Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out

Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out

 With her 2008 feature documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired, the director Marina Zenovich achieved the dream of many a nonfiction filmmaker: Not only did her movie attract attention (and win awards, including two Emmys and a prize for best documentary editing at Sundance), it had a real, life-changing impact on its subject. It just wasn’t the impact that Zenovich might have hoped for. Wanted And Desired tells the story of Polanski’s 1977 arrest after the 43-year-old director had sex with a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Geimer (nee’ Gailey) who he had plied with champagne and half a Quaalude after luring her into Jack Nicholson’s hot tub. The movie is extremely sympathetic to Polanski; Zenovich doesn’t try to deny what he did, but she depicts him as a man whose sexual identity and moral compass had been battered and confused by unbelievable suffering while growing up, and who had just begun to put his life and career together again, after his first taste of personal happiness with his second wife, Sharon Tate, was destroyed by the Manson family. By the end, she’s used clips from Polanski’s films, including both his early, experimental work and his Hollywood hits like Rosemary’s Baby, to cast him as the hero-victim of one of his own nightmare visions.

Wanted And Desired is a skillful, atmospheric piece of work, and even if the special pleading for poor little Roman makes you gag a little, it makes a compelling case that his flight to Europe to avoid final sentencing, which made him one of the world’s most famous fugitives from American justice, was actually an escape from being railroaded. According to the film’s interview subjects, including former Assistant D. A. Roger Gunson and former Deputy D. A. David Wells, Polanski had been sentenced to serve 90 days at Chino State Prison for “psychiatric evaluation” by the judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, with the understanding that after his release from Chino, he would report to the court and be given probation.

That sentence would have been commensurate with the recommendation of the examining psychiatrist and the requests of Polanski’s victim. But after Rittenband was attacked in the press for going easy on the big-time famous director, he apparently changed his mind and announced his intention to throw Polanski back in prison and throw away the key. As Polanski sees it, he’s been an exile from America for more than 30 years not because he’s trying to evade justice, but to avoid being further punished after having served his sentence. (Polanski later paid a cash settlement to Samantha Geimer in the 1990s. Judge Rittenband died in 1993.)

The revelations contained in Wanted And Desired emboldened Polanski—who won the Academy Award for Best Director for 2002’s The Pianist, setting off speculation that the industry, at least, had forgiven him—to file motions requesting that his case be investigated and dismissed on the basis of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct. A few months later, Polanski was arrested by Swiss police and held for possible extradition to the U. S. Assurances from both Swiss authorities and Los Angeles prosecutors that arresting Polanski had been a top priority for three decades, and this was the first chance they’d had to nab him, failed to pass the laugh test.

As Lawrence Weschler puts it here, “Polanski was just going on living a life that he had been living for years,” in public, and the law seemed to have made its peace with that, even if it was never going to give him its blessing. He had gone to Switzerland to collect an award at the Zurich Film Festival, but when he was bailed out and needed a place to stay while the extradition drama played itself out, he already had his own Swiss chalet, which he had bought years before, under his own name. The most obvious conclusion that it was the embarrassment of having had the case dredged up again in the most humiliating way possible that convinced the Los Angeles D. A.’s office that something absolutely had to be done about a 76-year-old man who had confessed to a 32-year-old crime, but who no one had accused of being a repeat offender.

Zenovich shows herself arriving in Switzerland, and expresses her guilty feelings over whatever she may have done to get this ball rolling. She might feel a little guilty about having so little to show for having cashed in her frequent flyer miles. Most of Odd Man Out boils down to news footage—the lawyers in L.A. battling it out, armies of jackals with cameras clustered around Polanski’s Swiss home—that she could have cadged from anywhere. She raises the right questions: Why did the Swiss suddenly care about Polanski, and why did they just as suddenly stop caring? (10 months after Polanski was detained, the Swiss suddenly cut him loose, citing the L.A. prosecutor’s failure to produce the video of new testimony by Roger Gunson as reason enough to call the whole thing off. Polanski felt secure enough that the Swiss wouldn’t change their minds that he attended the next Zurich Film Festival, telling the crowd, “Better late than never.”) And why had David Wells suddenly chosen to recant the claims of judicial misconduct he’d made for her cameras? (Wells’ new story, which he told to anyone who was listening, was that he’d just lied his ass off in Wanted And Desired, figuring it was okay to do so, since he didn’t think anyone would see the documentary outside France.) The questions are good; it’s the answers she offers that lack substance and weight.

Odd Man Out has little of the texture of Wanted And Desired; it’s really just a follow-up report on the previous movie, a “When we last saw our hero…” quickie update. The story of how Polanski was belatedly inconvenienced because of his “mistake” of many years before may be most interesting for the reactions people had to it: for what it those reactions reveal about the magical power of fame and celebrity, and the idea of predatory sex with minors, to make people say weird and callous things. When Polanski is arrested, French intellectuals and Hollywood film celebrities alike call for his release, on the grounds that he’s an “artist,” as if that were an excise for the most reprehensible behavior. Zenovich expresses regret over this, not because she disagrees with the idea—she probably doesn’t—but because she knows that it “backfired.” Her montage of what the backlash looked like includes the late Andrew Breitbart sneering that those defending Polanski are showing their contempt for the simple nobodies in the fly-over states who can tell right from wrong, and a clip of Cokie Roberts thoughtfully wondering why we can’t “just take him out and shoot him.”

You’re always on good, solid moral ground saying the worst about child rapists, but when some man on the street grins from ear to ear and expresses the hope that Polanski will wind up in jail and run into “his old pal, Manson,” it’s hard not to feel that more than one button is being pushed. (Polanski isn’t the only one on the receiving end, either. Stephanie Geimer talks about being called “a slutty little girl with a stage mother from Hell.”) It ought to be possible to be appalled by Polanski's actions and still be horrified to see the law treated like Silly Putty by people who seem less interested in justice than in how their sound bites play on Entertainment Tonight. (It might help if Polanski and the colleagues who come to his defense, such as Pierce Brosnan, could stop asking that he be left alone so that he can be with his children.)

Of the many talking heads who weigh in on the case, Linda Deutsch, a “special correspondent” for Associated Press, stands out as a beacon of reasonableness and sanity. “Someone smarter than I am or more insightful than I may find a meaning in this. I don’t I don’t know what the meaning is, other than that times change, people change, and that some tragedies are so compelling that they have a hold on us forever.” I’m not sure I buy that part about the case having a hold on us “forever.” I’ll bet that many of the people who, in 2009, seemed to care most about Polanski and his victim and were most vocal about what they thought their story revealed about the people they hate the most, hadn’t really given the case much thought in 30 years, or ever. I’ll also bet that most of those people went right back to not thinking or caring about it when it became clear that Polanski was just going to go back to his life and career.  If they watch the documentary, they might be able to get excited about it all over again. But the documentary won’t have much to do with it.