As the world has learned, 77-year-old director Roman Polanski was arrested and faces extradition to the US over a 31-year-old rape case. Seemed a good moment to sort out what the h- this is all about.
Q: Who is this old dude anyway?
A: Roman Polanski's is one of most colorful lives of the 20th Century. A young Jewish boy when the Nazis invaded Poland, he managed to survive the war, hiding out while his parents were deported to concentration camps. Becoming an internationally celebrated filmmaker in his 20's, Polanski defected from his native Poland to seek artistic freedom in the west. In France and later in the US, he became a noted international playboy and directed a run of still classics that included Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. After settling down and marrying actress Sharon Tate however, his long-denied domestic bliss was interrupted when Charles Manson's apostles murdered his very pregnant young wife. Polanski's post-Tate period witnessed a return to his international playboy ways, an epoch ended by his arrest for rape in 1977.
Q: Was the girl Justine Bateman?
A: No! But this was an urban legend for many years. The victim's name is in fact Samantha Geimer who has since spoken to the press about her experience, including today expressing her wishes that Polanski be punished no further.
Q: What happened with his trial?
A: As detailed in a recent documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the trial was a circus that makes the OJ case look like a model of jurisprudence. A judge in love with the spotlight ran the case in circles while seemingly allowing every day's headlines to dictate his rulings. Ultimately, Polanski allowed himself to be jailed for 90 days to undergo psychiatric evaluation on the understanding that this time served would constitute the bulk of his punishment. When it appeared, however, that the judge was on the brink of reneging on this promise and Polanski was facing a much longer imprisonment, he fled the country.
Q: What has he done since fleeing the U.S.?
A: Since fleeing in 1978, Polanski has lived in France where he has continued to work as a director, making big budget films—such as Frantic, staring Harrison Ford—in cooperation with American film companies. His career went through a rough patch in the '80s and '90s after a series of tepid misfires (eg. Pirates). He recently, however, has had a bit of a comeback winning from afar the Academy Award for The Pianist, a film inspired by his own adventures hiding out from the Nazis.
Q: Why haven't we brought him back before?
A: Since defecting from Poland, Polanski has held French citizenship and France's extradition treaty with the US forbids sending us their own citizens. Since fleeing, he has been careful not to venture to countries which might send him back. According to the LA Times, U.S. Marshals have come close to nabbing Polanski half a dozen times when he traveled in recent years, but "for one reason or another, it just didn't work out."
Q: Why are the Europeans making such a fuss over this now?
A: In France in particular, Polanski symbolizes much of the cultural war between the U.S. and Europe, with the director cast in the role of urbane free-spirited intellectual, hunted down and persecuted by the bigoted, close-minded xenophobic Americans. There is certainly truth on both sides. Prejudice played a big role in how Polanski was viewed during his trial and even after the murder of his wife, he was shamefully portrayed in many press accounts as bizarre outsider figure who was somehow responsible for the slayings. However, be that as it may, drugging and raping a 13 year old girl ain't tiddlywinks.