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Roman Polanski
(1933 - ) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, screenwriter, Also: actor / Born: August 18, 1933, Paris, France /Education: Lòdz Film School


Internationally renowned filmmaker as notorious for his tumultuous life as for his sometimes darkly funny but deeply disquieting psychological dramas, jet black comedies, and tough-minded period films. After a childhood stained with Nazi atrocities, Polanski began his film career first as a juvenile actor and later as a neophyte director in Poland, going on to establish his reputation with several films shot in England, and then finding his artistic and commercial apotheosis in Hollywood. The European expatriate also found Southern California to be a place of shocking violence and profound personal tragedy. Polanski fled the US to escape the consequences of a sex scandal. He continued to make films in exile, albeit with less frequency and smaller budgets. Though still controversial he continues to be numbered among the world's great directors.

Roman Polanski was born in Paris of Polish-Jewish parents. At the age of three, he and his family returned to Krakow in his father's native Poland. As a seven-year-old, Polanski witnessed the Nazis sealing off the Krakow ghetto where his family lived. The youngster soon became an active participant in smuggling runs in and out of the ghetto. While on these missions, Polanski would sneak into outlying movie theaters. The following year his parents were taken to a Nazi concentration camp, where his pregnant mother was gassed shortly after arrival. Polanski himself only narrowly avoided capture because his father pushed him through a gap in the wall as the Nazis approached. Some of these horrifying events would later be recreated by Steven Spielberg for SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993). During the long genesis of that film's screenplay, Spielberg reportedly approached Polanski on several occasions about directing the film. However, with several friends and relatives among the Krakow Jews whom Schindler saved from the camps, Polanski found the material too personal and painful.

Growing up in war-torn Poland, the young Polanski found solace in trips to the cinema and acting in radio dramas, on stage and in films. His early screen acting credits included work with famed Polish director Andrzej Wajda. In 1954, he was accepted to an intensive five-year program at the Lodz Film School. One of his student films, TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE (1958), won five international awards, including a Bronze Medal at the Brussels World's Fair. In 1962, Polanski directed his first feature-length film, KNIFE IN THE WATER. Poorly received by Polish state officials and some domestic critics, the film was a sensation in the West, awarded the Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival and nominated for an Academy Award.

Polanski moved to England to make his next three films: REPULSION (1965), a psychological horror story of a young woman's mental disintegration; CUL-DE-SAC (1966), a dark comedy of mobsters and a mismatched couple set in an isolated castle; and a Hammer horror parody, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS OR: PARDON ME, BUT YOUR TEETH ARE IN MY NECK (1967)/DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, in which Polanski co-starred with American actress Sharon Tate. He and Tate married in 1968, the year that also marked Polanski's American film debut with ROSEMARY'S BABY, an enormously successful adaptation of Ira Levin's tale of gynecological horror. The following summer, Polanski's new-found success was dealt a shattering blow when the eight-months pregnant Tate and three of Polanski's friends were murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult. His next film, MACBETH (1971), was a brutally realistic adaptation of the violent Shakespeare tragedy that was interpreted by some critics as the filmmaker's cathartic response to the Manson slayings. Polanski himself, however, downplayed the link between the film and the tragic murders.

In 1974, Polanski was back in Hollywood for his greatest triumph, CHINATOWN, a tale of greed, corruption and incest set in 1930s Los Angeles. The director made a memorable impression on-screen, too, as the cocky gangster who slices Jack Nicholson's nose. Two years later, Polanski undertook his most arduous acting role, directing himself as the lead in THE TENANT This profoundly unsettling but darkly comic portrait of a gradual descent into madness featured Polanski as a man who unravels after moving into the apartment of a woman who recently committed suicide.

In 1977, Polanski was arrested in California on charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl. He spent forty-two days under psychiatric observation in Chino, CA in compliance with a plea bargain. The judge subsequently wavered and&emdash;before further criminal proceedings could get underway&emdash;Polanski fled the United States. He made his next film, TESS (1979), in France. This acclaimed version of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, told the story of a beautiful country girl (Nastassia Kinski) who is systematically seduced by an older man. In 1981, he returned to Poland to direct and star in a stage production of Amadeus.

Polanski's next film to achieve some degree of critical and commercial success was the suspenseful yet dreamy FRANTIC (1988), featuring Harrison Ford as an American in Paris who loses and searches for his wife. Also lensed in Paris, BITTER MOON released abroad in 1992 but not in the US until 1994) depicted a boat journey that for an upright Englishman becomes a tortuous and dank voyage into the narrative of a wheelchair-bound would-be Henry Miller played by Peter Coyote. Like FRANTIC, BITTER MOON starred Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner, here playing the femme fatale destroyer/victim of the writer, 20 years her senior. This has encouraged critics, who were variously wowed, perplexed, and repelled by the film, to read it as a refracted autobiography. More obviously, it was another variation on the director's preoccupation with psychic and sexual decay.

Polanski's next feature, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994), was a widely acclaimed film adaptation of Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's three character political allegory. Set in an unidentified South American country, the story has a human-rights attorney (Stuart Wilson) getting stranded on a highway when his car breaks down. A kind doctor (Ben Kingsley) gives him a ride home where his wife (Sigourney Weaver) awaits. The wife immediately recognizes the doctor's voice as belonging to the man who supervised her torture under the previous regime. She takes him hostage, confronts him with her charges, and puts him on trial before her lawyer husband. Even more claustrophobic than the play, the film powerfully considered issues of guilt and innocence and boasted powerhouse performances.

As an artist who exerts tremendous control over his films, often co-writing the screenplays and sometimes acting in them, Polanski instills his work with a uniquely personal worldview. His recurring themes are violence and victimization, isolation and alienation, and a profound sense of the absurd. The relationship between Polanski's personal life and his work has received a great deal of attention. While there are some strong parallels, focusing on this relationship has unfortunately tended to overshadow the surprising diversity of his films and eclipse his achievements as a filmmaker.

 

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