Roman Polanski
'I know what I am, what I have and haven't done, how things really were and are'

By Joe Leydon

July 13, 1986 | Roman Polanski. The name still elicits sneers and snickers in many circles, predictable responses to someone whose notoriety has eclipsed most memories of his artistic achievements. That's not likely to change any time soon, even after the Friday release of Polanksi's latest film, the relatively innocuous Pirates.

There was a time, of course, when Polanski was an international celebrity, acclaimed as the gifted director of such films as Rosemary's Baby, Knife in the Water and Repulsion. Later, he became ever better-known as an object of pity, being the man whose wife, actress Sharon Tate, was slain by the bloodthirsty Manson cultists. (Macbeth and Chinatown, movies that Polanski directed after Tate’s murder, are unmistakably influenced by that horrific crime.) 

But now there is much less respect, and little pity at all, throughout most quarters in and out of the film industry for Roman Polanski. Now he is a Saturday Night Live punchline, a symbol of all that's feared and jeered when the conversation turns to Hollywood's dark side.

Polanski has been called a child molester, a baby raper, and worse epithets that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper. All because, on March 10, 1977, he allegedly drugged, raped and sodomized a 13-year-old girl during a improvised sex orgy at the Bel-Air home of actor Jack Nicholson.

To this day, Polanski denies being a rapist, insisting the girl who accused him of the much-publicized assault nearly a decade ago was a willing, and very experienced, paramour. During 1977 courtroom proceedings in Santa Monica, Calif., Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband seemed to accept at least part of Polanski's defense. In open court, the judge read a probation report indicating ''that although just short of her 14th birthday at the time of the defense, the victim was a well-developed young girl who looked older than her years, and was not unschooled in sexual matters.''

Even so, the judge added, the girl's consent was not the issue. Polanski pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of ''unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl,'' then underwent 42 days of psychiatric tests at the California Men's Institute at Chino to help determine his sentence. But then Rittenband told Polanski's lawyer of his decision: He would sentence Polanski to only 48 days in prison, but only if Polanski agreed to accept voluntary deportation after completing his jail term.

Polanksi opted to begin his exile a few days early. He caught a plane to Europe, settled down in France, and never looked back. (Although he was born in Poland, Polanski is a French citizen and carries a French passport.) Back in the U.S.A., Rittenband was pleased: ''What I wanted,'' he told the Associated Press, ''was to get him out of the country. He doesn't belong here.''

Polanski's lawyer managed to get his client's in absentia sentencing delayed indefinitely by claiming Rittenband was prejudiced against the defendant. Eventually, Rittenband disqualified himself from the case. But even now, Roman Polanski remains a fugitive from justice.

Polanski realizes full well how intensely he is hated by many who followed his real-life courtroom melodrama, by tabloid readers who have feasted on lurid reports of his affairs with other comely nymphets. (Among his more notorious conquests: an under-age Nastassja Kinski.) ''I am widely regarded, Iknow, as an evil, profligate dwarf,'' he wrote in his best-selling autobiography, Roman. But he makes no apologies for himself: ''I have been on the receiving end of so many inaccuracies, misapprehensions and downright distortions that people who don't know me have an entirely false idea of my personality. Rumor, harnessed to the power of the media, creates an image of public figures that clings to them forever -- a sort of caricature that passes for reality.''

But it's not a reality Polanski accepts: ''I know what I am, what I have and haven't done, how things really were and are.''

That's part of the reason he wrote Roman in the first place: To set the record straight. And that's part of the reason Roman Polanski believes he eventually will risk arrest -- or worse -- by returning to the United States.

During the Cannes Film Festival this past spring, where Polanski was on hand to introduce Pirates to an international audience, the diminutive filmmaker spoke to me of his planned journey to California. He won't leave tomorrow, or next week. But someday, he says. Someday soon.

Does he want to clear his name? Polanski was too polite to scoff at my question, so he merely shook his head.

''It's important for myself, for my peace of mind,'' he insisted, settling into an easy chair in his sun-streaked Carlton Hotel suite. ''Not, as you said, for 'clearing my name,' because I don't think you can clear anything. The press and the media create an image of someone, and they don't even want to hear the truth, or a reason. They do whatever is convenient at a given time.

''But for myself, yes, it is important. I would feel much better about it if it were behind me. I don't want to go into the nitty-gritty of it. But I just don't like leaving certain things unconcluded behind me. And you know, I have a certain tenacity that makes me complete certain things. So this is something else I will have to accomplish. It's like making this film, Pirates, after 10 years of struggle. Or writing my biography, which I thought I would do one day. I think that one day, I will have to close this chapter as well.

''The good thing about it,'' he added with a sly grin, ''is that I'll have no more reporters asking me about it like you are now. If not for anything else but this, it will be worth it.''

Very clever. Very smooth. And perhaps just a bit too facile.

Roman Polanski is nothing if not charming, a raconteur who can be most entertaining while skirting away from potentially awkward detours in the conversation. It's not so much that he seems dishonest -- it's just that, after steeling himself for long against half-baked rumors and antagonistic queries, he clearly has devised a series of safe, standard answers to troublesome standard questions. It's easy: He simply sits down, greets the journalist, and then slips into interview mode.

And he's the first to admit it: He's wary of dealing with the press. Indeed, for several years, he refused to be interviewed. ''It all happened after Sharon's death. There was a deluge of articles which were complete fabrications, suppositions, insults. It was so shocking to me. I just could not understand it. By now, though, I have learned how to cope with that sort of thing.''

So he has developed the press-proof shield. Sometimes, though, pain seeps through cracks in the facade. If you pay attention, you can hear the melancholy behind the mirth in his anecdotes. If you watch closely, you can see the occasional flash of a psychic bruise reflected in his eyes.

Little wonder: Roman Polanski has endured horrors more grotesque than anything ever found in his movies. As a child, he and his parents were sent to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, where his mother died. Little Roman escaped, and survived by roaming the countryside for six years. After the war, an ingratiating thug nearly cracked open Roman's skull during a robbery attempt.

Polanski eventually was reunited with his father, turned to acting at age 12, and spent five years studying at the Polish National Film School in Lodz. His graduation project was a feature-length film, Knife in the Water, that was enthusiastically received throughout the world. (In 1963, it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign-Language Film.) By 1967, the year he met actress Sharon Tate at a party, Polanski had already directed Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and Rosemary's Baby. He also had established a reputation as a jet-setting, self-confessed satyr, listing Jill St. John, Jacqueline Bisset and Michelle Phillips among his conquests. With Sharon Tate, however, the romance blossomed into marriage. She was pregnant with Polanski's child on Aug. 9, 1969, when she and three friends were slaughtered by members of Charles Manson's murderous cult.

After so many terrible events, does Polanski ever feel he has been cursed?

''Oh, no,'' he said, dismissing the notion with a wave of his hand. ''During moments when these things happen, of course, I may throw up my hands and say, 'Why me?' Because, in general, one thinks the bad things happen to others, and not to ourselves. But with a bit of perspective, you lose that notion. You realize that it's all just chance. Or fate. Or whatever.''

Once again, the flip reply, the cynical shrug. Polanski makes a great show -- in public, at least -- of being somehow above it all, of being able to sit back and view the spectacle of life with a jaundiced eye.

But it doesn't quite add up: On one hand, Polanski says he doesn't care what people think of him. On the other hand, he wants to revisit the United States ''for my own peace of mind.'' He doesn't have to seek work as a director in Hollywood -- he lives in France, considers himself a European, and claims he can work as often as he desires. Still, he wants to return to a place where he may well be greeted with open handcuffs.

Why? Is it possible that Roman Polanski, the sardonic imp, really wants to come back to America for sentimental reasons?

It's awkward phrasing the question, difficult to speak the words out loud in Polanski's presence. Still, I ask: Does he want to return to America because the great love of his life, Sharon Tate, is buried there?

Polanski stopped laughing. There wasn't a trace of amusement on his face as he looked at me for what seemed like a long, long time. I was ready to apologize and excuse myself from the room when he finally spoke.

“'This is more important than anything else, I would say,'' Polanski said, the jocularity in his tone giving way to wistful sadness. ''I'm surprised you say this -- you're the only person who has ever said that to me. Yes, I think about it very often. And although it's a difficult question for you, I'm sure you're sensitive enough to realize it's an even more difficult answer for me.

''I'll tell you: It is important for me. Whatever she represented to me was the happiest side of America. This is the way I feel whenever I speak to her family, to her father, mother and sisters. And they're the only people I really have there with whom I have some kind of intimate relations.

''Besides them, there are just acquaintances, friends. But not close friends.''