Academic journal article Film & History

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Academic journal article Film & History

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Article excerpt

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008)

Directed by Marina Zenovich

Produced by Millwood Pictures for HBO

100 minutes


European film director Roman Polanski easily found fame and fortune in America, but he also was visited by tragedy and scandal, first, by the murder of his wife, and then, by his arrest, years later, when an intimate photo-shoot led to his illicit sexual encounter with a 13-year-old model. Polanski faced multiple charges, ranging from possession and use of drugs, to sodomy, in that 1977 arrest, and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, directed by Marina Zenovich, tells the story of the scandal and tainted trial that would follow and would eventually force Polanski into exile.

The documentary begins by focusing on the legal difficulties Polanski had in California, after the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by members of the Charles Manson cult, while Polanski was working abroad. But mainly at issue in the film is Polanski's ill-fated encounter with the young model, Samantha Gailey Geimer, and the events that occurred during the photo-shoot at the home of Polanski's long-time friend, Jack Nicholson. Ultimately, Polanski was accused of having raped Geimer, but he pleaded not guilty, admitting only to consensual sex. The trial became a cause celebre, and to many, a travesty of justice, due to the influence of a publicity-seeking judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, who the film exposes as presiding as ringmaster over the media circus that was to follow.

As the documentary continues, so does the trial's drama. Polanski's Attorney for the Defense, Douglas Dalton, was considered a "master of negotiations," but this sensationalistic trial, involving a major celebrity who had made movies about perversion, corruption, and devil-worship, would put his talents to the test. The prosecuting attorney was Roger Gunsen, a straight-talking, 37-year-old Mormon. Before the trial was over, both attorneys would be cooperating to protect Polanski from the capriciousness of the court system. As Producer David Melnick notes in the documentary, "Roman was a perfect victim for them." Assistant District Attorney Jim Grodin explained further: "I'm not so sure that Mr. Polanski was aware of what being arrested in America meant." It is clear that during the confusion of his arrest Polanski did not understand why the authorities were so upset, since in his own mind, he had done nothing wrong. He pleaded guilty only to the charge of "unlawful sexual intercourse," but that was not enough to satisfy Judge Rittenband,

whose affinity for celebrity scandal led him to preside over a Cary Grant paternity suit and the divorce between Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Rittenband was cited as having boasted among friends that he would put Polanski away for the rest of his life.

The documentary is, of course, sympathetic to Polanski, and, in general the critics were sympathetic as well, although John Leonard, writing for New York magazine, was appalled that the documentary seemed to excuse Polanski's unpardonable conduct. Director Zenovich told William Booth of The Washington Post, however, that "This isn't an apology project for Roman Polanski," adding: "But even people who think they recall the details of the case may be surprised." Washington Post television critic Tom Shales headlined his review "A Perversion of Justice," and predicted that even viewers who thought they remembered the facts of the case were likely to be hooked."

Still, the film does seem to vindicate Polanski, both through the perspectives it highlights and those it does not. Zenovich was unable to interview the late Judge Rittenband, nor would Polanski himself permit interviews for the film, but everyone else, including Samantha Geimer, was cooperative. Geimer told The Wall Street Journal that she thinks the case should be dropped, and of Polanski, she said, "I'd be pleased if he was no longer a fugitive. …

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