Wednesday 21 February 2018

Roman Polanski and the scandal that won't go away

Turbulent life: film director Polanski
Turbulent life: film director Polanski

Paul Whitington

Roman Polanski was in the news last week, and for all the wrong reasons. French feminists reacted furiously to the decision to ask him to host this year's Césars, France's equivalent of the Oscars, a glitzy event attended by all the country's big directors and stars. Polanski, who's won four best director Césars himself, would be the perfect choice to preside over the event, were it not for the little matter of an outstanding US arrest warrant.

No matter how old or distinguished he gets, Polanski will never be allowed to forget the events of March 11, 1977, when he was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl during a magazine photo-shoot. The director, who was 43 at the time and flying high in Hollywood, was charged, among other things, with drugging Samantha Gailey and raping her. At his arraignment, he pleaded not guilty to all charges and was supported by influential friends.

As part of a legal bargain, he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, underwent psychiatric evaluation and spent 42 days in jail. But in 1978, when he heard that a judge was going to disregard the plea bargain and make an example of him, Polanski fled to Paris and has never returned to the jurisdiction. And the question of whether or not he should continues to divide commentators.

After he agreed to host the Césars, the organising committee released a gushing statement expressing their "admiration and enchantment".

"Shameful," countered Claire Serre-Combe, of the women's group Osez le Féminisme, who forcefully elaborated.

"Making Polanski president is a snub to rape and sexual assault victims," she said. "The quality of his work counts for nothing when confronted with the crime he committed."And just a few days later, the director announced he was pulling out of the Césars on foot of the "unjustified" row his involvement had caused.

This is not the first time the Gailey case has inconvenienced Polanski. One of the grand old men of world cinema, his record as a film-maker is undeniably impressive, and at this stage in his career he should be touring the world picking up lifetime achievement awards. But he isn't, and in fact the last time he attempted to (in 2009) he was arrested by the Swiss and almost got deported to the US.

He has always had high-profile defenders, from Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese to the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. But for many, Polanski's genius as a film-maker will always be overshadowed by his failings as a man. Assessing him, though, is complicated by the fact that he's had rather a lot to put up with during his long and eventful life.

Born to Jewish parents in Paris in 1933, he had the great misfortune to return with them to their native Poland in the late 1930s, just as the Nazis were preparing to invade. When his parents were arrested and sent to concentration camps in 1943, young Roman escaped from the Jewish ghetto and survived the war by posing as a Catholic orphan. He was forced on the run many times, and later remembered being used for target practice by German soldiers.

His mother died in Auschwitz, and after the war he lived in Krakow with his father and a stepmother he disliked, and grew up detesting the restrictions of life under communism. Perhaps understandably, his early films displayed a fascination with violence and suffering.

In his début feature, Knife in the Water, a couple are driven to conflict after they pick up an unassuming hitch-hiker. Knife in the Water received a nomination in the Best Foreign film category at the 1963 Academy Awards, but Polanski's next film caused an even bigger splash.

Filmed in London on a modest budget, Repulsion (1965) starred Catherine Deneuve as a young woman obsessed with being raped who ends up killing two men who make advances to her. Repulsion was acclaimed as a near masterpiece, and by the late 1960s, Polanski was in Hollywood reinventing the horror genre. Highly controversial on its release, Rosemary's Baby (1968) was a major box-office hit, and made Polanski the director everyone wanted to work with.

By this stage, he had married American actress Sharon Tate, and was enjoying what he later described in his autobiography as the happiest time in his life. He was in London working on a new project when that happiness collapsed in horrific fashion.

In February 1969, Polanski and Tate, who was pregnant, moved into a new home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. The house had previously been owned by friends of theirs, musician Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day) and the film actress Candice Bergen.

What Tate and Polanski didn't know is that Melcher had recently had a row with one Charles Manson, a self-styled hippie guru and musician who lived with a group of acolytes in a Death Valley ranch. Melcher had briefly considered working with Manson on a record before changing his mind, and it's probably this slight that led to the horrific events of August 8, 1969.

At some point during that night, a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and three close friends were murdered by members of the Manson Family in an attack of exceptional barbarity. How Polanski coped with all of this devastation we will never know, but his immediate reaction raised a few eyebrows.

He visited the house with a camera, and when Life magazine did a piece on the murders, Polanski not only agreed to be interviewed, but posed for photographs in the living room where his wife had been killed.

Understandably, Polanski had his misgivings about moving back to Los Angeles four years later, when asked to direct a movie called Chinatown.

Written by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson, Chinatown was a dark and complex thriller in the traditions of film noir. It won a host of awards and re-established Polanski as one of Hollywood's most sought after directors.

Polanski and Nicholson were old friends, and the actor was away on a skiing break in Aspen in March 1977 when Roman decided to use Jack's house on Mulholland Drive for a photo shoot. Polanski had been commissioned by Paris Vogue, and hired 13-year-old Samantha Gailey as his model.

We all know what happened next, and whatever anyone says in his defence, the fact remains that Gailey was still a child in the eyes of the law when Polanski, a man 30 years her senior, had sex with her. That stark fact is hard to spin.

His subsequent behaviour hasn't always inspired sympathy. In an ill-advised interview with the writer Martin Amis in 1979, Polanski declared that having sex with young girls was something everyone wanted to do. And while making Tess, in 1978, he began a physical relationship with the film's star Nastassja Kinski - she was 16, he was 45.

In 2010, British actress Charlotte Lewis claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by Polanski in 1983, when she was 16. She later appeared in his film, Pirates. Lewis claimed that Polanski had given her champagne and then "abused me and manipulated me in the worst possible way".

Polanski settled down in the late 1980s with French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and has two children with her. When they married in 1989, she was 23 and he was 56.

After a fairly moribund 1990s, his career was kick-started in 2002 by The Pianist, an impressive drama partly based on his time in the Krakow ghetto. Subsequent films like Oliver Twist, The Ghost Writer and Carnage have been warmly received, and he now plans to make a drama about the Dreyfus case.

But that unfinished business in California has never gone away. And every time Polanski strays too far from the legal safety of Paris, the Gailey affair jumps out of the bushes to ambush him.

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