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Perhaps one of the most notorious directors in Hollywood, Roman Polanski was as known for his tumultuous personal life as he was for his dark, disquieting and quasi-autobiographical films. After a childhood stained by Nazi atrocities, Polanski emerged from his native Poland with the Oscar-nominated "Knife in the Water" (1962). He went on to establish a reputation with several films shot in England - namely the claustrophobic sexual thriller "Repulsion" (1965) - before reaching artistic and commercial heights in America with "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). But his newfound success quickly descended into tragedy in 1969 when several of his friends and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, were brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson's "Family." After directing the landmark film noir, "Chinatown" (1974), Polanski became a victim of his own excesses when he fled the United States to avoid serving prison time following a conviction for statutory rape. As a fugitive, Polanski continued making films, albeit with less frequency and smaller budgets. But he found himself on top again when he tapped into his own experiences for the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, "The Pianist" (2002). As an artist who exerted...
Perhaps one of the most notorious directors in Hollywood, Roman Polanski was as known for his tumultuous personal life as he was for his dark, disquieting and quasi-autobiographical films. After a childhood stained by Nazi atrocities, Polanski emerged from his native Poland with the Oscar-nominated "Knife in the Water" (1962). He went on to establish a reputation with several films shot in England - namely the claustrophobic sexual thriller "Repulsion" (1965) - before reaching artistic and commercial heights in America with "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). But his newfound success quickly descended into tragedy in 1969 when several of his friends and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, were brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson's "Family." After directing the landmark film noir, "Chinatown" (1974), Polanski became a victim of his own excesses when he fled the United States to avoid serving prison time following a conviction for statutory rape. As a fugitive, Polanski continued making films, albeit with less frequency and smaller budgets. But he found himself on top again when he tapped into his own experiences for the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, "The Pianist" (2002). As an artist who exerted tremendous control - often co-writing screenplays and sometimes acting - Polanski instilled his films with a uniquely personal worldview. His recurring themes of violence and victimization, isolation and alienation, and a profound sense of the absurd, permeated a body of work that long remained unmatched by many a director before and since.
Born Aug. 18, 1933 in Paris, France, Polanski moved with his family to his father's native Poland when he was three. Three years later, the Nazis invaded and Polanski's family - born Jewish, but non-practicing - were separated. When he was seven, the Nazis sealed off the Krakow ghetto, forcing Polanski to fend for himself by smuggling goods in and out of the sanctioned area. Unknown to Polanski at the time, his mother was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she was gassed by the Nazis while four months pregnant. Eventually, his father was sent to - and barely survived - Mauthausen-Gusen, while Polanski himself managed to flee Krakow with the help of his father, who pushed his son through a gap in the wall as Nazis approached to ship everyone off to the camps. Luckily, his father had made arrangements for his son to stay with non-Jewish Poles, who harbored the lad. For the remainder of the war, Polanski lived in cold, poor and uncertain conditions, sleeping in a barn next to cows and wondering what became of his family.
Once the war ended, Polanski reunited with his father after time spent back in Krakow as a street urchin, then joined a group of displaced aunts, uncles and cousins who formed an extended family unit. Growing up in war-ravaged Poland, Polanski found solace in trips to the cinema, while working on a Marxist radio program and acting on stage. But Polanski found his true calling while appearing in front of the camera on a student film, eventually putting together enough money to attend the Lodz Film School. Because of his wartime experiences, there were gaps in Polanski's education, which he filled by studying film. During the five-year program at Lodz, Polanski directed numerous shorts, including "Dwaj Ludzie z Szafy (Two Men and a Wardrobe)" (1958), a 14-minute avant-garde film about two men carrying a wardrobe throughout a seafaring town, only to be hassled by the residents - a metaphor about nonconformity and the burdens one carries in modern society. "Two Men and a Wardrobe" won five international awards, including a Bronze Medal at the Brussels World's Fair.
After directing several more noted shorts, including "Gdy Spadaja Anioly (When Angels Fall)" (1959) and "Gruby I Chudy (The Fat and the Lean)" (1961), Polanski directed his first feature-length film, "Noz w Wodzie (Knife in the Water)" (1962), a tense psychological drama about a married couple (Leon Niemczyk and Jolanta Umecka) who pick up a young hitchhiking student (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and take him out on their sailboat, leading to a contentious love triangle that ends in tragedy. Poorly received by Polish state officials and some domestic critics, "Knife in the Water" became a sensation in the West, earning Polanski the Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Polanski then moved to England, where he directed his first English-language film, "Repulsion" (1965), a claustrophobic psychological thriller that focused on the rapid mental disintegration of a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) both attracted to and repulsed by sex, which ultimately leads her to commit murder. He next directed "Cul-de-Sac" (1966), a dark comedy about a married couple (Donald Pleasence and Francoise Dorleac) besieged in their mansion by a pair of erratic thieves, then helmed the comedy-horror spoof "The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck" (1967), which co-starred American actress Sharon Tate.
It was on "The Fearless Vampire Killers" that Polanski and Tate met, and subsequently began an affair. Both later admitted neither was impressed with the other, with Polanski especially frustrated with the breathtaking blonde's acting inexperience. But as the production progressed, Polanski became more and more impressed with her growing skills and confidence and became quite paternal toward her. After working together, Polanski and Tate moved into his London apartment, before marrying in 1968. Also that year marked the director's American film debut with "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), an enormously successful adaptation of Ira Levin's best-selling tale about a waifish young woman (Mia Farrow) who gives birth to the son of Satan after being raped in a dream by a demon. "Rosemary's Baby" became a huge box office and critical success, and helped to bridge the gap between Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers and the modern day horror film. Polanski earned another Academy Award nomination; this time for Best Adapted Screenplay. Meanwhile, after Tate became pregnant at the end of 1968, the couple moved into a Benedict Canyon home in the Hollywood Hills previously occupied by their friends, music producer (and Doris Day's son) Terry Melcher and actress Candice Bergen - perhaps the most fateful decision Polanski and his wife would ever make.
The following summer, Polanski, who was riding the crest of his new-found success from "Rosemary's Baby," was dealt a tragic personal blow when Tate - just two weeks from delivering birth to their son - was fiendishly murdered along with three friends by members of Charles Manson's cult "Family." During the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 1969, Charles "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian drove to 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon on orders from Manson to kill everyone in the house, which included hairdresser to the stars and Tate's best friend, Jay Sebring; Polanski's old friend from Poland, Wojciech Frykowski; and coffee heiress Abigail Folger. When they arrived, Watson found 18-year-old Steven Parent - a friend of caretaker William Garretson - leaving the premises and shot him four times, killing the teenager in his car. Watson then led Atkins and Krenwinkel into the house, where they found Frykowski asleep on the couch. After all four occupants were gathered into the living room, Sebring was shot and stabbed first by Watson after attempting to protect Tate, while a fleeing Frykowski was stabbed, shot and beaten by Watson and Atkins on the front lawn. Meanwhile, Krenwinkel chased down Folger - who had momentarily escaped out a side door - across the lawn and stabbed her 28 times with Watson's help. Alone now in the house, all her friends slaughtered, Tate begged for the life of her unborn child, but an unsympathetic Atkins stabbed her 16 times - including into the womb - before attempting to hang Tate and Sebring with rope. Their orders carried out, they wrote PIG on the front door with Tate's blood and escaped off into the night. Five of Tate's wounds were later proven to have been fatal on their own. At the time, Polanski was in London preparing to shoot a film and was scheduled to return on Aug. 12th.
Polanski was informed of the murders and returned to Los Angeles, where police were unable to find the assailants for several months. During that time, a shattered Polanski was investigated by the police, who searched his past with Tate for a possible motive. After Susan Atkins was arrested for car theft and bragged to her cellmates about the murders, police rounded up Manson and his family one by one. Shortly after, Polanski sold all his possessions that reminded him of Tate and returned to Europe. After Manson and his family were tried and sentenced throughout 1970-71, Polanski went to work on his next film, "Macbeth" (1971), a brutally realistic adaptation of Shakespeare's violent tragedy. Many interpreted the film as Polanski's cathartic response to the Manson slayings, though the director downplayed any connection. Either way, Polanski's "Macbeth" plumed the depths of nihilism and despair in its classic telling of a hero brought down by overreaching ambition. He went on to direct one of his more lesser-known films, "Diary of Forbidden Dreams" (1973), a bizarre comedy about a young woman (Sydne Rome) who happens upon a millionaire (Hugh Griffith) hosting a decadent party, where sexual hijinks ensue.
Back in Hollywood, Polanski returned to direct his most significant triumph and perhaps one of the greatest films of all time, "Chinatown" (1974), a serpentine tale of greed, corruption and incest set in 1930s Los Angeles. A hard-boiled film noir with touches of 1970s pessimism and disillusionment, "Chinatown" starred Jack Nicholson as Jack Gittes, a seedy private investigator specializing in divorce who gets hired by Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the wife of the city's top engineer for the water department, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling). But when Hollis is found dead in water runoff pipe, Gittes decides to investigate further, leading to his uncovering of massive corruption that ultimately finds its way to water mogul, Noah Cross (John Huston), father of Evelyn and former business partner to Hollis. Even Gittes - a man who thought he's seen everything - is unprepared for the squalid state of affairs he uncovers, which ends in tragedy for those powerless to combat the wealthy and depraved Cross. In the end, Gittes comes face to face with the futility of fighting the wealthy, learning to "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Polanski's masterpiece earned 11 Academy Award nominations, but took home only one statue for Best Original Screenplay. Meanwhile, Polanski made a memorable appearance onscreen, playing the cocky gangster who infamously slices Jake Gittes' nose.
For his next film, "The Tenant" (1976), a psychological thriller in the same vein as "Repulsion," Polanski cast himself as a man living in a strange apartment building who unravels after becoming obsessed with the previous tenant, a young woman who jumped to her death from the apartment window. Then in early 1977, the 43-year-old Polanski was hired as a guest photographer for the French edition of Vogue to take photos of several girls, one of whom turned out to be 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. According to Gailey, Polanski asked her mother if she could be photographed for the magazine, leading to a private shoot in the hills behind her Woodland Hills home. Sometime during the shoot, Polanski asked Gailey to remove her top so he could photograph her breasts. Though uncomfortable, she complied. A few weeks later, Polanski showed up at Gailey's home again requesting to shoot more pictures. She agreed and was brought to Jack Nicholson's house on Mulholland Drive, where Polanski fed Gailey champagne and Quaaludes. Slowly but surely, Polanski urged Gailey to remove her clothes until she was fully naked. While taking pictures of her in a hot tub, Polanski removed his own clothes and began sexually assaulting Gailey, who later admitted that she verbally asked him several times to stop. Polanski continued undeterred, then later dropped her off at home, warning her not to tell anyone.
The following night, Polanski was arrested by police at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and was later indicted on six charges: furnishing a controlled substance to minor, lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under 14 years of age, unlawful sexual intercourse, rape by use of drugs, perversion, and sodomy. Polanski claimed that the sex was consensual and years later suggested he was the victim of a blackmail scheme hatched by Gailey's mother. Meanwhile, following a plea bargain, Polanski was allowed to plead guilty to the sole charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, also known as statutory rape. In September 1977, he was ordered to be imprisoned for 90 days to undergo psychiatric evaluation at the California Institute for Men at Chino, of which he served 42 days of exhaustive study. But in February 1978, Polanski fled the United States, fearing being sent to prison, and took up residence in Paris, France, where he was a citizen. The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office initially sought to have Polanski extradited, but French officials adamantly reaffirmed the country's long-standing posture of not allowing their citizens to be extradited under any circumstance, though they reserved the right to try the case themselves.
Because of his fugitive status, Polanski directed his next film, "Tess" (1979), in France. This acclaimed version of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles told the story of a beautiful country girl (Nastassja Kinski) who is systematically seduced by her wealthy cousin (Leigh Lawson). Polanski dedicated the film simply "to Sharon," who had given him a copy of Hardy's novel and said it would make a great film the last time he saw her alive. Meanwhile, "Tess" went on to earn six Academy Award nominations and won three. In 1981, Polanski returned to Poland to direct and star in a stage production of "Amadeus," and then for the next several years, disappeared from the spotlight. He re-emerged to direct "Pirates" (1986), a rather light swashbuckling tale that turned out to be the nadir of his professional career. Polanski achieved a small degree of critical and commercial success with the suspenseful, yet dreamy "Frantic" (1988), starring Harrison Ford as an American in Paris searching for his missing wife (Betty Buckley). Though suspenseful and finely acted, "Frantic" failed to reach previous artistic highs achieved with "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby."
Operating mainly from Paris - traveling elsewhere risked extradition still looming over his head - Polanski continued to direct quality films, though he had difficulty achieving the kind of box office success he had enjoyed previous to fleeing the United States. His next film, "Bitter Moon" - released abroad in 1992, but not in the U.S. until 1994 - a twisted dark comedy about an Englishman (Hugh Grant) who becomes ensnared in a tortuous voyage by a wheelchair-bound would-be Henry Miller (Peter Coyote) who brings him into the kinky relationship with his beautiful young wife (played by Polanski's second wife, Emmanuelle Seigner). Meanwhile, Polanski was approached by Steven Spielberg during the long genesis of the screenplay for "Schindler's List" (1993), even reportedly offering him the opportunity to direct. Polanski declined the directing offer, citing the memories of his experiences inside the Krakow ghetto as being too personal and painful. Several references to Polanski's experience and family were made throughout the film, particularly the famed Girl in the Red Coat, who was based on Roma Ligocka, one of Polanski's cousins, and one of the little boys hiding in the muck beneath a latrine, who was based on one of the director's childhood friends.
Steering clear of directing a film on the Holocaust - for the time being at least - Polanski stepped up to helm "Death and the Maiden" (1994), a widely acclaimed adaptation of Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's three-character political allegory about justice, revenge and the uncertainty of truth in the midst of powerful events. Set in an unidentified South American country, the story followed a human-rights attorney (Stuart Wilson) who becomes stranded on a highway when his car breaks down. A kind doctor (Ben Kingsley) gives him a ride home where his wife (Sigourney Weaver) awaits. The wife immediately recognizes the doctor's voice as belonging to the man who supervised her torture under the previous regime. She takes him hostage, confronts him with her charges and puts him on trial before her lawyer husband. Even more claustrophobic than the play, "Death and the Maiden" powerfully considered issues of guilt and innocence and boasted powerhouse performances from the film's three leads. After a four-year hiatus, Polanski returned with the thriller "The Ninth Gate" (2000), an adaptation of a French horror novel about a rare book collector (Johnny Depp) seeking a manuscript featuring artwork by Satan himself. "The Ninth Gate" ranked near the bottom of Polanski's canon, second only to "Pirates."
Putting "The Ninth Gate" behind him, Polanski directed perhaps his most emotionally moving film to date, "The Pianist" (2002), a somber, but ultimately redeeming true-to-life look at the life of famed Polish pianist and composer, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody). A survivor of the Krakow ghetto who narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz with his family, Szpilman spent the remainder of World War II hiding from the Nazis in a one-room apartment. Finally able to confront his own experiences, Polanski also drew on his own vivid recollections of surviving the very same ghetto and escaping the Holocaust; a fate his mother unfortunately failed to share. The result was a triumphant, complex masterwork that moved both audiences and critics, resulting in a new appreciation of Polanski's forgotten gifts. But as with all his films, Polanski was confined to working exclusively in Europe; in this case Germany and Poland. Even after "The Pianist" received a wealth of awards, including an Academy Award for Best Director for Polanski, the director - who had previously had a deal to dismiss the charges denied by the Los Angeles district attorney - announced that he had no plans to return to America to collect his accolades. Despite the genius of his film, his very nomination caused many people both in the media and the business itself to question whether a man accused of statutory rape who had fled the country should have been nominated in the first place.
On yet another legal front, after filing in 2004, Polanski eventually won a six-figure libel suit against Vanity Fair after the magazine alleged he attempted to seduce a woman at a New York eatery just days following Tate's murder. Later that year, the director realized a long-held ambition when he helmed a film adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novel "Oliver Twist" (2005). Like both Dickens and the titular character, Polanski himself was a hardscrabble youth, allowing him a very personal take on the material. His unique vision was perhaps best distinguished by its sympathetic take on Fagin (Ben Kingsley) as someone who exploits his young pickpockets, but also provides a better life than they might have known. A few years later, Polanski's legal troubles were the subject of a documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" (2008). Director Marina Zenovich re-examined the circumstances surrounding Polanski's conviction in 1977 for statutory rape, including interviews with Geimer, defense attorney Douglas Dalton and Los Angeles Assistant District Attorney Roger Dunson. The film also raised the issue of possible bias with Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, now dead, who was alleged to have been out to get Polanski. The director would make headlines again, when in September 2009, he was arrested in Switzerland while on his way to pick up a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. He was now facing the possibility of being extradited to the United States after more than 30 years.
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