R. Polanski
A brilliant artist jailed for having sex with a 13-year-old?


Thomas S. Hibbs

In an on-camera interview, Roger Gunson — the former L. A. District Attorney who in the 1970s prosecuted a sexual-assault case against famous filmmaker Roman Polanski — remarks on the theme, prominent in Polanski’s films, of corruption meeting innocence over water. Polanski’s violation of a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot at the home of Jack Nicholson began in a hot tub. Fortunately for viewers, Gunson and Marina Zenovich — the director of the new documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired — never overstate the connections between Polanski’s life and art, both of which are the stuff of dark human tragedy.

The documentary, which does a fine job of interweaving press footage, interviews, scenes from Polanski’s films, and Polanski home movies, revisits the legal proceedings surrounding Polanski’s celebrity trial in L.A in 1978. The title Wanted and Desired contrasts Polanski’s reception in the U.S. and in Europe. In France, where the director has lived for the last 30 years, he is a celebrated artist, viewed as “tragic and brilliant.” In the U.S., meanwhile, he has been seen as a “malignant and twisted” fugitive from justice.

In interview footage included in the film, Polanski traces his rough relations with the U.S. press to the coverage that followed the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson family. In the immediate aftermath of that brutal slaying, captured in horrifyingly vivid detail in Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Polanski was suspected of involvement and the press circulated lurid rumors about orgies and drug use that made it seem as if the victim had brought her demise upon herself.

Long before the Manson murders put him at the center of one of the most notorious crimes in American history, Polanksi’s life was scarred by evil and loss. Of Polish origin, Polanski’s mother was killed in the Holocaust, but he survived when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a camp, after which he lived alone in Krakow and Warsaw, dependent upon the assistance of strangers. The Holocaust is the setting for one of the latest films in his career, The Pianist (2002), for which he won the Best Director Oscar . . . in absentia.

The irresolution of Polanski’s trial and his flight from American just before final sentencing are the focus of Wanted and Desired. Although the basic facts of the case are not disputed, there is disagreement between assailant and victim as to words and deeds. The documentary gives a great deal of time to interviews with the victim, who now regards Polanski more with pity than vengeance. She herself rails against the judge, Laurence Rittenband, for using the trial to advance his own celebrity. Polanski is initially sent for a 90-day diagnostic study at that state prison in Chino, California. The defense and prosecution expect that, after he had served this time, he would be released on probation with time served in Chino. But he serves only 42 days there and the wrist-slap penalty irks both law enforcement and the press.

With his final sentence still to be determined, he is released to continue work on a film. Then, newspaper pictures surface from a party of a buoyant Polanski, flanked by two young females. Rittenband takes this as a personal insult, but he is by now trapped in his own all-too-clever attempts to advance his own reputation. In addition to proposing to lead counsel questionable judicial moves, Rittenband held press conferences and asked reporters for advice on sentencing. He comes under fire not just from the defense attorney but even from the prosecutor. Both defense and prosecution agree that the judge cannot be trusted. Once Polanski learns of this, he flees the country.

Despite the documentary’s quite reasonable attention to the misbehavior of the judge, one of the troubling features is that Polanski never quite comes to terms with his own wrongdoing. One of the investigators, Phillip Vannatter (remember him from the O.J. Simpson trial?) comments that, during initial questioning, Polanski never seemed to perceive that having sex with a 13-year-old was problematic. And that brings us back in a sense to the divided assessment of Polanski in America and Europe. In the latter, he is celebrated for his artistic prowess while his amorality is dismissed (or even celebrated), while in the former he has never reached a high level of celebrity for his films and is remembered mostly for the evils he has suffered and perpetrated.