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Why Polanski Did What he Did


This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen. Roman Polanski is one of the world's most famous directors. He made "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby," "The Pianist" and other great films.

BRAND: His achievements though, are overshadowed by something he did more than 30 years ago, back in the 1970s.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Newscaster: Starting with his lawyer Douglas Dalton Polanski was asked by deputy district attorney Roger Gunson to what count he pleaded guilty. Polanski: "I had intercourse with a female person, not my wife, who was under 18 years of age." Gunson: "How old did you think the girl was?" Polanski: "I understood she was 13."

BRAND: Right before he was to be sentenced, Polanski fled to Paris, never to return to the United States for fear of being arrested. That story, what happened during the trial and the fallout is told in a new documentary that airs on HBO tonight.

Ms. MARINA ZENOVICH (Director, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired"): I don't think anyone, other than the two of them know what really happened, but I was more interested in what happened after that and what made him flee.

BRAND: Marina Zenovich is the director of the documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

Ms. ZENOVICH: You know, for me, with Roman Polanski, you always have to go back in time. You know, it starts with his childhood in Poland where he survived the Holocaust where his mother was murdered. Goes to London in the swinging 60s and is making films, "Knife in the Water," "Cul-de-sac." Meets Sharon Tate, they fall in love and what was surprising for me was to just see how he had such hope in his life at a certain point when he was a hot young director after making "Rosemary's Baby." And then she was murdered. So, for me, in going back, it just painted a picture, for me, of what brought him to this night in 1977.

BRAND: So, do you think that the murder of Sharon Tate, and he did say his marriage to her was the happiest time of his life, do you think that after that he fundamentally changed?

Ms. ZENOVICH: I think Roman Polanski is the survivor, but I thought Mia Farrow said it best, kind of that he didn't have the blueprint for life that most of us do

Ms. MIA FARROW (Actress): One hoped for Roman, you know, this brand new life with a woman who loved him, and who seemed so right for him. With a baby that there would be this security. That he had not had in his life, and in a new homeland. I mean the future was his, we thought. And then everything just collapsed.

BRAND: Now, this was - as you paint in your documentary, an incredible media circus, almost on the level of the OJ trial, and at the center of it, is the judge.

Ms. ZENOVICH: Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, a fascinating character, I could have made a film about him. Rittenband was an elderly jurist who was quite powerful and cherry-picked this case, very media savvy and interested in what people thought of him.

BRAND: But he is - he's blamed by not only Polanski and Polanski's defense attorney but also the prosecutor for a miscarriage of justice.

Ms. ZENOVICH: Yeah, I mean, when I was interviewing the lawyers and discovered what had happened kind of behind closed doors, I was astounded.

BRAND: So, what happened? What did he do that was the issue?

Ms. ZENOVICH: Polanski pleads guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. The punishment was supposed to be based on a probation report. The judge got the probation report and it said that he wasn't a mentally disordered sex offender and the he shouldn't go to jail. And I think he was feeling a lot of pressure and didn't know what to do, so he started enlisting advice from Richard Brenneman who was a young journalist for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook at the time. He said, you know, I went into his chambers and he looked at me and said, Dick, tell me, what do I do about Polanski?

Mr. RICHARD BRENNEMAN (Journalist): I went, whoa, Your Honor, that's your decision, that's not mine. I'm a reporter, I can't advise you on something like that. I hadn't been covering courts that long, but I knew a decision by a judge was supposed to be a decision by a judge and was not to take in any advice from any other person other than what was there on the law books, what had been entered into evidence in the case.

Ms. ZENOVICH: I mean it's all this kind of manipulation of how these cases work.

BRAND: So Polanski gets wind of this and he...

Ms. ZENOVICH: Well, Polanski goes for the 90-day diagnostic. He's told by his lawyer, you know, keep your chin up, this is it. At the end of this you are going to be free because, basically, that's what the judge told the lawyers. And the judge calls the lawyers into chambers and says, I've changed my mind. You know, I want him to go back to jail, or I want him to be deported. I mean, he was just kind of spouting whatever. I don't think he knew what to do. And in the end, Polanski ended up not knowing what was ahead of him. And you know, I don't want to give the movie away but, you know, he flees.

BRAND: What do the principals say now? What does the prosecutor say now about it?

Ms. ZENOVICH: I was quite shocked when the prosecutor in the case said to me in the interview, I'm not surprised that he left under those circumstances. It's a very telling moment in the film just because he's come full circle to being on the same side as Polanski's attorney because of the judge's actions. It's in no way forgiving Polanski, but it's explaining why he fled.

BRAND: You also interview the victim in this, Samantha Geimer, who for many, many years she was unknown to most people. Her name wasn't out there. What did she have to say about all this?

Ms. ZENOVICH: I'm quite impressed with Samantha Geimer because she is over this. I think she's made peace with it. I think she wants to move on. I think, ironically, her lawyer wanted a plea bargain because he didn't want her to forever be known as the girl who had sex with Roman Polanski. But ironically she is. And she's a happily-married mother of three, very sunny and clear-eyed, and just wants it to be finished.

BRAND: Did you ever get an interview with Roman Polanski?

Ms. ZENOVICH: I ended up approaching Polanski at the end of production, and it took a very long time to get a response. I told him that I wanted to interview him. And he was very apologetic, and said he didn't want to be a prima donna, but he just felt that he shouldn't be in the film.

BRAND: Has he ever expressed remorse for this?

Ms. ZENOVICH: He has, but I don't think it's as much as our culture needs. Honestly, I mean, it's never just enough. So, I think he feels that he went through the process and pled guilty and went through the probation report and went to what was to be considered his jail time. And he feels the rug was pulled out from under him. He suffered as well. It's like - I think this case is a tragedy for everyone involved.

BRAND: How did you come away feeling about him? What did you think of him?

Ms. ZENOVICH: My own opinion of Polanski changes, because you feel different things for him at different times in his life. You know, you feel sorry for him as a kid and what he endured. You feel sorry for him with regard to the Sharon Tate murder. But then he committed a horrific crime on a 13-year-old girl. But it was 30 years ago. And I'm not saying that we need to forgive him, I'm not saying that at all. It's just, kind of, like, I think we need to take a look at what got him to that place, and that's what I tried to do by making this movie. I think the story of the case deserves to be told.

BRAND: Well, thank you very much.

Ms. ZENOVICH: Thank you.

BRAND: That's Marina Zenovich. Her new movie is called "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired." It airs tonight on HBO.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There's more to come on Day to Day from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.