their subject. Which is a little silly; if there’s one thing Roman Polanksi always has been able to do, it’s stand up for himself. This is a man who took it upon himself to clandestinely investigate his wife’s murder, suspecting his own friends enough to gather forensic evidence from them and send it to experts for analysis. This is a man who then got his memorably graphic production of Macbeth bankrolled by Playboy magazine while the actual murderers went to trial. No, we don’t need new biographies to tell us Polanski is chutzpah personified, but of course that’s why he still and always interests us.
As to a context of his films, Wanted and Desired puts forth a few choice clips, then turns the task of synopsis over to the prim Mormon prosecutor Roger Gunson, whose preparation for the Polanski trial included a retrospective of his work, from which Gunson reasonably adduced a thematic throughline of “corruption meeting innocence over water.” (It’s probably as brilliant an aesthetic summary as anyone prosecuting a hot-tub sex scandal will ever hope to contrive.)
Sandford necessarily allows a broader view: “As well as two satanic-cult pictures, his canon includes psychological thrillers, faithful adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens, a costume melodrama, matinee swashbuckling, Hitchcockian suspense, Thirties noir, excursions in absurdism and soft porn, sometimes concurrently, and a deranged Dracula spoof in which a Jewish vampire hunter, played by Polanski himself, repeatedly peers through a keyhole at a naked woman who happens to be Sharon Tate.” Not to mention an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s 1946 memoir, The Pianist, for which Polanski became the oldest director ever to win an Oscar, in 2003. Arguably it was precisely that film’s Polanskian detachment that inoculated it against Spielbergian mawkishness.
But by then, Sandford writes, Polanski “enjoyed the kind of public opprobrium not seen since the time, thirty-seven years earlier, when John Lennon had remarked that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus.’ A few rather desultory public burnings took place of books and posters of The Pianist, though these put the perpetrators in the morally equivocal position of vandalizing what was in effect a memorial to the Holocaust.”
Such is the peculiar power of Polanski, a survivor so tenacious that he overstepped the American myths of survivorship, and accordingly became, as Sandford puts it, “Hollywood’s ogre — that necessary figure.”
And so, in both Wanted and Desired and in Polanski, any pretext of new hindsight or of adjusting a cultural reputation seems, however innocuously, specious. Maybe it’s enough just to affirm Polanski’s irresistibly analyzable, ultimately inexhaustible mystique. As the director himself likes to say, in his exaggeratedly exotic accent, after what everyone else on set always figures is a final take, “Fandastic, fandastic! We go again.”