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In Exile : It's Been 10 Years Since Roman Polanski Set Foot in Hollywood. Now He Has a New Movie--and Friends Are Quietly Trying to Arrange His Return to Los Angeles

November 22, 1987|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Michael Cieply is a Times staff writer.

"THE U.S. HAS this wonderful Constitution," says fugitive movie director Roman Polanski, gulping a luncheon of oysters and white wine in a Paris restaurant recently. "But it is troubled by other things that it has to get under control. The puritanism."

Polanski laughs aloud on recalling a recent newspaper cartoon that showed evangelist-politician Pat Robertson proclaiming that his baby was conceived before his marriage: "It's a miracle."

"Such hypocrisy," the director says of the gap between public and private mores in America.

At 54, Polanski is outrageous, obscene, a bit dangerous, ambitious, nervous, embittered, frantic, unrepentant, and at least a little happier than he was.

He is also back--cinematically speaking, at any rate. Only weeks ago in France, Polanski finished shooting a thriller called "Frantic" for Warner Bros. Set for a February release, the film is his first major studio effort since he made "The Tenant" for Paramount in 1976.

In purely physical terms, of course, he may never dare to step across the United States border--although even that appears open to negotiation these days: Word has seeped through Hollywood that friends are very tentatively seeking to resolve the threat of a prison term that has kept Polanski from these shores ever since he jumped bail after pleading guilty to a felony morals charge 10 years ago.

Polanski himself claims to have no burning interest in making his peace with United States authorities. "I'm more ready than I was. But I'm not ready," is all that he will say about the possibility of return.

As a film maker, however, the director--as brilliantly problematical as ever--is knocking on America's door.

Polanski has a Hollywood agent now, his first in five years. And Warner Bros. is sufficiently pleased with the rough cut of "Frantic" to be talking already about the next Polanski film. Among other things, the director is pondering a love story set during World War II. It would, he says, recall the "sense of separation" he experienced as a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto.

If Hollywood is newly intrigued with Polanski, it is partly because it's become accepted movie-industry wisdom that aging audiences want fewer whiz-bang pyrotech nics and special effects, and more of the sophisticated characterization that Polanski, Stanley Kubrick and a few maturing peers can deliver.

"It has something to do with his ability to see character in things that other directors would miss. He's not simply after kinetics," offers Harrison Ford, the all-American star of "Frantic."

And if Polanski is edging toward the mainstream again, it is mostly because he is older and wiser--and is eager, according to one close friend, to re-establish his flagging professional reputation by making "two or three bravura" films in the next 10 years.

By his own account, the director was beaten black and blue by the difficulty of assembling "Tess" and "Pirates"--his only two movies during the last decade--in the brutal world of independent-movie finance.

"You learn not to care," he says. "(Producers) get you sucked in when they see how much you care. Pretty soon, you're spending your own money."

Not that Polanski--living near the Champs Elysees with Emmanuelle Seigner, an actress who turned 21 last June--has lost the wicked edge that kept studio executives from taming him even when he had an office on the Paramount lot.

At dinner the same evening with Seigner and film-distributor friend Paul Rassam, Polanski raises a toast to director Michael Cimino for his suicidal courage in cutting all the hot action from "The Sicilian," allegedly to spite his troublesome producers.

"Wouldn't you (do the same thing)?" challenges Polanski.

He gropes momentarily for an image vile enough to capture his feelings about the more loathsome producers, studio executives and film financiers with whom he has done business.

"They are like voyeurs ," the movie director finally spits out.

Never one to leave a sexual metaphor unexhausted, he continues, "They rub themselves up against your film. It's obscene."

In the next breath, however, Polanski concedes his relief at coming home to a major studio and its resources after struggling to make films away from Hollywood's well-financed companies. "It's the first time since film school that I remember why I wanted to make movies," he says with regard to the pleasure of simply directing . "You want a piece of equipment, whatever, it's just there."

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