When I went to Poland in the winter of 2009 to promote my novel and to serve for the second time as a juror at the Camerimage Film Festival in Lodz, the question most reporters wanted to have answered was what I thought about Roman Polanski. Polanski, at the time, was under house arrest in Switzerland and the U.S. was trying to have him extradited so he could finally stand trial for having sex with a 13-year old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house in 1977. The question wasn’t unexpected, as my publisher had warned me to anticipate such inquiries when I arrived. Polanski is, after all, a very famous Pole. If one were to ask a typical American to name three famous Poles, I suspect Polanski’s name would come before Lech Walesa and after (or in a tie) with Pope John Paul II. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stanley Kowalski was also named, but that would only be a tribute to the imagination of Tennessee Williams and the ability of Marlon Brando to bring that particular Pole to life in A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m not too sure how many people know that Copernicus, Chopin, Arthur Rubinstein, Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, Jerzy Kozinski, Issac Bashevis Singer, John Gielgud, Samuel Goldwyn, and Billy Wilder were Polish. So are Klaus Kinski and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. But Polanski—how could one not know who he was? His name has been in and out of the headlines for forty years. Film buffs know him as the director of such films as Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, and The Pianist, which won him an Academy Award (in absentia). Those who read the tabloids associate him as the husband who lost his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, in a brutal random murder at the hands of the Manson “Family.” Those who have read his autobiography or other biographies about him know that he lost his mother at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz. Tragedy seems to have followed Polanski like a shadow.
Though he lives in Paris and has a vacation home in Gstaad, Switzerland, the Poles see him as one of their own, and most are very forgiving when it comes to his transgressions. When it comes to the girl he allegedly raped, they see it differently: she was young, yes, but she already had a boyfriend whom she had been sleeping with. Her mother allowed her to go off to be photographed by Polanski. It was “just sex” really, not rape. The broken Quaalude he gave her was not something she hadn’t tried before. The champagne they drank, again, nothing new. Her resistance in Nicholson’s hot tub, as they frolicked naked together, was minor—she said “Don’t” and he said, “Go into the other room and lay down.” She did.
I interviewed Polanski in his Paris apartment in 1987, while I was doing research for my book about the Huston family. I wanted to talk to him about directing John Huston in Chinatown and about the incident at Nicholson’s because Anjelica Huston was in the house at the time (she was then Jack’s girlfriend). When the police later came to investigate, they found some cocaine in Anjelica’s purse, and in exchange for not pressing charges against her she had agreed to testify against Polanski. It wasn’t one of her better moments, and I wondered how Polanski had felt.
“I couldn’t really blame her for accepting the deal,” Polanski told me, “though it left me feeling slightly bitter. From her point of view, she didn’t do anything wrong. I thought she did, then…but now I don’t.”
What made him bitter was that with Anjelica being able to place him at the scene of the alleged crime, it fortified the District Attorney’s case against Polanski. The grand jury indicted him on six counts: furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, committing a lewd or lascivious act, having unlawful sexual intercourse, perversion, sodomy, and rape by use of drugs.
Anjelica Huston felt “completely innocent” and confessed that it was extremely hurtful for her. “I felt maligned and ill done,” she said. “And the fact that it was printed in newspapers that I was prepared to testify against Roman was the worst part of the whole episode. You don’t testify for or against anyone. When you testify you tell the truth, which is what I’d have done. The fact that it was printed in that way made me look not only unattractive but also a sneak.”
John Huston admired Polanski’s work as a director. He told me that “There was no question, after three days seeing him operate [during Chinatown], that here was a really top talent.” But when it came to Polanski’s fleeing the country before being sentenced on the charges he was indicted for, Huston drew the line. “He did something against the law and he skipped bail. I wish that he hadn’t done that.” When I asked him even if it meant going to prison, Huston responded, “If necessary, sure. Why not?”