Smear Campaigns, Roman Polanski, and “easy” Renée Zellweger

Hi David, Lynda,

Saturday Night Live aired a suave parody of pre-Oscars smear campaigning last weekend. Salma Hayek did a series of spots alleging that Renée Zellweger was a man and that Chicago had terrorist connections. Hayek suggested her own movie, Frida, to the academy as a patriotic choice. Her gall was gorgeous, and the sketch managed to send up paranoia about Miramax while still sending up Miramax itself. Nice.

E!—insistent that war can’t stop their Oscar pre-show, though the presenters are dropping like flies—is now showing no less than a rerun of the red-carpet interviews from the 2000 Academy Awards. Winona Ryder is beaming. Haley Joel Osment looks 40. Lucy Liu is telling Joan Rivers that Donatella Versace made her dress “so I feel really blessed.” No one has blurted out anything about blood or oil. Good old March 2000. The stars had a lot in store for them. We all did.

At least it’s been a good few years for Roman Polanski. He’s really back—pardoned by Samantha Geimer (now of age), lionized again by the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls crowd, and now nominated for Best Director and Best Picture for The Pianist. My friend Peter Gethers, who worked on Frantic, telephoned Polanski—early Paris time—just after he’d seen The Pianist to tell him that he really, truly loved the movie. Polanski was delighted. He hadn’t expected so much excitement in America, where he hasn’t had a hit in 15 years. (But he’s still got his strut. As Peter said today, “He liked his other movies, even if no one else did.”)

I didn’t really, truly love The Pianist, though. The contentious, proud Szpilman family, while they were still living in town, were deftly represented (recalling István Szabó’s Sunshine [1999], a movie I do love); the group handled questions of how to do small things—hide money, decorate a new room—with credulity and precision that was heartbreaking. And Polanski’s apocalyptic vision of the Polish ghetto was stacked with shocks. But when the movie became a solo survival story, with the survivor in a Robinson Crusoe role, I lost the context of the drama. Wladyslaw Szpilman could have been Spider-man or Indiana Jones—and I stopped caring about what happened to him. 

Then, when Spzilman made it, I wonder what had survived. An artist? A man, like any other? So leery of giving the victory to art—and risking ennobling anything—Polanski made sure that Szpilman was only a nimble entertainer.

In fact, apart from his nightclub skills at the piano and his talent as a flirt, I had a hard time finding qualities, to say nothing of virtues, in Spzilman. Is he just a hollow man who lucks out during the Holocaust? If so,  I’d rather have seen a straight existential story of survival— Cast Away (2000), for example—or a movie that owned up to its historical context, having its hero confront, instead of shirk, the moral questions that were urgent in Poland at the time. The Pianist devolves into an action movie that gets its suspense only extrinsically—from what we already think about the Holocaust and, in some cases, from what we already think about Roman Polanski.

Oh, no. I blew my space on serious stuff, and I’ll have to hold off before I ask how Renée Zellweger cornered the movie-star market on being “easy” (I’ll gain weight! I’ll learn the accent! I’ll work late! I’ll do anything!). And I’ll have to hold off on my picks, which I’ll come up with, just as soon as Jane Fonda: True Hollywood Story is over on E! (“Customs agents found pills in Fonda’s luggage.”)

I wonder what’s on the other channels?