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07.23.08

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Phaedra

Los Angeles Times Collection, UCLA LIbrary Department of Special Collections
Media Circus: Roman Polanski's life turned into a legal nightmare after that night in the hot tub in 1977.

The Sinful Dwarf

A new documentary shows how the legal system went Hollywood when Roman Polanski went on trial

By Richard von Busack


ULTIMATELY, Roman Polanski's lawyer Douglas Dalton has the best comment in Marina Zenovich's juicy documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Dalton describes his client's illegalities with a 13-year-old girl as "serious but not unique." That's L.A. in the 1970s wrapped up in one sentence.

Only a numbskull weighs in as if they had full knowledge of the Polanski case. That's not to call Richard Roeper a numbskull, though he thundered last week on television that Polanski was a rapist. In fact, the director was convicted on a lesser charge: unlawful sexual intercourse. As we learn, even this lesser charge was brought in during a contaminated trial, presided over by a showboating judge who apparently believed he was in a movie himself.

One could make a documentary about the history of statutory rape cases in Hollywood. For instance, Groucho Marx used the name "S. Quentin Quayle" in 1940s film Go West. "San Quentin Quail" is probably, and deservedly, an obscure expression now. The point is that then as now there are enough people in the picture business then as now who would get the joke.

In March 1977, Polanski, the world-famous director of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, was in L.A. doing a photo shoot for Vogue Hommes. His model was 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Samantha Geimer). After the shoot, Polanski and the unescorted Gailey went off together. He fed her part of a Quaalude and some champagne and then took her for a dip in Jack Nicholson's hot tub. (Nicholson was elsewhere at the time). The following morning, the LAPD arrested Polanski on a battery of charges, including sodomy and statutory rape, and they had evidence to prove it.

In an ordinary rape case, the victim's name would be protected. The European press found out Gailey's name, causing her terrible notoriety. If the American headlines were bad, the overseas ones were worse: We see "Don't trust me, little girl!" in French on one story. Foursquare Deputy DA Roger Gunson took up the case. The judge was a bon vivant called Laurence J. Rittenband, who had previously adjudicated Cary Grant's paternity suit and Elvis' divorce. (It should probably be stricken from this film's record that Judge Rittenband himself was dating a girl 30 years younger than he was.)

The judge was acutely sensitive to pretrial publicity. He was getting razzed about it at the Hillcrest Country Club. ("Are you going to do something about this little Polish so-and-so? ..." is the way one witness heard it.) And the judge also felt pressure from the defense attorney of a deep-pocketed client, who was certain to appeal the case as high up as it would go. The local press and TV sought to continue the charming illusion that the same law applies to the poor as to the rich. Small wonder Rittenband took the novel step of appealing to various outsiders for advice.

Finally, this all came to the plea-bargain discussion of the intensity and the volume of the slap on Polanski's wrist. Even the victim didn't want the culprit sent to jail. The judge gave Polanski a psychiatric evaluation to determine if he was a sex pervert.

And then the media struck again. A notorious photo came out showing Polanski in Europe during a legal stay of sentencing so he could work on the dreadful remake of John Ford's The Hurricane. The miscreant was openly drinking beer and smoking cigars at Munich's Oktoberfest when the public felt he should have been in rotting in Stony Lonesome. This miniscandal preceded the director's reputation as one of the most famous and at-large fugitives of the last century.

In this solid work of investigation, Zenovich rarely editorializes. The use of the warped "La La La La" lullaby from Rosemary's Baby—musically symbolic of innocence stolen—might be a bit prejudicial. She does include mitigating circumstances of trauma. Orphaned by the war, widowed by Manson's werewolves, Polanski embraced hedonism on the grounds that life is nasty, brutish and short.

The director had perfect opportunities for misbehavior in swinging London. As we see, he was such a part of that scene that he got married to Sharon Tate wearing what would later be described as an Austin Powers outfit. L.A. in the 1970s was also a frontier of sorts. His star Mia Farrow says, "No one resisted him," though she smiles when she says it.

Then came the famous Manson murder and a press that characterized this crime as the natural payback for nudism and drug taking. When facing rape charges, Polanski had the scent of brimstone on him from making a hit movie about Satan raping a lady. Deputy DA Gunson, attending a Polanski film fest at the beloved NuArt Theater, surmised that a key to the director's work comes in scenes of people losing innocence while floating on water. Thus the fateful road to Nicholson's hot tub. Everybody's a film critic.

The illustrative use of paranoia and terror in Polanski's work, which survived this scandal intact, almost seems too much. And then Zenovich digs up something really appropriate: a clip from Polanski's innovative 1961 short The Fat and the Lean. There, the director/star is forced to dance to the drumbeat of a heavy-set villain who looks so much like Judge Rittenband that you have to blink. Never doubt that life copies art.


Movie Times ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (Unrated; 99 min.), by Marina Zenovich, opens July 25 at Camera 12 in San Jose.


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