Roman Polanski. You can start a heated conversation just uttering his name. He has led a life so large that it's often chopped down to a few phrases: Oscar-winning director of such film classics as "Chinatown," "Tess" and "The Pianist." Survivor of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Married to actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant when she was stabbed to death by members of the Manson Family. Had sex with a 13-year-old and, after being convicted of unlawful intercourse with a minor, fled the United States for Paris, where he has been for the last three decades.
This last bit is both the catalyst and subject of Marina Zenovich's compelling documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which premieres tonight on HBO. A surprisingly haunting examination of the politics, personalities and legal complexities of the 1977 case, the film dispels the conventional wisdom that Polanski ran away to France simply to avoid serving time.
Through extraordinary interviews with friends, colleagues, journalists, as well as both the prosecuting and defense attorneys, Zenovich contends that it was nowhere near as simple as that. Plagued by a rabid American media and put in the hands of a judge known for his love of the spotlight, Polanski came to feel that his chance for equal treatment under the law was slim to none.
The most astonishing moment of the documentary occurs when the lead prosecuting attorney, Roger Gunson, then a rising Robert Redford-handsome legal star and a Mormon to boot, says even he understands why Polanski fled.
Neither Polanski nor Judge Laurence J. Rittenband were interviewed (Rittenband died in 1993), but Zenovich has made good use of archival interviews of the director and spoken to virtually everyone else connected with the case and/or Polanski, including Rittenband's former girlfriends, producer Daniel Melnick and Mia Farrow.
Not everyone is sympathetic; former Los Angeles Police Det. Philip Vannatter (who was also involved in the O.J. Simpson murder trial) and retired Assistant Dist. Atty. David Wells believe Polanski was never dealt with harshly enough given the severity of the crime.
Far from a tedious legal deconstruction, "Wanted and Desired" captures Hollywood and California in the midst of the first of many celebrity-driven international media swarms. Still reeling from the 1969 Manson murders, at once envious and judgmental of the swinging Hollywood scene, many saw in Polanski a nexus of unsettling forces.
"The European reporters looked on Polanski as this tragic, brilliant, historic figure" who had survived the gassing of his mother and maintained his integrity against the Hollywood machine, says Richard Brenneman, who covered the trial for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. "And the American press tended to look at him as this malignant, twisted dwarf with this dark vision."
Polanski certainly ran with the fast crowd -- the crime occurred famously at Jack Nicholson's house (Nicholson was out of town), and far from engendering sympathy, the brutal murder of Tate had already cast an air of horror around him. In the days after the slayings at Cielo Drive, Polanski was accused in some media outlets of committing or orchestrating them.
"My real problems started with the murder of Sharon Tate," Polanski says in an interview. "I was all right with the press before then. They wouldn't let it go. It was just the story that wouldn't go."
But Zenovich is not making an apologia for Polanski, who has always admitted to having sex with a minor, although it is only recently that he has conceded this act was wrong. Instead, she examines how the hysteria surrounding Polanski and the case affected the way it was handled, particularly by Judge Rittenband, who seemed more concerned with the needs of the media than of justice.
According to all accounts, he manipulated both attorneys, ignored recommendations by psychiatrists and the parole department and made deals only to renege on them when it seemed as if he might look weak in the press.
It is not a film with easy answers; even if one concedes that the proceedings were compromised, the crime did occur; the girl was traumatized and sullied, along with her mother, as a gold digger and a con artist, and though Polanski did "serve" 45 days of psychiatric evaluation, that now seems slight for a clear case of statutory rape.
But the tension between fact and perception, between the various mores and standards of behavior -- Europe versus the U.S., Hollywood versus Middle America, 1978 versus now -- is exactly what makes the case, and the man, still fascinating after 30 years. As a German journalist puts it: "You couldn't meet anyone, anywhere, who didn't have an opinion on this case."
Which is, apparently, still true. With delicious irony, it is revealed that in 1997, the two attorneys returned to L.A. County Superior Court, where a judge agreed that if Polanski would return to the U.S., he'd serve no time in custody. On one condition: that the proceedings be televised.
Polanski has declined.
'Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired'
When: 9 to 10:45 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)