The tumultuous story of a director whose signature movies—dark, bleakly funny, shot through with perversity and paranoia—reflect the sensibility of an artist shaped by circumstances more harrowing, unpredictable and absurd than any Hollywood melodrama.
Roman Polanski’s troubles began in 1939, when the Nazis invaded his native Poland. The family was confined to Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, and in 1943 his parents were sent to concentration camps, leaving their ten-year-old son to fend for himself. (After the war, reunited with his father, he learned that his pregnant mother had been gassed at Auschwitz.) Cunning and possessed of a ferocious drive, Polanski eventually attended film school in Lodz, where he quickly became the star pupil and developed a reputation for lavish spending, partying and prodigious sexual conquests. In slyly playful prose, Sandford (McCartney, 2007, etc.) limns the young artist as a mercurial changeling, alternately arrogant, tender, hilarious, boorish and charming, always striving for (and coming thrillingly close to) technical perfection in his cinematic technique. After he emigrated to America, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown helped define a new era in movies and cemented their director’s status as one of the greats. Polanski’s personal life remained gothic: In 1969 his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was horrifically murdered by the Manson Family; eight years later, the director pled guilty to the charge of “unlawful intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl, fled the country before sentencing and has lived in Europe since. Sandford admirably extracts all of the salient information from the maelstrom of controversy and urban myth surrounding Polanski’s often lurid personal history, neither damning nor exonerating him. When he won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2002 for his Holocaust drama The Pianist (obviously, he could not attend), the driven, 69-year-old director was in Paris, preparing his next film.
Engrossing, lucid presentation of a uniquely complicated and productive life.