Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (HBO, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Marina Zenovich’s 2008 HBO documentary on the celebrated and controversial director and in particular the sex scandal that forced him out of the United States after he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Gailey, during what was supposed to be a photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s home to which Gailey’s mother had given her permission. Polanski was supposed to have got the girl drunk and split a Quaalude with her, and he was charged with five counts, including rape. Though Polanski himself is represented in this film only in archival clips — mostly interviews he’s done in Europe since the case, in which he’s basically refused to discuss it in a charming but still evasive Continental way — the film features extensive new interviews with the attorneys on both sides of the case, prosecutor Roger Gunson (a devout Mormon who in the archival footage at the time of the case looked like one of the cookie-cutter young Nixon aides who showed up at the Watergate hearings, and about whom it was joked that he pulled the case because he was a Mormon and therefore the only assistant D.A. in Los Angeles County who had never had sex with an underage girl himself — in the current footage he denies that, but his denial has a wry quality that indicates he’s not without his own sense of humor about it all) and defense attorney Douglas Dalton.

One of the most interesting quotes in the movie came from Hollywood insider Anthea Sylbert, who pointed out the vast gap in perception between American and European journalists covering the case: the Europeans thought Polanski was a great director being sacrificed on the altar of America’s sexual Puritanism, while the Americans thought he was a weird little gnome who was probably as perverted in real life as he was in his movies. That perception actually became part of the case against him, as A.D.A. Gunson researched it and decided to take advantage of a Polanski film festival being shown at the Nuart Theatre revival house in L.A. (almost certainly scheduled to take advantage of the sudden notoriety Polanski had got when he was arrested!) — and Gunson went to all the Polanski films at the Nuart and decided that he was particularly into scenes of women being violated over water, and the case fit the pattern of his work since it involved violating a 13-year-old girl after photographing her nude in a Jacuzzi. (An auteur theory of felony.)

The film is fascinating, but there’s also a bit of blame-the-dead-guy in Zenovich’s decision to make the judge in the case, Laurence A. Rittenband, her principal villain. She amounts an impressive dossier on him — from his status pre-Polanski as a sort of judge to the stars (he apparently pulled rank with the presiding judge of the L.A. Superior Court to get assigned high-profile trials involving stars like Marlon Brando and Cary Grant) and his own involvements with young women (including dating a 20-year-old at a time when that was considered underage in California) to his extraordinary decision to call a press conference to discuss his possible sentencing of Polanski, a clear violation of the norms of judicial ethics. She also says — and both Gunson and Dalton back her up on this — that Rittenband made them come to court and follow a scripted “argument” over Polanski’s sentencing, and that after the two attorneys had already been through this once, they balked at going through such a sham again — and instead Dalton filed to have Rittenband removed from the case and Gunson, unusually for a prosecutor, did not object.

Rittenband appears in the film as quite a nasty piece of work, insistent that Polanski serve time and at the same time anxious that he not be able to weasel out of it through appeals — so he hit on the idea of sentencing the director to a 90-day psychiatric evaluation at Chino prison (where Polanski was placed in protective custody for fear another inmate would regard him as a child molester and kill him — and where he engaged in pre-production for the Hurricane remake, which producer Dino De Laurentiis had signed him for — though in the event Polanski did not direct Hurricane; Swedish director Jan Troell did) — and when Chino released him after only 42 days Rittenband was determined that Polanski would serve the remaining 48 days in state prison, though with the media at the time demanding far harsher punishment for the director, he wanted to make it look like he was giving Polanski a far longer sentence and then he would summon the lawyers back to court in closed session and reduce it.

The biggest thing I didn’t know about the case before was that Rittenband demanded, as a condition of leniency, that Polanski agree to voluntary deportation from the United States (a pretty amazing condition since immigration is a subject for federal law and therefore Rittenband had no jurisdiction over it) — which made his decision to flee the court and the U.S. as a whole far more comprehensible; if he was going to be forced to leave the U.S. anyway, it made sense that he do so on his own and without surrendering any more of his time to a prison sentence even though it gave him the image of being a “fugitive from justice” and probably also widened the gulf between America’s and Europe’s perceptions of him.

The film’s title doesn’t really get explained until the very end, in which a voice-over heard over scenes of an elaborately uniformed Polanski receiving the great honor of admission to the Académie Française explains that in Europe Polanski is desired — he’s considered a great artist and has been more or less able to make the films he wants to make — while in the U.S. Polanski is still wanted, subject to immediate arrest whenever he sets foot on our soil. (Polanski was actually born in France — though his parents moved back to his father’s native Poland when he was two or three — and therefore he had the right, as a French citizen, to petition the French government to allow him to remain since the charge he finally plea-bargained to, unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, wasn’t on the list of extraditable offenses according to the U.S. extradition treaty with France.)

The film certainly went into much of Polanski’s background —including the fact that his mother died in the Holocaust and his second wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by the Charles Manson gang in 1969 (and, in yet another bizarre application of the auteur-as-felon theory, before the Manson minions were arrested for this crime Polanski was seriously suspected of it himself, based on little more than a superficial resemblance between the crime scene and the sequence in Rosemary’s Baby in which Mia Farrow is painted on with blood) — though it didn’t really go into the effect being separated from the world’s filmmaking center had on Polanski’s subsequent career (he’s made some great films, some lousy ones, and has had opportunities to work with American stars but only abroad). When my husband Charles and I attended the preview screening of The Pianist, probably Polanski’s best recent film (indeed, I’d rate it his best ever), Charles pointed out to me the poignancy of the fact that when he decided to make a Holocaust movie, out of all the Holocaust stories he could have dramatized he chose a true-life tale of a great artist (Polish classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman) prevented by the Holocaust from practicing his art (and the sequence in which he can finally play music again is presented as a far more powerful dramatic climax than the one in which he’s finally liberated as the Nazi occupation government falls).

Obviously the case has affected Polanski psychologically far more than he’s let on in those surprisingly mincing interviews he’s given about it that are shown in this documentary — and the case is a tragedy all around in which the continued vindictiveness of the L.A. justice system (just today there’s an Associated Press story in the Los Angeles Times at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-polanski5-2009may05,0,141438.story, confirming that Polanski’s exile continues because he refuses to risk arrest and incarceration to meet the judge’s condition that he can’t ask for the case to be dropped unless he shows up personally to make the request) keeps Polanski out of the U.S. despite the willingness of the original prosecutor and of the victim herself to let go of the case.