EXILE ON MEAN STREET
There are worse places to be exiled than Paris, but Roman Polanski longs for sunny, featureless Los Angeles. It is, of course, a place haunted by the ghosts of Sharon Tate and the couple's unborn child. But 25 years later, it is still the Emerald City. There, he remembers, deals are struck at lunch and the money is easy. There, the ever more complex apparatus of getting movies made works best. It is the embodiment of the filmmaker's long-held dream of freedom.
As fate and the law would have it, Polanski cannot return to L.A. As has so often been the case, he is once again a fugitive, an outsider.
That curse took hold early. Set adrift in Nazi-occupied Poland, the boy who would one day direct dark masterpieces such as Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown was tormented by his mother's death and, literally, by the Germans. In one famous incident, Nazi soldiers laughed as he danced out of the path of their bullets.
By the time he was fourteen, in 1947, Polanski had already taken refuge in the movies--but the specific movies tell a tale. One favorite, he recalled in a recent interview beamed to several American reporters from Paris, was Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, a thriller in which an Irish fugitive played by James Mason eludes capture for a night but is shot at dawn by the police. His other favorite was Laurence Olivier's Hamlet--drenched in Oedipal anxiety. Not the usual stuff of teenage escapism.
"Later, in film school [at Lodz]," Polanski says via a teleconference hookup, "I was considered a `cosmopolitan,' which in those times was thought to be a dangerous thing. I was always looking forward to the moment when I would go west and work in France, in England, in the United States. Films from the West were always the model for me. That's what I always wanted to do."
And so he did. But while not even the Manson murders could wreck the resilient Polanski's career as an "American" filmmaker, a rape case involving a thirteen-year-old did. "I'm sure if I were living in L.A., many things would be much easier, faster and more efficient," he says. But he's banished from American soil and cannot even discuss the case.
Meanwhile, Death and the Maiden looms so close to his life that this time he doesn't deny it. "I can't say that I identify with any one particular character," he says carefully. "But I do identify with certain aspects of all of them. Ben Kingsley--yes, I can identify with the problems of someone who is accused, maybe wrongly accused. In general, I can be preoccupied with the relativity of the truth, depending on who's telling it. I can identify with the character of Sigourney Weaver, as well--with someone who has been hurt and is seeking revenge and has to come to terms with his own visceral feelings. And I can identify with certain aspects of the husband, Wilson--someone who is torn between truth and loyalty."
In fact, Roman Polanski says, he has changed. Mellowing with time, for instance, he no longer berates actors. "I am an actor myself, so I understand their problems," he says. "Actually, acting is a very unhealthy profession." He illustrates this with a typically macabre example: "Imagine you are a spy in a foreign country, and for five years you pretend to limp. Eventually, this produces changes in your body. Well, acting is limping mentally...Pretending you are crazy or hysterical, or pretending you are a monster ten hours a day, takes its toll."
Life has taken its toll on Polanski, too. But he says he is not bitter.
"I suppose I realized how you must come to terms with things on my first trip to Germany, when I was still a film student. I realized that the people I saw around me might be...well, they suddenly seemed to be normal people. I had no feeling of vengeance or revenge, although I suffered tremendously in every thought of my mother. Now it brings tears to my eyes. But I have no desire of vendettas. I realized the moment the Manson family was found that all that hatred that had accumulated in me against a disembodied idea of a culprit had suddenly evaporated...Confronted with any one of them, I would not jump on them and try to strangle them."
And exile? "I wish I could be there with you," he says. "I would much prefer to see your faces, to smell your perfume, rather than do this via TV. But I must accept this in the same way I accepted the other things I talked about."
The satellite signal expired, and Roman Polanski vanished into the vapors.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.