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Roman Polanski

By admin Published: September 28, 2009

I was out of town Saturday and much of Sunday and am still in the process of catching up with my viewing. But before I post about some things, including tonight's offering, you have probably already heard about director Roman Polanski's arrest. Here's a brief version from the Los Angeles Times:

Director Roman Polanski is in Swiss custody ... awaiting extradition to Los Angeles after being arrested in Zurich in connection with his 1977 Los Angeles rape case.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office learned last week that Polanski had plans to travel to Zurich this weekend, Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, told The Times.

Prosecutors sent a provisional arrest warrant to the U.S. Justice department which presented it Swiss authorities.

Asked if prosecutors would ask Polanski be sentenced to time behind bars if he is returned to the U.S., she said, "We've always maintained this is a matter between Polanski and the court ... We initially recommended prison time for him, but I can't see into the future."

As you may also know, there was an acclaimed documentary about Polanski, and whether justice was served in his case. After the jump is my 2008 column about the documentary, including my interview with the filmmaker.

Here's the 2008 column:

''I am not apologizing for Roman Polanski,'' filmmaker Marina Zenovich said more than once during a recent telephone interview.

It's important to remember that when watching Zenovich's documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO. In it, she makes a thoroughly convincing argument that Polanski was mistreated by a judge, that the justice system failed him.

But she has to make that argument even though, more than 30 years ago, Polanski did something indefensible.

In 1977, when he was in his 40s, Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old girl. She said it was rape. He claimed it was consensual. The girl was not a virgin. But that's hardly the point; even with images of sexualized teens spread through the culture, I can't imagine a 13-year-old giving informed consent.

Polanski finally pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor but fled the U.S. when it seemed likely he would get a prison term. He has not returned here since.

Yes, he is an extraordinary, acclaimed filmmaker, with credits like Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist. He has endured personal tragedy, from surviving the Holocaust where his mother was killed to the murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, by members of the Charles Manson gang in 1969.

But even when I remember those things, I also remember that he had sex with a 13-year-old girl.

''Yes, there was a crime,'' said Zenovich. ''Yes, it was an awful crime.''

But Zenovich wants us to look beyond that horrible thing Polanski did. It's not the act that fundamentally interests her in Wanted and Desired. It's what happened after the cops and courts got involved.

''Like everybody else,'' she said in that phone interview, ''Roman Polanski should be treated fairly by the system.''

And it's the system that fascinates in Wanted and Desired. Zenovich gained interviews with all the principals except Polanski (who declined her request) and the judge, Laurence Rittenband, who died 10 years before Zenovich began work on her documentary in 2003.

She became interested after reading a Los Angeles Times article about Polanski's Oscar nomination for The Pianist, and the case. She became even more interested after seeing the victim, Samantha Gailey Geimer, and her attorney, Lawrence Silver, on Larry King Live in February 2003.

In that interview, Silver said the day Polanski fled the U.S. rather than risk a long jail sentence was ''a shameful day.'' But not because Polanski had gotten away.

According to a CNN transcript, Silver believed Rittenband had done some ''frankly outrageous'' things, including going back on a plea agreement that would have ended the case and spared Geimer a courtroom ordeal.

And that's where Zenovich found her story, one she calls ''quite complicated,'' one she hopes will open people's eyes about what happened. She knows that ''people can't get past the charges, and that he fled.'' Wanted and Desired, she said, ''is putting a spotlight on a different part of the case.''

She spent five years on the documentary, supporting herself by doing short profiles of artists for a cultural channel; they also gave her a chance to work on something other than the complex and dense material she wrestled with in Wanted and Desired.

It has odd Hollywood twists; former Los Angeles police detective Philip Vannater was involved in both the Polanski and the O.J. Simpson cases. (''I thought it was incredibly ironic,'' Zenovich said.) Rittenband loved the spotlight; his New York Times obituary notes that he ''presided over Elvis Presley's divorce, Marlon Brando's child-custody battle and a paternity suit against Cary Grant.''

But show-biz aside, there was a legal nightmare. At one point, Rittenband privately told the prosecutor and defense attorney what to say in open court as the case inched toward resolution. Rittenband basically directed the other players.

In the documentary, the prosecutor, Roger Gunson, calls the resulting courtroom scene a ''fabrication.'' Defense attorney Douglas Dalton, who spoke about the case for the first time in 30 years, compared it to ''a mock trial in law school'' with Rittenband's remarks ''obviously prepared in advance.'' But all the lawyers wanted the case to be done, so they went along.

Unfortunately for Polanski, things did not end there. Before final sentencing, while on an overseas film assignment, Polanski was photographed having a good time at Oktoberfest. The photo infuriated Rittenband, who had quietly agreed that Polanski would get probation after a jail stay including a psychiatric evaluation. Rittenband told columnist Marilyn Beck that he had been ''duped.''

As the plea deal unraveled, Polanski fled. He now lives comfortably in France. He has continued to direct films. He won the best-director Oscar for The Pianist. But he did not return to California to accept it, since his guilty plea is still on the books and a return would involve him going back into a courtroom.

And yes, I still think he had sex with a 13-year-old girl. I have no interest in seeing, let alone purchasing, any film he has made since the incident. He's a disturbing, creepy character. If he had gotten the expected plea bargain, it seems like much too light a sentence. Still, at the end of Wanted and Desired, I could see how the law, if not justice, went terribly awry in his case.

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