November 17, 2010 by abbyo
It’s one thing to respect a public figure. It’s another to know certain elements of that person’s life. We know Vincent Van Gogh was a talented painter, for example, but we also know he had mental issues. Ernest Hemingway was a great writer, but he was also an alcoholic. More controversially, Bill Clinton was a successful president, but he also had problems with fidelity. In these situations, the question becomes this: does knowing someone’s crimes, weaknesses or personal experiences color what you think of their work?
I’m saying this because this week’s Non Fiction Section is dedicated to Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” about the director’s infamous trial for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. As a fan of Polanski’s films, the fact that he’d actually had sex with someone that young was something I’d always tried to overlook, even find ways to forgive. No matter what the man’s done, you can’t deny the greatness or technical skill in a movie like “Chinatown” or “Rosemary’s Baby.” Even if Polanski were guilty of murder, those movies would still be good.
But with fandom comes a certain fondness. Because I like Polanski the Director, I feel a natural inclination to want to like Polanski the Man. The fact that he survived the Holocaust, or that the Manson Family murdered his pregnant wife are facts that make him seem like a tragic hero who prevailed in difficult circumstances. But it’s hard to defend taking nude photos of an underage girl, giving her a Quaalude and having sex with her. Going into the film, I wondered: would this documentary help or hurt my image of Roman Polanski the Man? Would it, perhaps, tarnish my image of Polanski the Director?
As it turns out, “Wanted and Desired” didn’t really change my opinion at all, but it certainly presents an interesting case. In the event that you’re unfamiliar with the legal case presented in the documentary, here’s the story: In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested for giving drugs to and having sex with a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Gailey, at Jack Nicholson’s house while photographing her for Vogue (Nicholson was away at the time…I don’t imagine he ever asked Polanski to house-sit after this). The trial carried on for about a year, and was a total media circus. Right before sentencing, Polanski fled to Europe, where he has since stayed. There was recently some hubbub in the last year regarding the possibility that Polanski might be extradited back to the U.S., but to my knowledge that has since died down.
Director Marina Zenovich approaches the Polanski case in “Wanted and Desired” from a straightforward, unbiased standpoint, speaking to people involved on both sides of the situation. She interviews the lawyers for the defense, the district attorney and the victim, all of whom seem like reasonable, fair men. She interviews Polanski’s friends, who talk about his troubled personal history, and how his wife Sharon Tate’s murder deeply affected him. We get tons of surprisingly good archive footage, and transcripts from Polanski and Gailey. Zenovich tells the audience the whole story and then some, getting the facts right from the people who were there.
The only person who comes off looking bad is Laurence Rittenband, the judge in this case. He died in 1993, and therefore doesn’t get the chance to redeem himself, but it seems like both sides are in agreement that he handled the case poorly. Rittenband supposedly took the case specifically because it involved someone famous. He played to the media, directing the trial even to the point of telling lawyers and witnesses where to stand and when to come in. His pride was easily hurt, causing him to reject more than one official suggestion (and numerous bargains) that Polanski get off with probation. The minute the news media started questioning his approach, he got tougher on Polanski to avoid looking weak. Polanski’s lawyer, Douglas Dalton, tells his client he can’t trust the judge. Even Roger Gunson, the lawyer for the DA’s office and a staunch Mormon, says in an interview, “I’m not surprised that he left under those circumstances.” Neither am I.
But aside from just a solid rundown of the events in the case, Zenovich makes the audience ask some interesting questions. There’s no real speculation about whether or not the events of the case actually happened, because it’s clear they did. Polanski admitted as such. That’s irrelevant. The questions brought to light in the documentary involve the psychology behind the events. Polanski came from a culture in which it was more appropriate to date very young women. He had never been arrested in the U.S. before. He came from a troubled background, and was still adjusting to life after a deep personal tragedy. Even though his actions are inexcusable, are they understandable, given these circumstances?
Zenovich asks the audience to consider also that Samantha Gailey, although she was only 13, told the police that she had been drunk before, and had taken Quaaludes before. Also, that Polanski was photographing Samantha with the permission of her mother, a minor actress who had touted her daughter’s potential as a model to Polanski at a party. It would appear she did this in the hope that the photographs would be Samantha’s big break, as it had been for actress Nastassja Kinski, who was 15 when Polanski photographed her (and subsequently had a relationship with her). Given that Mrs. Gailey was somewhat familiar with Polanski’s work, history and social circle, and that Samantha allowed herself to be photographed with her mother’s permission, one has to wonder what Mrs. Gailey was expecting. Was she (and perhaps was her daughter) tempting fate?
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” never answers these questions definitively, to its credit. Marina Zenovich merely presents the argument through testimonies of both parties, and lets the audience make up their own mind. In a medium where many directors do take sides, Zenovich simply presents the facts, and neither accuses nor defends her subjects. At the end of the film, she points out that the whole scandal seems to have had little effect on Polanski’s professional career. He still won a Best Director Oscar for “The Pianist” in 2002. He’s a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in France. He’s still highly respected, despite his rocky personal history. In my case, I still think Polanski’s a great director and, even after watching this film, I’m still pretty sympathetic towards him. In answer to the question “Does knowing someone’s flaws color your opinion of their work?” the answer Zenovich’s documentary gives is “no,” and I am inclined to agree.
Random observation: Roger Gunson mentions in the documentary that in preparation for the case, he attended a special marathon screening of Polanski’s movies. He says that he recognized a theme of “corruption meeting innocence over water” (a theme which he says also applies to Polanski’s case). That made me really curious to go back and watch a few Polanski films to see if that’s valid.