Friday, November 27, 2009

Roman Polanski: Art, Life and Extadition

The two sets of horrific murders carried out by Charles Manson and his besotted followers in August 1969 were nightmarish — yet all too real. Among the seven victims was 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski. She was 8 ½ months pregnant when she was stabbed to death, and the child she was carrying — posthumously named .Paul Richard Polanski — was later buried with her, in her arms.

Roman Polanski, then 35, had been in London at the time of the murders. After returning to California, he was questioned at length by police and endured a tense period of waiting before a boast to another jail inmate by Susan Atkins, a member of the Manson gang, led to the arrest of the killers.

Polanski resumed his directing career, working mostly in Europe, though in 1974 he returned to Hollywood to direct the iconic film noir Chinatown. Five years later, he directed a haunting version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. According to Wikipedia, the idea for the film had come from Sharon Tate not long before her death, when she left a copy of the book and a note on Polanski’s nightstand. Tess starred Nastassja Kinski, with whom Polanski was romantically involved at the time.

Art and life entwined again in 2002, when Polanski directed The Pianist, based on the autobiography of Jewish-Polish musician Władysław Szpilman. Like Szpilman, Polanski evaded the ghetto and concentration camps while many family members perished there.

The Motion Picture Academy awarded the Oscar for best director to Polanski for The Pianist, but he did not attend the ceremony in Hollywood because he feared arrest. In 1977, he had been charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles and eventually pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Before he could be sentenced, however, Polanski fled to London and then France. From then on, he was careful to live and work only in countries where he was not likely to be arrested and extradited to the United States.

One of those countries, Polanski thought, was Switzerland, where he owns a home in the resort town of Gstaad. But in September 2009, at the Zurich Film Festival, Swiss police arrested Polanski, now 76, at the request of U.S. authorities.

On November 25, a Swiss judge granted Polanski’s request to be released on $4.5 million bail until the question of his extradition to the United States is resolved. He will be on electronic monitoring, confined to his home in Gstaad. The bail decision surprised several American commentators, one of whom (Laurie Levenson) likened it to giving bail to O.J. Simpson in 1994 after the infamous Bronco chase.

Levenson’s reasoning is eminently logical: once a flight risk always a flight risk. But there are also elements that tend to distinguish the two cases. O.J. wasn’t on electronic monitoring, he wasn’t 76 years old, and he was facing murder charges, not a 32-year-old conviction for statutory rape.

As elements of tragedy swirl around Polanski’s life yet again, the law’s long arm makes for an underlying irony. In the aftermath of Sharon Tate’s murder, her mother was determined to make herself heard within the judicial system regarding the sentencing of those responsible for her daughter’s death. In the early 1980s, this played an important role in inspiring what we now know as the victims’ rights movement. And yet in continuing to pursue the case against Polanski, the California authorities may be ignoring the wishes of the victim, who is now 45 and could very well just want to move on with her life.

One other note about the case: The Huffington Post reported that after Polanski was arrested in September, an “edit war” broke out on Wikipedia, the free, reader-edited online encyclopedia. The editors had to freeze further editing of Polanski’s entry, because reader-editors could not find their way through the controversy to common ground. As empowering and informative as Wiki is, sometimes it’s necessary to have an old-fashioned editor after all.

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