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- March 05, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 9
Talented, Reckless, Haunted and Hunted, the Gnome of Krakow Wears the Scars of a Life Lived at High Amplitude
Polanski is a human Very pistol. Quarks stand still longer. He'll gladly hand you his fossil-hard forearm or biceps or pec muscle to test. And he doesn't mind answering a good-natured male challenge. "Yes, I think I can take you. Bigger than you, too." He has just come back from skiing in Gstaad. One month ago he almost died of exhaustion and exposure at 19,000 feet on a Himalayan trek. "You can live quietly in your bed and risk no car crash. It depends what amplitude you decide to choose. Whether you live like this [hand, zoom, high overhead] or like this [hand down, grounded]. I live like this [the hand, eee-ahhh, does a stunt pilot Immelmann turn]. I like adventure. It's in me."
And it's all in his new autobiography, Roman (William Morrow, $17.95). Escaping alone, at age 9, from the Krakow ghetto just before that deadly holding tank was liquidated by Nazi order. Beaten over the head with a stone by a thief. (His assailant, who had killed three people, was later put to death.) Women. Several attempts to escape from Communist Poland in the false ceiling of a railway carriage bathroom. More women. An automobile crash that fractured his skull. Hard, francless years in Paris. A daunting LSD trip. Yet more women. The murder of his second wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child. His conviction for having sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. Prison and self-deportation from America. An over-amped life retold with lucid, frank, flat prose that neither whitewashes nor sensationalizes. "This is the approach I have in film, you know. To tell the story. At last, I think, only facts matter."
The physical Polanski has been a salient fact throughout. His elfin, Danny Kaye face can make him look as fetching as some ingenue Bil Baird marionette or downright mean. Being 5'5", he will admit, has always been a kind of incentive. "It's important. I think that without it I wouldn't be where I am. You have to compensate, you know." And compensate he does. U-turn on U-turn, hurtling the wrong way down a oneway street, aiming a borrowed car over the sidewalk, Polanski drives like Toad of Toad Hall. "I left my own car in Gstaad," he cries. "You should see mine. I have telephone, stereo, you name it. I love gadgets." Honking, laying down a high squeal of rubber, he erupts into the Place de la Concorde, where right now they are designing his biggest gadget ever: a full-scale, functional 17th-century pirate galleon.
For the first time in his star-and starlet-crossed career Polanski doesn't have to hassle about up-front cash. Carthago Films, a Tunisian production outfit run by the brilliant young film entrepreneur Tarak Ben Amar, is backing him to the catchy tune of about $30 million. Polanski had more or less retired as a movie director. "Yes. Really. I hadn't done anything since Tess in 1979. I was happily working in the theater. There you also have some hustle, but not nearly as much. I wouldn't have begun with film again if not for this guy who came and said, 'Let's revive Pirates.' " It was a script that Polanski had tried to finance as far back as 1975, a swashbuckling adventure comedy. In June, Polanski will begin his 26-week shooting schedule in Tunisia. Now he is at work getting ready.
But there are distractions. In the casting office at Carthago a strange, limpetlike man approaches Polanski on an exotic wavelength.
Limpet: I'm an American actor but I'm Italian. My father was tortured to death.
Polanski: (A bit off-balance for once.) Well, yes, that's terrible.
L: Could you lend me 1,000 francs? I need it for a ring so that I can get the crown of France.
P: So you can what?
L: For a ring. A magic ring.
P: (Out-amplituded here.) Ah. If you needed it for some other reason I would lend it to you, but...
L: Well, I'm starving, too. I haven't a sou.
P: You're really in such straits? Here. (Polanski takes out several 100-franc notes.)
L: Thanks. You're a great director, you know.
In his somewhat-less-maddened art-design department Polanski scuds from a model of his galleon to another of a pirate tavern. Something doesn't please him. Deftly he resketches the tavern. Then he finds an error in the galleon blueprint. "I have a hard time getting through to you," he tells his nautical engineers, "that this is a set, a floating set, not a real boat." When he is tired or upset, a double-barreled tic will jar Polanski's face, as if he were being jabbed in the nose again and again by Sugar Ray Leonard. "Now, time to leave," he whispers. "Let them think this over for a day."
Ironically, it was on water that Polanski first made his reputation. Knife in the Water won the Lodz film school graduate an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film in 1963. It concerned the jagged tensions building among three people on a small sailboat, and was difficult material to film. His crew hung half-overboard in safety harness day after day. Worse, the leading lady was so dull and unresponsive that, desperate (also ruthless), Polanski had a flare pistol fired near her ear at one crucial moment. It did the trick. "Water. Yes. I often think about it," he says. "Knife was my first movie, this is probably going to be my last."
Polanski's film oeuvre has been uneven: a hard-to-pigeonhole mixture of obsession, brilliant self-indulgence and honest commercial pragmatism. There are the psychological adventures—Knife, Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-Sac (1966), The Tenant (1976); an experiment or two in absurdity—The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), What? (1973); and films he made to order for Hollywood—Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974). He is known as a perfectionist who breaks schedules and budgets. Film critic John Simon says, "Polanski? He profited from the discipline that Communist Poland imposed on him. When he has to kick against the pricks he can make a pretty good film. But in Hollywood and London he became totally undisciplined." Polanski bristles when this opinion is related. "The man is a fool. If I'd stayed in Poland who would've heard of me? That's like saying the true artist has to starve in a garret."
And Polanski, thank you, has had all he wants of hard times. Throughout the Nazi occupation, child Roman, with the help of reluctant Catholic families that took him in, pretty much looked after himself. With his mother already in Auschwitz, where she died, he had seen his father herded off to Mauthausen concentration camp. By the time Polanski senior returned after the war, Roman had quite independent habits. Father set him up, at age 14 or so, in his own separate apartment. Soon after that Roman became a professional actor. First on The Merry Gang children's radio show. Then in a major stage production, Son of the Regiment. Then on film. Survival, during World War II, had been a matter of ad lib, quick study and suave performance. Childhood was, in one sense, his long rehearsal period. Polanski learned to mimic better than a team of doppelgangers. Anyone as fluent as he is in Polish, English, French, German, Russian and Italian must have a fine and pliant ear. In normal speech his English is heavily accented. But when he impersonates someone, the nasal Eastern European singsong will flick, vanish. His imitation of a Scot reciting Robert Burns is uncannily canny. So are his jive-talk Harlem blacks. Or that drunken, bumptious Krakow funeral director who, last autumn, managed to prepare the wrong grave for Polanski's father. " 'Donsh worry,' he said, 'jes g'back and schtall zis thing. Veal find z'right plaish yet.' I mean, you're burying your father and you end up with tragicomedy."
His women, invariably, listen. Polanski is dining at L'Ami Louis, a favorite Paris restaurant. He has brought one date for himself, one for a friend. They are attractive girls, not underage and very self-effacing. Neither will volunteer conversation: They know Roman the Male Chauvinist Kielbasa. (He has been quoted: "I have little patience with women's lib. Girls should accept their role as governed by biological realities.") But they eat well. "Girls who are worth taking out are those who like food," he says. "You know what will follow will be more or less of the same order. When you go out with a woman and she says, 'I don't drink wine,' already an alarm bell rings."
Polanski isn't in love at the moment. Sexuality, though, has always motivated his art. "First comes my love of my work," he says, "but secondary to the creation itself is the need to get laid." Seven years ago, at the Los Angeles home of Jack Nicholson, Polanski surrendered to that need indiscreetly with a 13-year-old girl, earning himself 42 days in California's Chino prison for "unlawful sexual intercourse." Ironically, though Polanski stands, politically, somewhat to the right of Ronald Reagan, he projects a libertine image that, more than any other factor, led to his relentless prosecution and final imprisonment. It wasn't the crime—few do time for unlawful sexual intercourse—nor was it his celebrity status, though that didn't help. It was a peculiarly American intuition of Polanski as smarmy embodiment of suave Old World decadence. After all, Polanski's affair with then 15-year-old Nastassja Kinski had been flaunted and, worse, accepted Over There. Leniency here might have been taken for acquiescence. When Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, ignoring probation reports, threatened Polanski with further imprisonment, Polanski fled to France, where he cannot be extradited on the California charge.
Other strains in American Puritanism have brought Polanski under suspicion as well. There is a residual sense among us, dating from the Calvinist concept of election, that goodness will be rewarded materially, visibly on earth. And vice, vice versa. "It started with Sharon's death," says Polanski. "Before that I was the toast of the town. Then people started looking for some kind of rational connection between such a horrendous crime and the people who suffered. They concluded that the victims must have been evil. It somehow gave them more assurance." Immediately after the murders, innuendos suggesting drug abuse, illicit sex, even voodoo practices were commonly circulated in the press about Sharon Tate and, by extension, her husband. Even after the Manson gang had been brought in, somehow no one thought to retract.
Since 1977 few people in the Western world have been libeled so thoroughly and so often. Four years ago an American publishing house brought out an egregious unauthorized biography under the temperate cover blurb: Fascinating. Evil. Corrupt. Polanski is outraged, but without legal recourse. "I can't sue," he says. "That's the whole premise of these people. To do so I'd have to go either to the U.S. or England [where he could be extradited to the U.S.]." In frustration, Polanski put Roman together from several hundred tape-recorded hours of conversation with himself and old friends in Europe. He isn't hopeful it will make a great difference. His life has become a blank check to be filled in by the media. "Well, it has advantages," he says wryly. "People whom I meet, mainly women, are pleasantly surprised to find someone who isn't a monster."
Polanski throws back another snort of Maalox. The stomach pain has begun to irk him: A life of exuberant good health can spoil a man. He wonders aloud, has he lost his nerve? Recently, when driving through the Alps at night he pulled over at a motel. Such caution, for him, is unheard of. "I've never done that before. But I said, 'Let's be clever, let's not be a hero. You have no urgent business.' Maybe I'm changing, getting sedate. Wiser, that's the word. I don't know if it's good or bad. No, I don't think it can be good, actually."
Resignation—sadness—is finally the tone of both Roman and Roman. "I know in my heart of hearts," he writes, "that the spirit of laughter has deserted me. It isn't just that success has left me jaded or that I've been soured by tragedy and by my own follies. I seem to be toiling to no discernible purpose." But, you sense, it is his American experience that obsesses Polanski. The death of wife and son. Shame, then exile. "I don't want to live in the U.S. I'm too European," he says. "But I know I have to clear this thing up sooner or later. I must do it for my peace of mind. Maybe by now they may see it in a calmer way."
They don't. We don't. Polanski, like a restless spirit from some other world, rapping, sighing, sending messages through the press and TV Ouija board, will always struggle to return. But it doesn't make sense. If granted a visa (which is unlikely), he would be arrested on arrival and held without bail until a new probation report was made. He might end up in Chino again. And, even were he freed, which American film company would dare hire him as a director? Whatever the degree of his guilt, Polanski is trapped by a cultural impasse. Ultimately he will not be forgiven.
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