The mere mention of Roman Polanski’s name sparks argument in many arenas, but here’s a reality check: The Polanski presence is not about to disappear.
A case in point: At a moment when anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, Polanski’s latest film, An Officer and a Spy, will be receiving major attention as a historical depiction of that hateful movement. Those who are seeking to block its release in the U.S. will encounter an emotional opposition.
That’s because the Polanski presence remains with us on many levels. As an influential player in the Hollywood of 1969, Polanski is portrayed by a young Polish actor in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s new movie starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Some insiders who saw the film at Cannes already have registered their surprise and distress. Polanski’s wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, declared last week that “Hollywood has made him a pariah” yet at the same time portrays him as a force on the cinematic scene.
The “pariah” issue will be re-ignited later this year as a result of Polanski’s lawsuit against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, challenging its decision to expel him. The suit argues that, in the five decades following Polanski’s arrest in California, the Academy has still bestowed awards on the filmmaker – he was voted Best Director at the 2002 Oscars for The Pianist (which also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). While Hollywood still venerates his past work, the Academy last year abruptly invoked its newly enacted “code of conduct” to banish him. Shortly thereafter it invited Polanski’s wife to become a member, but she adamantly declined. This week Academy attorneys again rejected appeals on the filmmaker’s behalf.
So how will the creative community ultimately come to terms with the 85-year-old filmmaker? I feel a peripheral but personal involvement in this question since, as production vice president at Paramount in 1967, I admired his early films and conspired with Robert Evans to persuade him to come to Hollywood. Although I originally told him he would have a shot at directing Downhill Racer, a movie about skiing (his passion), our purpose was to interest him in Rosemary’s Baby, which we felt would connect with his opaque sensibility.
What followed has been widely reported: Although the young director was ill-prepared in 1969 to cope with the intricacies of studio filmmaking and with Hollywood’s chaotic melodramas, his work with Mia Farrow was intensely disciplined. Not only did he elicit a brilliant performance, but he also gave her the strength to withstand the disruptions imposed by her then-husband, Frank Sinatra, who ultimately ordered his lawyer to march onto the set to deliver a divorce decree.
The movie’s great success led to instant celebrity and to a major payday for 1974’s Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Success and celebrity also motivated Polanski to impose a sense of structure on his life – marriage to Sharon Tate, their expected baby. All this was hurled into disarray by the nightmare of the Manson murders.
Critics who saw Tarantino’s film at Cannes, felt that it vividly conveyed the clash of countercultures, circa 1969; Polanski is played by young Polish actor Rafel Zawierucha, and Tate by Margot Robbie. Asked about the decision to write Polanski into his script, Tarantino explained simply, “I am a fan of Polanski’s work, particularly Rosemary’s Baby.” Tarantino’s narrative does not delve into the post-Manson traumas when Polanski pled guilty in 1977 to raping a minor, served 42 days in jail, then fled the country upon learning that the judge planned to revoke a carefully crafted probation agreement (controversy still surrounds details of the deal).
Polanski has lived in Paris since that time, marrying Seigner in 1989, having a family and continuing to direct films. When I last saw him one-on-one in France several years ago, we exchanged cordial recollections of his introduction to Hollywood, his smile disappearing when I asked him if he ever imagined a possible return to that town. There was a flicker of excitement, as though he was revisiting the sense of discovery, but then his expression darkened. ”There are too many black memories,” he said. “Memories of great loss and tragedy. There can be no return.”
In An Officer and a Spy, Polanski focuses on a vastly different landscape: France in the 1890s. His central character, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, is convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. An inquiry puts the spotlight on an anti-Semitic plot to frame Dreyfus formed within the French military (the script was co-written by Robert Harris and Polanski, based on Harris’ book). Gaumont quickly acquired rights to France, but no U.S. distributor has yet bid for domestic rights. Some suggest an unofficial boycott, such as that faced by Woody Allen – the distribution deal on his latest film abruptly was canceled by Amazon. Attorneys explain the cancellation in terms of “reputational damage” – an issue that also could confront Polanski.
I put the issue to Robert Evans this week, explaining the background. Evans, who steadfastly stays out of the media these days, said simply: “Roman Polanski brings great creative vision to his films and great humanity to his characters. His voice should never be silenced.”