One of the greatest directors of New Hollywood, Roman Polanski also became one of the most reviled. He scrounged hand-to-mouth in the Krakow ghetto during the Holocaust and later suffered the tragedy of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, being murdered by Charles Manson’s followers.
Though he earned sympathy for these atrocities, Polanski turned villain after his conviction for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, which led to his flight from the FBI and taking up permanent residence in France as a fugitive of the United States.
Despite his criminal status, Polanski continued making films with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and even won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2002. Regardless of his stature today, Polanski was first an artist who helmed some of cinema’s most acclaimed films.
He was born on Aug. 18, 1933 in Paris, France and moved with his family to his father's native Poland when he was three years old. When he was six, the Nazis invaded and his world was forever thrown into chaos.
Polanski’s Jewish family was torn asunder by the Holocaust. While he scrounged around the Krakow ghetto smuggling goods to survive, his mother, Bula, was sent to Auschwitz, where she was sent to the gas chamber four months pregnant. His father, Ryszard, barely survived Mauthausen-Gusen.
Polanski eventually fled Krakow and lived hand-to-mouth until the end of the war, when he was finally reunited with his father and other members of his extended family. While Poland struggled to rebuild under Soviet rule, Polanski found solace in the cinema.
After acting on stage and working on a radio show, Polanski earned his way into the Lodz Film School, where he made numerous shorts over the course of his five years of study. His most prominent was Two Men and a Wardrobe, which earned several international awards and garnered his first significant attention.
His Early Career:
In 1962, Polanski directed his first feature, Knife in the Water, a dark psychological drama about a love triangle between a married couple and a young hitchhiker that ends in tragedy.
Its success on the international film festival circuit led him to England, where he made his first English-language film, Repulsion, which centered on a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) whose simultaneous attraction to and repulsion to sex leads to mental disintegration and eventually murder.
After directing the dark comedy Cul-de-Sac, he made the horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, which introduced him to American actress Sharon Tate.
Following Fearless Vampire Killers, Polanski and Tate married in 1968. That year, he made his Hollywood debut with the classic horror movie, Rosemary’s Baby, which starred a waifish Mia Farrow as the birth mother of the spawn of Satan. The film was a smash with audiences and critics, and earned Polanski an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
It was at the end of 1968 that Tate became pregnant with the couple’s first child and fatefully moved into a Benedict Canyon house in the Hollywood Hills once occupied by actress Candice Bergen. The house would soon be the site of one of Hollywood’s most notorious murders.
The Murder of Sharon Tate:
On Aug. 9, 1969, while Polanski was away in London preparing his next film, Sharon Tate and house guests Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and coffee heiress Abigail Folger, were brutally stabbed, shot and hanged by members of Charles Manson’s cult.
Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Charles "Tex" Watson and Linda Kasabian were ordered by Manson to kill everyone inside the home. They shot and killed young Steven Parent, a friend of the home’s caretaker, William Garretson, as he was leaving the premises.
Inside the home, Manson’s family gathered everyone in the living room and proceeded to stab and shoot Sebring, who was trying to protect Tate – then eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
Both Folger and Frykowski managed to escape the house, but were hunted down and killed outside on the lawn. Tate begged for the life of her unborn baby, but was ignored by Atkins, who stabbed her 16 times, including several punctures to her womb.
A devastated Polanski waited months for police to find the killers while enduring persistent questions for a possible motive on his behalf. It wasn’t until Atkins herself was arrested for car theft and bragged in prison about the murders that the assailants were finally found.
Life After Tate:
Polanski moved back to Europe following Tate’s death and made his next film, a bloody rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that was seen as a cathartic release from the tragedy.
After 1973’s Diary of Forbidden Dreams, Polanski directed one of the greatest films of all time – and certainly the best of that era – Chinatown, a hard-boiled ode to film noir that starred Jack Nicholson as seedy private eye, Jake Gittes, who investigates the murder of a public official that uncovers dark secrets about a water mogul (John Huston) and his emotionally damaged daughter (Faye Dunaway).
Ending with the famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” the film earned a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations, but only took home the statue for Best Screenplay, written by Robert Towne. Polanski himself appeared in the film as a thug who cuts Gittes’ nose after catching him snooping near a water pipe.
From Filmmaker to Fugitive:
In early 1977, Polanski was hired by the French edition of Vogue magazine to take photos of several girls, one of whom turned out to be 13-year-old Samantha Geimer. Allegedly, Polanski managed to convince Geimer to photograph her without wearing a top and sent her home shaken by the experience.
Weeks later, Polanski brought her to Nicholson’s home on Mulholland Drive – the actor was away in Colorado at the time – and proceeded to give her champagne and Quaaludes. Polanski convinced Geimer to fully undress in a hot tub, where he took photos and sexually assaulted her.
He was arrested the following night and later was indicted on six charges, including rape of a minor and giving a minor controlled substances. At the time, Polanski claimed that the sex had been consensual and that Geimer’s mother was engaged in a blackmail scheme.
Despite his protestations, Polanksi entered a plea bargain where he claimed guilt to statutory rape. He was sentenced to 90 days of psychiatric evaluation and served 42. But upon fears that he was about to be re-sentenced for a longer prison term, Polanski fled the United States and took upon residence in France, where he held citizenship.
For decades, Polanski lived in France – a country that does not extradite its citizens – and continued making films. He was arrested in 2009 while on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award in Switzerland, but managed to avoid being sent back for retrial in the United States.
Making Films as a Wanted Man:
Polanski made a number of quality films while remaining a fugitive in the America and earning the revulsion of the public. In 1979, his film Tess starring Nastassja Kinski, earned three Academy Awards, but stumbled in the 1980s with Pirates and Frantic. At the time he made Tess, the 43-year-old had an affair with Kinski, who was anywhere between 15 and 17.
Polanski was later approached by Steven Spielberg during the latter’s making of Schindler’s List with an offer to direct, but he turned down the job citing the memories as too painful.
Spielberg’s film did relate a number of incidents suffered by Polanski and his family during the Holocaust, most notably the famed Girl in the Red Coat, who was based on one of his cousins. Unlike the girl in the movie, Polanski’s cousin survived the war.It would take almost another decade before Polanski dealt directly with the horror Jews suffered during World War II. In 2002, he released The Pianist, a somewhat fictionalized account of Polish pianist and composer, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), and his struggle to survive the Holocaust.
The Pianist was Polanski’s greatest artistic triumph since Chinatown, and earned him the Oscar for Best Director, though he was not on hand at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood to receive his award.
Love him or hate him, Roman Polanski was a consummate artist who directed a number of quality films and in Chinatown made what many feel was one of the greatest movies of the latter 20th century.
His life was beset by three great tragedies – the last of his own doing – which have evoked sorrow, sympathy and rage. These seminal moments have in one way or another enriched his work, often for the better.
While he will go down in history as a wanted criminal who avoided doing his time, Polanski’s contributions to cinema should not be dismissed. In fact, it behooves us to separate the man from the artist, if only to give the great films he made their proper due.