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Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired

Documentary Turns the Camera on Famous Director

Credit: HBO Documentary

Above: "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired"


Host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks talk about Roman Polanski's recent arrest in Switzerland. The Big Picture's Patrick Goldstein is also a guest.

Since Roman Polanski just made the news again in regards to a thirty-year old case involving allegations of rape and since we discussed the case on Film Club today, I thought I would highlight the documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired." (Originally reviewed August 15, 2008.) You can listen to our Film Club discussion..

Directed by Marina Zenovich, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" recounts the scandalous events of 1977 involving Roman Polanski and a 13-year-old girl who accused the famous director of giving her alcohol and Quaaludes and then raping her. All that most Americans remember about the case is that Polanski fled the U.S. to avoid punishment but the film reminds us that the circumstances of his flight were a little more complicated than that -- he actually did serve prison time and had entered into a plea bargain but fled when the judge became more interested in publicity than justice.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: HBO Documentary

"Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired"

Marina Zenovich's new documentary doesn't try to excuse or condone Polanski's behavior but it does try to put it into a larger context. Her title reflects the split in public perceptions about Polanski. In Europe he was "desired" but in the U.S. he was merely "wanted." Here's how a Santa Monica reporter covering the case that was being tried in his town put it: "The European reporters looked at Polanski as this tragic, brilliant historic figure. Here's this man who had survived the Holocaust, who had survived the gassing of his mother, and then had come here and developed his own voice, had maintained his integrity against the power of the Hollywood machine and the American press tended to look at him as this malignant twisted dwarf with this dark vision."

The film reminds us of another tragedy in Polanski's life, the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family. But again, Zenovich reminds us of all the details. In this case how the American media - which connected Polanski to the dark occult themes of his film Rosemary's Baby - initially insinuated that Polanski had killed his wife or that what the media defined as their debauched lifestyle had somehow brought the violence onto Tate. Can you imagine anything more devastating than having your beloved wife brutally murdered and then being accused of the crime? To see Polanski, at the height of happiness and success, shattered first by his wife's murder and then by the press' callous accusations makes you understand Polanski's distrust and discomfort with the American media when the sex scandal broke in 1977.

This second media frenzy began when a 13-year-old girl, whose mother had given permission to Polanski to take her daughter on a photo shoot, called the police. The girl alleged that Polanski had taken her to Jack Nicholson's home, given her alcohol and Quaaludes, asked her to remove her clothes and then forced her to have sex despite her protestations to stop. Polanski was arrested and that began a long and twisted court case that eventually led to his flight from the U.S. The film reveals that the victim, Samantha Gailey and her family's lawyer, wanted to avoid a trial in order to keep Gailey's name out of the press and to minimize the impact on the young girl. This resulted in an eventual reduction of charges to a single one and an admission of guilt by Polanski who would only confess to having had consensual sex with a minor. Polanski under went psychiatric evaluation by the court and the psychiatrist who interviewed him tells Zenovich that he found Polanski to be very open and straightforward and revealed a past history that would have left most people with serious emotional damage. He concluded that Polanski was not a sexual deviant and did not warrant being locked up in a mental institution; instead he recommended probation for Polanski.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: HBO Documentary

Roman Polanski

But Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, who had allowed media outlets from around the globe reserve seats in his courtroom, didn't feel that this was punishment enough. So he repeatedly tried to orchestrate scenes in his courtroom involving the prosecuting D.A. Roger Gunson and defense lawyer Douglas Dalton. One of these maneuverings involved sending Polanski to jail for 90 days to undergo further psychiatric evaluation. This was not a sentence so it could not be appealed and it meant he would have to spend time in jail.

But as the case continued to play out, the opposing attorneys both came to the same conclusion -- that Rittenband was more interested in publicity than the legal system, and that he couldn't be trusted. Zenovich edits together comments from key figures in the case to reveal how badly Rittenband handled the case. Having the victim, the D.A. and the defense attorney all agree on this point makes it difficult to dismiss the negative light in which Rittenband is shown. Samantha Gailey (now an adult) says in the film, "I felt the judge was enjoying the publicity." He family's lawyer, Lawrence Silver, reveals that although he felt Polanski had committed a horrible offense, he also felt Polanski did not receive a fair trial. And the D.A. Roger Gunson shocks filmmaker Zenovich by bluntly stating: "I'm not surprised that he left under those circumstances."

Zenovich methodically lays out the facts of the case, speaks with almost everyone except the late judge who was involved with the case, and tries to make us see the complexity of what happened. She shows that Gailey and her mother (who was an actress herself) exercised bad judgment in setting up the photo shoot with Polanski. How Polanski, still suffering from the aftermath of his wife's brutal death, couldn't control his sexual impulses. How the media stirred itself up into a feeding frenzy over the case, and how the judge allowed justice to be miscarried. The film ends by showing us that Polanski rebuilt his life in France where he has received honors and is embraced by the artistic community. He won an Oscar for directing "The Pianist" in 2002. He has been married for 18 years and has children. Gailey has publicly forgiven him, and the case is still in limbo.

In editing the archive footage and new interviews, Zenovich intercuts clips from Polanski's films. Sometimes this feels too contrived as when she has someone talking about a phone he received and shows Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby making a call. Other times it works better as when we get a guilty shot of Polanski from "The Tenant" cut into an officer's account of the arrest. The best use of film footage occurs when Zenovich, in trying to show the way Rittenband was trying to control Polanski, cleverly employs a clip from Polanski's 1961 black-and-white short "The Fat and the Lean."

Most effective onscreen are the interviews with victim Samantha Gailey and defense lawyer Douglas Dalton. In Gailey you see a mix of emotions -- regret that she ever brought forth the charges, anger that she wasn't believed, and frustration that her desires were given little consideration by the judge. Dalton, who is described as "Lincolnesque," exudes a calm rationality that allows us to re-examine the case in a new light. Gunson also proves interesting as he explains how he sought out a festival of Polanski's films and determined that they all contained themes of corruption confronting innocence over water, which Gunson saw as playing out in real life as Polanski confronted the young Gailey in a Jacuzzi on that fateful night. You don't expect a D.A. to try and find supporting evidence for a court case in the films of the accused.

"Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" (unrated but for mature audiences) proves a fascinating study of a creative individual who's experienced multiple great tragedies, of justice badly administered, and of a less than admirable news media. And in the clips of Polanski's films we are reminded of his artistic genius and of the way someone may be able to filter his own life through art. Some may still feel that Polanski got off too lightly but I think the point of Zenovich's film is that it displays compassion for Polanski and Gailey, both of whom turn out to be victims -- he of the media and Judge Rittenband, and she of Polanski.

Companion viewing: "The Tenant," "Chinatown," "The Fearless Vampire Killers," "The Accused," "Reversal of Fortunes"

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