Polanski's Dazzling Highs, Ghastly Lows

Director's arrest is latest chapter in a novel-like life

Monday, Sep 28, 2009  |  Updated 11:00 AM PDT
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Polanski's Dazzling Highs, Ghastly Lows

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Roman Polanski has led a life of extreme highs and lows, and it looks like he's on the wrong end of the pattern now.

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Roman Polanski has lived through a striking collection of bizarre, triumphant and tragic events, his calamity rivaling some of the darkest horrors he has depicted on screen.

Here's a look at the highlights of the filmmaker's history of accomplishment and affliction.

A CHILDHOOD OF HORROR:

Polanski is born to Polish-Jewish parents in Paris on Aug. 18, 1933, the family moving back to Poland when he is 3. He escapes Krakow's Jewish ghetto after the Nazi invasion, surviving off the kindness of strangers who help hide him in the countryside during World War II. His mother dies at Auschwitz, though his father survives the Mauthausen death camp. Six decades later, his survival is echoed in his film "The Pianist," based on the real-life story of musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, another Polish Holocaust survivor. "Obviously, the whole film is about survival," Polanski says via satellite at a Los Angeles gathering of 2002's Directors Guild of America nominees. "For me, it was the preponderant theme of my childhood and youth."

AUTEUR IN THE MAKING:

Settling on a career in the arts, Polanski studies at the Lodz Film School and lands some small acting roles, including a part in fellow Polish director Andrzej Wajda's 1955 World War II drama "A Generation." (Nearly 50 years later, Polanski reunites in front of Wajda's camerato co-star in his countryman's 2002 film, the 19th century farce "The Vengeance." Polanski calls it a "great pleasure to meet Andrzej on the film set after all those years.") Polanski breaks in as a director on short films before making his feature debut with the 1963 psychological thriller "Knife in the Water," which is nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film. He then leaves Poland for England, where he makes three more acclaimed films, "Repulsion," ''Cul-de-Sac" and "The Fearless Vampire Killers."

HOLLYWOOD TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY:

In the late 1960s, Polanski moves to Hollywood, making an immediate impact with 1968's creepy sensation "Rosemary's Baby," starring Mia Farrow as a woman whose pregnancy is awash in horror and satanic doings. The film wins the supporting-actress Oscar for Ruth Gordon and earns Polanski a screenplay nomination. Hollywood success gives way to personal horror a year later when Polanski's pregnant wife, "Fearless Vampire Killers" and "Valley of the Dolls" co-star Sharon Tate, is murdered in the killing spree by followers of cult figure Charles Manson. Going back to Great Britain for his next film, Polanski is preoccupied with bloody and tragic themes as he shoots an acclaimed, very violent adaptation of Shakespeare's "MacBeth." Polanski lightens up with the X-rated Italian sex romp "What?" before returning to Hollywood for another seesaw of achievement and adversity.

EXCELLENCE TO EXILE:

In 1974, Polanski teams with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston for one of cinema's great detective stories, "Chinatown," both an homage and a down-and-dirty reinvention of classic film noir. The film picks up 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture and director for Polanski, though it wins only one award, for screenwriter Robert Towne. The film catapults Polanski to the forefront of Hollywood filmmakers, but he squanders much of his professional goodwill with an odd followup, directingand starring as a paranoid nutcase in the moody French thriller "The Tenant." The film turns off critics and audiences, though it later achieves status as a cult favorite. In 1977, Polanski is accused of raping a 13-year-old girl he photographed during a modeling session at Nicholson's home in Los Angeles. In a deal with prosecutors, Polanski pleads guilty to one of six charges against him, unlawful sexual intercourse, and is sent to prison for 42 days of psychological evaluation. Faced with the prospect of further prison time, Polanski flees the country in 1978, living as an exile in France.

PROFESSIONAL WILDERNESS:

A year later, Polanski does an about-face from his often-explicit subject matter and mounts an epic, lavish costume drama starring Nastassia Kinski in the title role of "Tess," an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel. The film picks up six Oscar nominations, including best picture and Polanski's second directing honor. But Polanski's film career grows fitful as financing becomes harder to secure. He remains busy with theater and opera productions throughout Europe, finally returning to the screen after a seven-year absence with the 1986 commercial dud "Pirates." The buccaneer comedy starring Walter Matthau helps give pirates a reputation as box-office poison until future Polanski star Johnny Depp salvages the genre with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" blockbusters. Polanski continues to land major stars for his films, among them Harrison Ford on 1988's "Frantic" and Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley on 1994's "Death and the Maiden." In 1989, Polanski marries "Frantic" co-star Emmanuelle Seigner, with whom he has two children. Twenty years after charges were filed against him, the woman he's accused of raping goes public for the first time. A married mother of three, Samantha Geimer says she wishes Polanski could reach a deal with the courts and end his years as a fugitive. Though Polanski has called Geimer a sophisticated teen who willingly had sex with him,she says he coaxed her with drugs and champagne. Geimer says she would not call it rape but that the sex was not consensual. "The word 'rape' for me always brings to mind for me a level of … violence that wasn't there," she says.

COMING FULL CIRCLE:

After working with Depp on 1999's thriller "The Ninth Gate," Polanski revisits his childhood trauma with the Holocaust drama "The Pianist," starring Adrien Brody as musician Szpilman. Based on Szpilman's memoir, it is the first film Polanski shoots in Poland since his feature debut 30 years earlier. The exciting thing about discovering Szpilman's story "is that it wasn't TOO personal — it was something I know about, remember very well, something that could help me recreate the events without talking about myself," Polanski says at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, where "The Pianist" picks up the top award. Come Oscar night the following year, "The Pianist" is up for best picture and six other awards, winning Brody the best-actor honor, Ronald Harwood a screenplay trophy and Polanski the directing prize. While Harwood calls Polanski a "great director and a wonderful colleague" and many in the Oscar crowd give the absent filmmaker a standing ovation, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney says the filmmaker remains a "convicted felon and a fugitive," adding that, "You don't get a pass for longevity."

WANTED AND DESIRED:

Polanski follows "The Pianist" with the 2005 Charles Dickens adaptation "Oliver Twist" and the recently completed thriller "The Ghost." In 2008, the Emmy-winning documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" debuts at the Sundance Film Festival, reigniting the debate over the case against Polanski. The documentary uncovers new information about actions by the late Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, suggesting he inappropriately consulted with a prosecutor not assigned to the case. Armed with those revelations, Polanski's attorneys early this year seek to have the case dismissed. Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza in Los Angeles says there was "substantial misconduct" in the handling of the original cast but dismisses Polanski's bid to throw out the case because the director fails to show up in court to press his motion. The judge says he might reconsider if Polanski returns to the United States. With his arrest in Switzerland, where he traveled to receive an honorary award at the Zurich Film Festival, Polanski faces possible extradition that may put him in front of the judge to ask face to face that the case be dropped.

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