It’s always difficult to talk about death. How sensitive is too sensitive? Can you inject some humour into the situation? How soon is too soon? It’s hard to tell. So when we had a class on obituary writing – I was fascinated. It seemed faintly morbid that filed away somewhere are regularly updated death notices. The Queen, politicians, singers, writers, artists, sports persons – no one of note is excluded. I went home and watched a film and found myself wondering what obituary writers had penned about the stars. It stuck with me. So when we had the choice between penning obituaries and profiles – I picked a profile.
It makes me faintly uncomfortable playing god, even if it is only in print.
That being said, I picked an interesting person to profile – Roman Polanski. Notorious, larger than life and a constant source of debate. I don’t personally agree with Polanski’s life choices, but I can appreciate that he has had a long and hard road. I hope I did his story justice.
Rapist, genius, misanthrope, coward, misunderstood, victim and survivor– all words that have been used to describe director Roman Polanski. At 79, Polanski is still a hot topic – and not just for his ground breaking films.
The director famously said: “I know in my heart of hearts that the spirit of laughter has deserted me”. From escaping the horrors of Nazi occupied Poland to being charged with rape of a minor, Polanski’s journey hasn’t been an easy one. Martin Amis, who interviewed Polanski extensively, mused: “Clearly he has sometimes gone too far into the gratifications that his fast-lane milieu offers him, as the case in California amply demonstrates. But he has survived an extraordinary life, and is still himself”.
Who knows the real Polanski? Notoriously private, his love-hate relationship with the press is well known. The gutter press painted him as a villain after the murder of his then wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family. Polanski called the coverage incredible, saying: “Before then I was sort of the toast of the town, you know, and then suddenly the media started amalgamating the murder with Rosemary’s Baby, with my film . . . I mean, the simple-mindedness of those people is astonishing, even with all perspective of the time”.
How can the rapist be reconciled with the visionary? The answer may lie in Polanski’s troubled childhood. A Polish Jew, he hid from persecution among Roman Catholic families, while his parents were both taken to concentration camps. Only his father returned and the two were reunited after the war. Though he had escaped the death camps, he fell victim to other brutalities – from almost being beaten to death on the street (he has a plate in his head to this day) to being used as target practise by Nazi soldiers (“Like I am a squirrel or something”). It’s no wonder that for young Polanski, the movies were an escape – even if during the war, the only ones he watched were propaganda films.
Polanski’s first commercial film ‘Knife in the water’ (1962) made waves in post-war Poland. Described by critics as ‘dark’ and ‘unsettling’, it set the tone for the rest of Polanski’s work. In 1968, he made the cult classic, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Polanski has described the period as arguably the best years of his life. His happiness was short-lived. In 1969, while he was shooting in London, his young wife, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, was murdered at their home in Los Angeles. At the time, she was eight months pregnant.
Almost ten years later, Polanski reappeared in the news. He was accused of having drugged and raped a 13 year old girl at a photo shoot for French Vogue. Though he pleaded guilty to the charges, he fled the country before he could be sentenced. In 2008, a documentary called ‘Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired’ called attention to corruption in the U.S judiciary system that tried Polanski. Samantha Geimer, the victim of sexual assault publicly forgave him, and said that the judge, the court and the media did more damage to her and her family than Roman Polanski ever did. Polanski, though initially unashamed, apologised for his actions, saying: “She is a double victim: My victim and a victim of the press”.
A Hollywood hero, Polanski’s exile from the United States has incensed several of his friends and admirers. Several stars signed petitions for Polanski to be released, while he was under house arrest in Zurich. Martin Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, David Lynch, Tilda Swinton, Woody Allen and many others have strongly supported the director over the years. Whoopi Goldberg spoke out in Polanski’s favour, saying: “I know it wasn’t rape-rape. I think it was something else, but I don’t believe it was rape-rape”. In contrast, the director’s friend, Luc Besson, refused to sign petitions, saying: “Nobody should be above the law. I don’t know the details of this case, but I think that when you don’t show up for trial, you are taking a risk”.
Author Kate Harding, wrote in Salon magazine: “Can we take a moment to think about all that, and about the fact that Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, before we start talking about what a victim he is? Because that would be great and not nearly enough people seem to be doing it”.
Maybe the best way to sum up Polanski’s life is in his own words: “Of course, my life has been very strange, full of strange things. But it does not look like that to me, you know – from my side. My life is just something I live, you see. Only when I stand back do I see how strange it has been”.
Strange is, perhaps, an understatement.