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The Prodigal Man

Roman Polanski's legal appeal recalls some of Los Angeles's darkest days

Illustration by Nick Dewar

Why now? Why bring back the whole episode? I am referring to director Roman Polanski and his bid to drop the 31-year-old sex-with-a-minor charges against him. He had to know—or is this another instance in which he doesn’t read the repercussions of his actions?—that every sordid detail of his long-ago encounter with a 13-year-old girl would hit the newspapers, courtesy in part of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office he is beseeching to dismiss the case. He contends that there was judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, hints of which surfaced last year in a documentary: To wit, a deputy D.A. not directly involved with the case leaned on the judge and prejudiced him against Polanski. Even if that were so, it’s hard to imagine that this would be sufficient grounds to get the entire thing tossed.

The details don’t improve with time. Pretending he wanted to take pictures of the teen, Polanski picked her up at her house, took her to the bachelor pad of pal Jack Nicholson, gave her a glass of champagne and a bite of a quaalude, and then, among other things, sodomized her. Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of having sex with a minor, then fled just before he was about to be sentenced. He has lived in exile in Paris ever since, a gifted director to many, an icon of depravity to others, both to some.

Reading and hearing about him is to be plunged back into some of the weirdest, darkest days in this city’s history, the decade between 1968 and 1978, the year, aptly enough, that Polanski took flight. Those are the real “Sixties.” The earlier part of the 1960s was simply a revving up to the great unbuckling that began later in the decade with the sexual revolution, the escalating Vietnam War and accompanying protests, and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, not to mention the fueling abundance of drugs. The country was in tumult, but as often happens, aberrant behavior got magnified here, especially in Hollywood. A culture of glamour and permissiveness in normal times, in that period it exuded an aura of hyper-permissiveness. It was a perfect place for people like Polanski, a slight, libidinous Eastern European émigré given cover by the Industry and the era.

I knew men like him then, though clearly he was the extreme example, a practiced seducer, a womanizer, a swinger, a man who, with a casting-couch smile, would proffer a joint or a pill to a girl as prelude to a pounce. In 1968, I was already firmly attached to the man I would marry, an older journalist who took me to star-studded parties where I saw these men in action. They wore jeans, and their hair was newly long. Jealous of the younger counterculture kids they saw on TV or at concerts or clubs or maybe in their own houses—their own sons and daughters with whom they sometimes shared a joint—they were on the prowl, the bonds of their marriages trailing behind them like those paper streamers flapping behind a newlywed’s car. In fairness, it wasn’t only the men. I saw wives, too, gamely shedding clothes and climbing into someone’s backyard hot tub. There was, in the beginning, a rebellious fun at play. Quite quickly, though, the drugs got harder and the sex got messier and predators got emboldened.

Things turned dark indeed for Polanski when Sharon Tate, the beautiful young starlet he’d married, was slaughtered in 1969 by members of the Charles Manson family. Manson was a drugged-out ex-con with a homicidal harem of acolytes. One late summer night he instructed some of his followers to invade the Polanski-Tate house, which sat up on a deserted canyon road, and kill everyone in sight. The director was away prepping a film, but a pregnant Tate and three of her friends were slashed over and over by the intruders. One, Susan Atkins, repeatedly stabbed Tate in the belly and then wrote “PIG” on the front door with her blood.

When the grieving husband returned to Los Angeles, sympathy was directed his way. But he also became an object of suspicion—not that he personally was tied to the killings but that some acquaintance from his hard-partying world might have been. As the details of Polanski’s life—the drugs, the infidelities, even during that supposedly happy marriage to Tate—came tumbling out, he and Manson became tethered in the public mind, jointly emblematic of a city gone mad, a city tipped into mayhem. Manson was a psychotic killer. Whatever his appetites, Polanski was a superbly talented director. He would go on to make Chinatown in 1974, hands down his best film and one of the finest portrayals of Los Angeles, a tart noir look at the politics of land and water circa 1930. At the heart of the film is sex, specifically the incestuous relationship between the grizzled, autocratic John Huston character and his luminous daughter, played by Faye Dunaway. The father’s justification of the relationship is that it was consensual. A nasty melancholy permeates the film, a profound sense of the amoral that lurks beneath the city’s sunshiny exterior.

There’s that word again: consensual. How does a young daughter have consensual sex with a father? How does a 13-year-old have consensual sex with a man in his forties—precisely the question Polanski would have to answer in 1977, three years after the triumph of Chinatown, eight years after the loss of his wife. In the pictures from those days, of Polanski going in and out of the courtroom, he looks not like a worldly seducer-swinger but like a small, frightened animal. Fearing incarceration, he took off.

Now he wants to revisit that episode or have the courts revisit it. The problem is, his timing is lousy. The attitude in this country toward underage sex is much tougher today than it was back then. We have heard so much more from people who were victims of rape or statutory rape or incest or spousal abuse. Acts that were hidden have been flushed out into the open. Feminism clearly helped. So have the celebrities coming forward with their stories, along with those offering testament to their abuse by priests and other religious leaders. In Polanski’s case, there is an odd, poignant twist, if that’s the right word. The victim in the case, Samantha Geimer, is on his side. She has filed court papers seeking dismissal of the charges against him. “I am no longer a 13-year-old child,” the married mother of three says in her declaration. “I have dealt with the difficulties…have surmounted and surpassed them.” She has accused the district attorney’s office of “yet one more time [giving] great publicity to the lurid details of those events, for all to read, again. True as they may be, the continued publication of those details cause harm to me.”

One can have great empathy for her while taking grave issue with Polanski’s conduct, as many continue to do. In fact, Polanski looks worse as time has passed. You have to wonder what he thinks now at 75, after all those years in exile, wonder whether he thinks it was no big deal, just a momentary dalliance. Was it worth everything that followed? Was it worth giving up your home, your pals, and the place where you did your best work? He had decades to go in his career, movies to make. Yes, he made some, even won a 2002 Academy Award for The Pianist. But with a single transgressive act of lust he derailed his life, sent it spinning in another direction. He left the city he had so brilliantly evoked in Chinatown—the movie that explored the dilemma Polanski himself would have to face. Perhaps he would have made more such movies. Instead, the memory of his work is always overshadowed or certainly always coupled with the memory of his own behavior and the tawdry place he occupies in the history of Los Angeles, no matter how long he has been away.