By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008
You may think you are far less than fascinated with the case of Roman Polanski, the French-Polish filmmaker who 30 years ago hotfooted it to Europe rather than face charges of having sex with a minor in Los Angeles. But "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," a bold and exhaustive new documentary about the case, is likely to hook you and keep you hooked, even if you're determined to resist.
What Polanski fled was not judgment so much as a judge, according to filmmaker Marina Zenovich. It premieres tonight at 9 on HBO, home of arguably the best documentaries on television. The case has resonance and myriad implications about American attitudes toward sex and celebrity and that loopiest of misnomers, Hollywood Justice.
Polanski, diminutive director of "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby" and other creepy classics, did indeed have sexual intercourse with Samantha Gailey, who was 13 at the time, back in 1977. He was never charged with rape but with "unlawful intercourse." But justice in the case was neither swift nor particularly just, largely because it came under the purview of Santa Monica Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, a frustrated star and hothead who apparently based many of his rulings on how the press would react to them and whether they would enhance his image.
Zenovich talked to nearly every imaginable relevant figure in the scandal, with two exceptions: Rittenband, who died, at 88, in 1993, and Polanski, who declined Zenovich's appeals for an interview. He will probably regret that decision when he sees how sympathetic the film is, even while finding him demonstrably perverse. Gailey (now Geimer), the young woman at the center of the case, did talk to Zenovich (having officially "forgiven" Polanski in the 1990s) and says of Rittenband, "The judge was enjoying the publicity and didn't care about what happened to me. . . . He was just orchestrating a fun little 'show' that I didn't want to be in."
Mia Farrow, who starred in "Rosemary's Baby," also shows up in interview snippets, looking ghostly but enigmatically so -- a floating apparition who says of Polanski, "He was completely infectious; there was no resisting him."
Though it may sound gimmicky, Zenovich smartly seasons the documentary with relevant or ironic scenes from Polanski films. These include, perhaps inevitably, the gross-out moment in "Chinatown" when Polanski as a small-time hood calls Jack Nicholson "Kitty-Cat" and then slashes one nostril with a very large knife. More to the point are clips from an unidentified film in which Polanski, looking elfin and mischievous, taunts a fat man who keeps trying to swat or stomp him. This, obviously, is meant to represent the relationship between Polanski and Rittenband.
The title of the documentary is contained in a remark from one of Polanski's longtime friends who says of the director (now 74), "In France he is desired, and in America he is wanted." Polanski would presumably be arrested were he to set foot in the United States or even merely leave France, so he is effectively subject to a novel kind of house arrest. Certainly no "prisoner" ever ate better food. He can still make films and in fact considered coming to America to pick up the Best Director Oscar he won for "The Pianist" in 2002.
Zenovich was so relentless in her research and documentation that it's disappointing when a bit of sloppiness shows through. Polanski's devastation over the murder of his beautiful wife -- eight years to the day before he was supposed to go on trial himself -- is discussed before it's mentioned that the wife was Sharon Tate, a victim of the Charles Manson massacre. Not everybody knows or remembers that fact. It also would have been good manners to identify the films that are excerpted, especially the more obscure titles.
It's unfortunate, too, that Judge Rittenband is besmirched by innuendo, especially since his bungling of the case was so outrageous. Rittenband "liked the ladies," someone says, and a woman identified as "Girl Friend No. 2" said that Rittenband commonly ordered "champagne by the case." Rittenband's own philandering, unless it qualified as illegal, isn't relevant.
More to the point is Rittenband's love of publicity. His Honor made the bailiff in the courtroom keep a scrapbook of clippings whenever Rittenband was featured in an article. Columnist Marilyn Beck says, "He liked being among the stars" but adds, "I don't think he was star-struck," whatever the official definition of that may be.
Polanski belongs to a rarefied subculture: celebrities hounded by the state. His case brings to mind that of Charles Chaplin, pestered for years with sexual allegations, including a phony paternity suit, and otherwise hounded by authorities for his political beliefs. Like Polanski, Chaplin lived in exile. But unlike Polanski, Chaplin finally did make a trip back to the country that had shunned him, to receive an honorary Oscar.
Anyone tempted to jeer at Polanski's plight and write the whole thing off as garish, campy Hollywood Gothic should listen to the comments of the man who was with Polanski when he received, by telephone, news of his wife's death. "I saw somebody just disintegrate in front of my eyes," the man says. "I've never seen any other human being in that kind of condition." There are farcical elements to the story of The Director and The Judge, but it's very dark farce indeed.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (1 3/4 hours) premieres on HBO at 9 tonight.