In March of 1977, about 14 months before shooting began on The Shining, Jack Nicholson took a vacation to Colorado, apparently leaving his palace on Mulholland Drive in the care of Anjelica Huston, Marlon Brando’s maid, and Chinatown director Roman Polanski. Polanski, 44, owed the French edition of Vogue a photo story and had decided that the best place for a second sitting with subject Samantha Geimer, who was from the Valley and who was 13, would be Nicholson’s hot tub. The photographer and the model shared drinks and chemical treats. They retired early, and the rest is infamy.
The unprecedented carnival of Polanski’s trial—it seems quaint, almost alien, in our post-O.J. universe—led to his conviction of charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, his flight from justice to Paris via LAX, and the peculiar spectacle of his 2002 Academy Award, which he won for The Pianist. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, HBO’s artfully tawdry documentary about this affair, features a nice Oscar-clip moment near its end: The other four nominees sit electrified in their evening suits. Polanski stands behind a bullhorn in a still photo. Hazy Harrison Ford manages to get his name out. Martin Scorsese forces a big smile. This is what professional redemption looks like in Hollywood.
With this documentary, director Marina Zenovich announces herself as the most gifted young American filmmaker who does not care about film. That is, she takes a keen interest in Hollywood as a pleasure dome where an A-lister’s every want will always be satisfied, and she efficiently traces the general arc of Polanski’s career: his journey from the Krakow Ghetto in the 1930s to shagalicious London in the ‘60s and then, with Rosemary’s Baby, to Parnassus. But she does not give a whit about Polanski’s movies as they might relate to his crimes and to a personality that, if not strictly criminal, is at least totally shifty. For instance, when one of her interviewees mentions getting a phone call from Polanski, she runs footage of Mia Farrow as Rosemary under glass in a phone booth, worrying the metallic cord. She scores her film with the theme from that movie just for kicks. Don’t get me wrong; I would happily give, say, two years of my life to looking at Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, but Deneuve’s heavy-lidded presence in a clip is merely very expensive window dressing. Zenovich glides across surfaces, and the movie’s most rigorous attempt at criticism is committed by one of the old prosecutors, who—interestingly but, from a legal angle, inanely—points out that many of the director’s films, like his forced seduction, involve “corruption meeting innocence over water.”
So you’ll have to wait around for the Polanski doc that links up the director’s Grand Guignol treatment of Macbeth—the Scottish play as a horror show—with the state of his brain after the murder of his first wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson Family. And Zenovich is not your woman if you want to wonder whether Bitter Moon—the aggressively kinky 1994 film that’s a cross among Last Tango in Paris, Sabbath’s Theater, and Heart of Darkness—qualifies as a confession or a mission statement. But if you are looking for a high-end procedural packed with fresh interviews and touches of easy visual poetry, then she’s your woman. This is one of those films in which the intertitles are written in the kind of gritty typeface you’d see on a police-station mimeograph.
Little touches of local color and period flavor abound, particularly in the miniprofile of the judge on the case, Laurence Rittenbrand, who liked the ladies and thought of himself as a star and maybe handled the case as he did because his pals at the Hillcrest Country Club did not want him going easy on a Jew. The cops and assistant district attorneys are beefy with competence, encouraging our faith in law and order. The teenage victim radiates middle-aged good health, seeming undamaged except for the occasional self-protective bit of idiocy; she wonders with exasperation why everyone always asks why her mother let her hang out with a known pervert: “You know, give my mom a break.”
Polanski was both an amazingly bad defendant—chattering wildly upon his arrest, partying fabulously in a way that disgruntled Rittenbrand—and, as evidenced by old news footage, a comically bad prevaricator. Check out his blink count opposite Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Listen to his haughty scoff. Wonder whether his circumstances more closely suggest a gothic version of Fellini’s 8½ (with fact, film, and fantasy merging in the unstable head of an overindulged director) or a Hitchcock movie about a fat man on trial for torture treatment of narrow-waisted blondes. The stardom of a movie director is awesome. The standard laws of romance do not apply. But to live outside the law, you must be honest, and this film shows the self-deluding Roman Polanski to be a liar to the bottom of his eternal soul.