Roman Polanski

Director Marina Zenovich has made a documentary film that takes a look back at the sensational Roman Polanski trial for having sex with a then 13-year-old girl. The film, produced by Steven Soderbergh, among others, is amazing in that it gets most of the principals to comment, although, in some cases, the commentary is not to Zenovich, directly, but through other interviews Polanski has given since fleeing the country and taking up residence in France. The title refers to the fact that Polanski is idolized and desired in his adopted homeland of France, while, in the United States, he is still, technically, a fugitive from justice who is “wanted.”

HBO, ThinkFilm, a film by Graceful Presents, the BBC and Antidote Films all receive a credit, and the actual alleged rape victim (who publicly forgave Polanski in 1997), Samantha, Gailey (Geimer) is interviewed onscreen at several points.

Polanski’s main defense attorney, the Lincoln-esque Douglas Dalton, is quoted (today) saying, “What actually happened to the system of justice. I remain flabbergasted after all these years.” Roger Gunson, who, at the time, was the 37-year-old Mormon prosecution attorney, also seems to feel that the chief judge in the case, one Lawrence J. Rittenband, the Senior Judge in Santa Monica, mishandled the case because he wanted to “choreograph” the outcome to enhance his own love of the limelight. Judge Rittenband would constantly send the two opposition attorneys into the courtroom and tell them to play out a little drama according to a script he provided them that would enhance his (the Judge’s) reputation, in return for certain concessions towards one side or the other.

Of course, the fact that Polanski did admit to having had sex with a then-13-year-old girl is brushed over lightly. The fact that he did not view it as a “crime” is, indirectly, laid at the doorstep of his checkered past and his upbringing in Europe, a country which has a far less Puritanical view of sex than the United States. Nevertheless, Polanski’s admssion to intercourse with the then-13-year-old school girl, Samantha Gailey, whom he had been hired to photograph as part of a series on beautiful young girls from around the world, by Vanity Fair seems to be regarded as a “crime” only by a minority of district attorneys and a couple of police officers, who speak of it as likely to draw years in prison for the ordinary citizen

Mia Farrow, speaking of Polanski’s childhood in Poland, when Nazis killed his mother in the gas chamber and when he also lost his father, a childhood he drew upon in making the Academy Award-winning film “The Piano,” says, onscreen, “He didn’t have the blueprint for life that others had.” She remembers Polanski as “Completely infectious” and points out that, after a rough childhood, he thought he had finally found stability in his marriage to actress Sharon Tate, only to have the Manson Clan murder the pregnant actress, her companions and their unborn son, who would have been thirty, today.

(*It is interesting to learn that Polanski, now 74, has been married for 18 years and has 2 children, and that the then-13-year-old victim has also been married for 18 years and has 3 children.)

Both attorneys, the defense and the prosecution, agree that Polanski’s flight from the country was not surprising, given the Judge’s flamboyant behavior. At one point, the comment is made that it was “very unfortunate to have a judge who misused justice” and Polanski, himself, in an interview, says that the Judge toyed with him, like a cat with a mouse, for over a year. There is even a short film illustrating this capricious behavior, with Polanski made to dance while a look-alike for the Judge bangs a drum and shouts orders for him to do this or do that.

The prosecuting attorney, whom the filmmakers compared to a young Robert Redford look-alike, says that he noticed, when researching Polanski through his films at the New Art Theater Polanski Film Festival, which happened to be showing in the area at the time, that all his films involved “corruption-meets-innocence-over-water” and that the nude shots of the young Samantha in the Jacuzzi at Jack Nicholson’s home (Nicholson was out of town, at the time; the use of his home next to Marlon Brando’s house for the tryst supposedly contributed to the break-up of Nicholson’s relationship with his then live-in, Angelica Huston, who was not amused) fit this profile. Prosecuting attorney Roger Gunson thought he could make a case out of that, alone, and, when the young girl’s semen-stained panties surfaced, and were divided between prosecution and defense teams (actual description here of 7 men cutting the panties in half), plea bargains were discussed by the defense team that had previously been disinterested in same.

Polanski’s attitude throughout seemed to be, “Yes, I had sex with a 13-year-old. So what?” It seems to have been established that Samantha was not a virgin and that both individuals had consumed champagne and shared a Quaalude before what Polanski called consensual sex, but which the prosecution termed rape and sodomy. Other charges involving giving a minor illegal substances were dropped, in exchange for Polanski’s plea to the main charge of having sex with a female, not his wife, whom he knew to be 13 years old at the time.

From that point on, things began to go south for Polanski and his case. For one thing, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate was constantly brought up, and the film “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which a young wife is raped by the devil after being tied down, seemed to make a case for Polanski’s willingness to force sex upon an unwilling partner.

When Polanski was allowed to travel out of the country on 90 day “passes” to complete a film he was directing, a friend somehow talked him in to attending Oktoberfest in Munich. A snapshot taken of him seated between two young girls seems to have enraged the judge and caused the judge to decide to welch on deals made, informally, that would have allowed Polanski to serve only probation and the 42 days he was sentenced to Chino for psychiatric observation, where the state’s shrink pronounced him “congenial, but reserved” and said he was not a Mentally Disturbed Sex Offender.

Polanski, himself, admits, early on, “I like young women.” He goes on to say that he thinks most men do. He also comments, at one point, in the face of criticism of his actions following Sharon Tate’s brutal murder by the Manson Family members that, “My real problems started with the murder of Sharon Tate,” and that “Different people have different ways of dealing with life and grief.  Some go to monasteries. Some start visiting whorehouses.” Even his friends admitted that Polanski was a genial host who “liked to be the center of it all.” His romance with Nastassia Kinski when she was only 15, whom he also photographed, was well documented before the charges made against him in California.

Some questioned why Susie Gailey, the young girl’s mother, would allow her under-age daughter to go off, alone, with Polanski, saying, “This was a guy that had a pretty wild reputation.”  The victim, herself, said, “I had to worry about surviving the next day (at school). You can’t stop it, once it starts.” She seems to wish that her mother had not brought the charges against Polanski and that none of the ensuing publicity had ever occurred. Polanski, himself, rails against the press in interviews, at one point saying, “In general, I despise the press because of their inaccuracy and their deliberate cruelty.” References were made to articles printed after Sharon Tate’s brutal murder that accused Polanski, himself, of having flown back to the United States, committed the murders, and then left again. This, of course, was tantamount to punishing the victim and somehow blaming the victims for the crimes committed against them. Those close to the director spoke of his dark, sad, veiled side, his strong vision of death and sadness, his brushes with life and death, but his ability to prevail, despite much grief.

Polanski, himself, in dining with an interviewer in Europe, asks him, near the end of the interview to tell him this, “You think there’s something more to my life than my relationship with young women?” Obviously, the French do, as they made him a member of the Academie Francaise, and the President of the Academie Francaise, Arnand d’Hailtervilla, “He is one of us…”

Polanski faced anywhere from 6 months to 50 years in prison in the U.S., after the Judge became piqued at the photo of Polanski frolicking in Germany, and a year in the county jail was also a possibility, along with deportation. Polanski, who was, at the time, remaking “The Hurricane” for Dino De Laurent is Productions out of the country, chose to flee rather than endure more of the “toying” with him that he maintained the judge was doing. Before his troubles began, he was much sought after in the fast track of Hollywood society, and loved California, saying, “Everything is easy here (in Los Angeles). Everything is accessible in this town.” Everything except underage girls, apparently.

A distraught Polanski, speaking to the press after Sharon Tate’s massacre, called their time together, “The only time of true happiness in my life” and appeared about to break down in tears. A friend who was with him when he received the news of the killings on the phone from his agent Bill Tennent, reports, “I saw someone just disintegrate in front of my eyes. He was devastated.”

The documentary is definitely sympathetic to Polanski’s side. The question of whether the average male in America (of any ethnicity) would simply walk away with “probation” after giving drugs to an underage 13-year-old and having sex with her, if he weren’t rich and able to pay for the very best attorneys, is not addressed. The “double standard” between the European view of sex and America’s Puritanical view of sex is addressed peripherally. The verdict on whether a penalty greater than 42 days of being “evaluated” by a psychiatrist at Chino (California) is appropriate for the charges levied is still out.

Polanski’s friends from the swinging sixties before the murder of his wife appear to still be his friends, and his work such as “The Piano” produced after he fled the United States speaks to his continuing undiminished talent as a director

When the judge assigned to the case displays scrapbooks of his high-profile celebrity cases (the Presley divorce, Cary Grant), the public is right to wonder if this was the most famous judge fiasco since Judge Ito and the O.J. trial, decades later. However, the question still remains as to whether celebrities receive a special “pass” in court, when compared to the rank-and-file of Americans charged with the same crime.