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POLANSKI
By CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD (Palgrave Macmillan; 2008)

The fifth major biography of world-renowned filmmaker Roman Polanski, and, I feel, the best*. This 2008 publication is the only Polanski bio to cover Polanski’s post-1995 late period, during which time he scored a minor commercial success with 1999’s THE NINTH GATE, and in 2003 became the oldest person ever to win a Best Director Oscar (for THE PIANIST). Of course, this book isn’t entirely up-to-date, having been published a year prior to Polanski’s sensational 2009 arrest in Switzerland.

     That arrest, of course, occurred (just in case you’ve been living under a rock the past few years) because of Polanski’s widely publicized arrest for drugging and sodomizing 13-year-old Samantha Geimer back in 1977, and his subsequent flight from justice. The now seventyish Polanski currently resides in Paris, having been threatened with arrest should he ever set foot back in the U.S.

     Christopher Sandford is admirably upfront in describing the events of 1977-78. Although he writes on page xi that he hopes this book “might go some small way to helping rescue Roman Polanski from his detractors,” Sandford doesn’t whitewash the circumstances of Polanski’s crime, incorporating much direct testimony from Ms. Geimer about her ordeal. Sandford also takes into account the moralistic outcry over the case, which continues to taint Polanski--and turn the admission that (for instance) you like CHINATOWN into a political statement.

     Political statement or not, I maintain that Roman Polanski is one of the world’s great filmmakers, indeed possibly the greatest, with an imposing filmography that includes masterworks like A KNIFE IN THE WATER, REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, MACBETH, THE TENANT and BITTER MOON, in addition to the above-mentioned CHINATOWN and THE PIANIST. Polanski has also led an unusually eventful life that encompasses the Charles Manson murders of 1969, whose victims included Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate and several of his close friends, and a childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland, during which Polanski’s mother was killed in Auschwitz.

     The above events undoubtedly shaped Polanski’s personality, and very likely led to his compulsive sexual exploits--its estimated herein that back in the 1960s and 70s Polanski went through an average of 2-300 women a year--and the events of 1977. Not that I, or Sandford, can say anything for certain about the mindset of Roman Polanski, an undoubted charmer and possible genius who’s nonetheless a thorough enigma--something even his close friends confirm.

     Christopher Sandford is an experienced biographer, and drafts a slick and eminently absorbing account that provides a satisfying overview of a highly event-filled life. Sandford’s accomplishment is all the more impressive in light of the fact that Polanski himself opposed the book, and reportedly encouraged his friends not to contribute to it. Sandford was thus forced to utilize testimony from peripheral figures like THE NINTH GATE co-star James Russo and Disney mainstay Dean Jones, who unsuccessfully auditioned for ROSEMARY’S BABY, and who provides a memorable recollection of visiting Polanski in prison back in ’78. According to Mr. Jones, he asked Polanski if he could ever make a “warm and positive” film. “No,” Polanski is said to have replied, “I‘ve lived in the dark too long.”

 

*Yes, I have read the other four: Thomas Kiernan’s trashy and sensational THE ROMAN POLANSKI STORY (1980), Barbara Leaming’s analytic POLANSKI: THE FILM-MAKER AS VOYEUR (1981), Polanski’s own rollicking memoir ROMAN (1984), and John Parker’s crisp and straightforward POLANSKI (1993).

     

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