Unlike a lot of movie directors, who may be known for their films but barely register a blip on the society pages – did anyone really know much about the private life of Alfred Hitchcock, for example? – Polanski represents a personal story that can seem far more fascinating and tempting than the plots of his movies.
Jewish child raised in Nazi-occupied Poland, whose mother and sister died in the concentration camps.
Husband of the beautiful starlet Sharon Tate, who at eight-months pregnant became a bloody victim of the notorious Manson gang.
Sex scandal involving a 13-year-old girl, forcing the French-born director to flee the United States.
And finally, a renowned director taken into custody in Switzerland in 2009, held under house arrest for months, awaiting possible extradition to the United States on fugitive from justice charges.
Any one of those tales might have seemed like enough fodder for a book, and all four probably seem like a wealth of intriguing material. Curiously, though, biographical books that skim over the director’s body of work and instead focus on his personal life, have been surprisingly bland. The authors have tackled Polanski’s remarkable life in a sort of cut-and-paste approach, slicing out the headlines, tossing them on the page, and letting them just sort of sit there, as if they’ll spring to life on detail alone. It’s almost as if the actual details seem so salacious that nothing more needs to be done except recite them. The result is that most of Polanski’s biographies feel like by-the-numbers bores.
“Roman Polanski: Masters of Cinema,” is the latest book to come out about the director. Written by David Ehrenstein, it was released late last year, closely coinciding with the Criterion Collection re-release of Polanski’s 1968 classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” which has drawn ecstatic reviews.
In his book, Ehrenstein touches on the most dramatic moments in Polanski’s life – in the very opening, and quite briefly. “Though he has witnessed horrors beyond our wildest imaginings, Polanski has made a kind of peace with them through his art,” Ehrenstein writes, as he proceeds to explore all 19 of Polanski’s movies, from his first and only feature made in Poland, the acclaimed suspense drama “Knife in the Water,” to the 2011 comedy “Carnage,” made right after the Swiss courts declared that the United States could not extradite him and set the director free to return to his home and family in Paris.
Ehrenstein’s book is not one that takes a lengthy and scholarly look at each of Polanski’s films. It’s more like a broad brush painted over a canvas, which glances at the wide diversity in the director’s work. One chapter explores Polanski’s interest in political drama through films like “The Pianist,” “Death and the Maiden,” and “The Ghost Writer”; a second looks at Polanski’s historic costume dramas like “Tess” and “Oliver Twist”; and then a third is on his fantasy films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Ninth Gate.” Uniting them all, he adds, is the director’s own unique and distinctive method of film making – an approach he calls “Polanskiesque” and a style unmistakable in some of the director’s least known but most personal works, such as “Cul De Sac,” “The Tenant” and “Bitter Moon.”
And while the man who survived the Holocaust, the Manson murders and the California prison system has undeniably made a lot of downbeat films with a deeply cynical outlook and some of the most bleak endings in cinema history – check out the incredible pessimism and virtual hopelessness in, say, the endings for “Chinatown” and “The Tenant,” for example – Ehrenstein concludes that Polanski’s latest film, “Carnage,” with its humorous ending involving a lost hamster, hints at a new outlook for the director.
“Have we turned a corner?” Ehrenstein writes. “Is the malevolent Polanski of old no more? Has he mellowed with age?”
Time will tell. At age 79, Polanski is now working simultaneously on two movies, a screen version of David Ives’ Off-Broadway play “Venus in Furs,” which is currently in production, and a large scale historic epic, “D.”
Even if Polanski had chosen to retire after the incident with the Swiss authorities, it would be easy to look back at his career and say he contributed several masterpieces to the world of cinema, including the four films that garnered Polanski Academy Award nominations: “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968 for his screenplay, and his best director nominations in 1974 for “Chinatown,” 1980 for “Tess” and 2002 for “The Pianist,” the World War II drama that won him the top award. Re-releases of “Rosemary’s Baby” on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, and the Blu-ray edition of “Chinatown,” have prompted more than a few critics to conclude that these movies have only improved with age, and there’s no question the same seems likely to be true for several of Polanski lesser known films that have nonetheless attraacted cult followings over the years, including “Dance of the Vampires,” “The Tenant” and “Bitter Moon. ”
Ehrenstein’s relatively short book – just 102 pages – is an enjoyable read because he understands that scandals come and go and tend to fade from the headlines, but classic cinema lives on, brilliantly. And there’s no question that Polanski has provided the author with a lot of fascinating material – through his impressive body of work.
To order “Roman Polanski: Masters of Cinema,” visit Roman Polanski.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..