Special Thoughts for FILMS FOR TWO
by Alan Waldman
In a life riddled with horrors & scandals, international filmmaker & screenwriter Roman Polanski has crafted a career of dizzying highs, a few embarrassing lows, & astonishing diversity. I believe he created the greatest detective mystery of the late 20th Century with CHINATOWN & staged a recent comeback (after a long fallow period) with the moving, beautifully nuanced historical drama THE
PIANIST, which included some of his own experiences as a child surviving the Holocaust. His THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS is a hoot—an imaginative, fun spoof of the old Hammer horror flicks. Polanski also succeeded in the genres of costume drama
(TESS), psychological horror (ROSEMARY’S BABY), compelling human rights drama (DEATH AND THE MAIDEN), Hitchcock-style thriller (FRANTIC), & psychological drama (KNIFE IN THE WATER, REPULSION, CUL DE SAC, THE TENNANT).
He also ventured into the categories of Saturday matinee adventure (PIRATES), supernatural thriller (THE NINTH GATE), surrealism (TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE, FAT AND THE LEAN), freaky Shakespearean remake (MACBETH), absurdist sex comedy (WHAT?), & erotic melodrama (BITTER MOON).
Of the 27 films Polanski has written & the 25 he has directed in the past 50 years, fully 14 of them have been nominated for major international awards, & many have won. He has been honored with three of Britain’s BAFTA’S, two of France’s
Cesars, Berlin’s Golden Bear (CUL DE SAC), a Danish Bodil (CHINATOWN), a European Film Award (THE NINTH GATE), the Venice Critics’ Prize (KNIFE IN THE WATER), the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Award
(TESS), Cannes’ Golden Palm, a Golden Globe, Spain’s Goya & several other awards. Last month, after five Oscar nominations, he finally won the best director Academy Award for THE
PIANIST (which also garnered best adapted screenplay & best actor statuettes for Ronald Harwood & Adrian Brody, respectively).
NOTE: CLICK HERE FOR FF2’s
REFLECTIONS ON OSCAR
Roman Polanski was born Raimund Liebling, in Paris, on August 18, 1933, to Polish-Jewish painter & plastics manufacturer Ryszard Liebling & half-Jewish Russian immigrant Bula Levy Polanski (who had left her first husband a year earlier to marry him).
When Raimund was three, the family moved to Ryszard’s native Krakow, Poland, but three years later the Nazis seized the country & interned the family in the Krakow ghetto. In a moment of tragedy that runs parallel to a scene in THE
PIANIST, his parents were shipped off to the Treblinka concentration camp when the boy was eight. But Ryszard told his son to walk—not run—away, & he narrowly escaped being sent to the death camp where his mother was gassed, while she was four months pregnant.
(Ryszard survived the camp & lived until 1984.)
The boy spent the next six years wandering through occupied Poland, living with various Catholic families in the countryside. Sadistic German soldiers sometimes would shoot at him for sport. At times, he protected himself as a member of a tough street gang.
Although most movies shown in wartime Poland were German, young
Raimund/Roman was fascinated by them & spent many hours in cinemas that most Poles avoided. Near the end of the war he was seriously injured in an explosion. He went to Krakow after the war, living with his father, who enrolled him in technical school, but he left home when Ryszard re-married. At 14, Roman began acting at the Krakow Theatre & performed on the popular radio show “The Merry Gang.” Two years later, he was nearly murdered by a nut who had just killed three other people.
In 1950, Roman dropped out of trade school & entered art school. Later he was one of six applicants accepted into the rigorous director's course at Lodz's prestigious State Film School. During the 1950s, he supported his studies with acting jobs (& performed in 38 films over the next 40 years, in addition to his writing & directing). He appeared in the films A GENERATION,
LOTNA, INNOCENT SORCERERS & SAMSON, helmed by Poland’s other great director, Andrezj
Polanski’s dark, surrealistic, absurdist early short films, TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE (1958) & FAT AND THE LEAN (1961) won several international awards & drew attention to the young director. In between them, he married Polish actress Basia Kwiatkowski (Barbara Lass), but later divorced her.
His first feature film, 1962’s KNIFE IN THE WATER, made Polanski an instant global celebrity, winning the Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival, a Best Foreign Film Oscar Nomination & a BAFTA best picture nom, while grabbing the cover of Time magazine. I remember being moved & frightened by this dark, angry, claustrophobic, erotic thriller about a husband, a wife & a strange young hitchhiker on a sailboat. The first Polish film that didn’t deal with a war theme, it pissed off the country’s dictator Gomulka & the Communist authorities (who may have seen it as a critique of their privileged lifestyles) & motivated Polanski to beat a fleet retreat.
Down & out in Paris, he palled up with young French screenwriter Gerard Brach, who became his longtime collaborator, co-scripting nine films over the next 26 years. (Brach also wrote or co-wrote THE QUEST FOR FIRE, MARIA’S LOVERS, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, THE LOVER & the exquisite masterpiece
JEAN DE FLORETTE.)
In Britain, Brach & Polanski scripted, & Roman directed his first English-language movie, REPULSION (1965), in which a paranoid, sexually repressed Belgian beauty, played by 21-year-old Catherine
Deneuve, is driven to murder by men’s attentions. It won the Critics’ Prize & the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Berlin’s Golden Bear went to their next effort, 1966’s spooky, surrealistic, darkly comic thriller CUL DE SAC, which starred Deneuve’s sister Françoise Dorleac (who tragically died in a car accident, at 25, a year later).
In his & Brach’s third British film, Polanski directed & starred with another doomed beauty, Sharon Tate. He originally titled this unusually droll tale of the un-dead “Dance of the Vampires,” but after MGM re-cut it & re-titled it THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Roman insisted that his name be removed from it. The next year, he married Tate.
Lured to Hollywood by Paramount in 1968 to direct ROSEMARY’S BABY, Polanski changed the horror genre forever, replacing cheap shocks & scares with psychological terror & suspense. His adapted screenplay won him an Oscar nomination, & the film garnered two other major awards & four additional nominations. It also grossed seven times its budget.
On August 9, 1969, while Polanski was out of town on business, his wife (eight months pregnant) & four of her friends were slaughtered at Polanski’s lavish Beverly Hills home by followers of the paranoid murderer Charles Manson. Devastated by this tragedy, Roman moved back to Europe, where in 1972 he may have sought to exorcise his demons by directing a bizarre, gory MACBETH whose violence was reminiscent of the Manson bloodbath.
A year later Polanski changed direction completely, directing Sydne Rome & Marcello Mastroianni in the absurdist, sex comedy WHAT?
He returned to Hollywood in 1974 to mount his masterpiece, CHINATOWN, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway & John Huston. One of the most successful movies of the decade, it was nominated for 11 Oscars (winning for Robert Towne’s screenplay), & critics wet themselves praising it, with TV Guide’s Movie Guide calling it, “Not only one of the greatest detective films, but one of the most perfectly constructed of all films.” Rich with, atmosphere, symbolism & menace, & pungent with political & character corruption, CHINATOWN significantly enriched the noir detective genre. It is justifiably regarded as a classic.
As often happened throughout his career, Polanski then bungee-jumped off the artistic heights—which he had scaled with his talent, will & audacious creativity—to new depths, in this case involving criminality, cowardice & depravity. He was convicted of the statutory rape of 13-year-old model Samantha Geimer at Jack Nicholson’s house. After first claiming that the girl came on to him & that she acted more mature than her age, he pled guilty. But on Feb. 1, 1978, he skipped bail & fled to Europe, where he has remained ever since. The judge in the case swore he would see Polanski behind bars, but he died 11 years later without doing so.
Shortly after Polanski returned to Europe, the press went into a tizzy when they realize that he had been dating Nastassja Kinski (daughter of famous German actor Klaus
Kinski) since she was 15. At one point, Polanski, who is only five-foot-five, remarked, “I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf.”
Polanski did not really suffer in exile. In 1979, backers poured $12 million into his excellent costume drama
TESS, which was then the most expensive film ever made in France. The film, which starred
Kinski, was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture & Best Director), winning three, & pulled in a passel of other honors, including the Cesars for Best Picture & Director & the Best Foreign Film Golden Globe. Just before she died, Sharon Tate had told her husband that she thought he should make a movie of Thomas Hardy’s Tess D’Ubervilles, & he dedicated this lyrically romantic work to her.
TESS, the quality of his films largely declined for two decades. In 1981, Roman conquered Warsaw, directing & starring in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, & he triumphantly reprised it in Paris a year later. His 1984 autobiography, Roman, was a bestseller in numerous languages.
Foolish French & Tunisian backers poured $40 million into his disastrous 1986 outing, PIRATES, which grossed less than $2 million in the U.S. Roger Ebert hooted, “This movie represents some kind of low point for the genre that gave us CAPTAIN BLOOD,” & Ned Daigle of Bad Movie Night moaned, “The most waterlogged pirate excursion ever…is enough to make even the most seasoned movie explorer hang his/her head over with a bad case of seasickness.”
His tepid 1988 thriller, FRANTIC, co-starred lovely 22-year-old French actress Emanuelle
Seigner, whom the 56-year-old Polanski married a year later. (They have had two children, Morgane & Elvis.) Critics derided FRANTIC as derivative Hitchcock, or, even worse, stale Brian de Palma. Despite the star power of post-Indiana Jones Harrison Ford, the flick flopped.
An even greater failure was his 1992 erotic melodrama BITTER MOON, which Roman produced, directed & co-scripted with Brach. Roger Ebert agonized that it was, “an embarrassment…high porn but low art,” adding “Polanski has come unhinged.” The film was only noticed at all because it featured huggable future sex star Hugh Grant.
Two years later, Polanski bounced back again, with the critically acclaimed human rights drama DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (starring Sigourney Weaver & Ben Kingsley), which earned him an Independent Spirit Best Director Award nomination.
“It's getting more & more difficult to make an ambitious & original film,” Polanski commented not long ago. “There are fewer independent producers or independent companies & an increasing number of corporations who are more interested in balance sheets than in artistic achievement. They're only interested in the lowest common denominator because they're trying to reach the widest audience. But the style is all melting & those films all look the same. Whenever you do something new & original, people run to see it because it's different. Then, if it happens to be successful, the studios rush to imitate it—& it becomes commonplace right away.”
Steven Spielberg approached Polanski about directing
SCHINDLER’S LIST, but Roman found the material too painful & personal. In 1999, Polanski flopped again with the supernatural thriller THE NINTH GATE, starring Seigner & Johnny
Depp. It grossed about half its $38 million budget.
Polanski scrapped his film THE DOUBLE, after star John Travolta, stormed off the set. One explanation is that Polanski was unsymapathetic to Travolta's desire to return home to his sick son; another attributes the conflict to Polanski wanting Travolta to do a nude scene.
But once again Roman’s career bungeed upwards with THE
PIANIST, a critical hit which surprised everyone by winning three Oscars, including the elusive Best Director statuette for
In evaluating the life & career of Roman
Polanski, the one undeniable understatement is that they haven’t been boring. They feature a nightmare childhood, several scrapes with death, great films, dreadful films, contretemps, the tragic deaths of his mother & young wife, a criminal conviction, & the fugitive status that kept him from accepting his Oscar in person. Like any true creator, however, Polanski has maintained the ability to channel his fears, disappointments, losses & tragedies into darkly ironic, highly original art. I have loved his great films & so far managed to avoid his laughable ones. While I deplore his thing for “Lolitas,” I have been moved, chilled, thrilled & fascinated by his worthier works for 40 years, & I applaud his finally winning the recognition he has so long deserved.
FAVORITE ROMAN POLANSKI FILMS:
|1. Chinatown (1974)
2. The Pianist (2002)
3. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
4. Knife in the Water (1962)
5. Tess (1979)
6. Repulsion (1965)
7. Cul de Sac (1966)
8. Frantic (1988)
9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
10. Death & The Maiden (1994)
© Alan Waldman