Redeeming Roman Polanski

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Sundance / UCLA / LA Times / Reuters

Film director Roman Polanksi.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, one of the most talked about documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival and the first to sell here this year, unfolds like a noir thriller about the director's notorious 1977 statutory rape case. But the shadowy villain in this film isn't Polanski — it's the judge who presided over his case, Laurence Rittenband. Through dozens of interviews and deft use of archival footage, director Marina Zenovich untangles the dense web of legal issues that surround the Chinatown director's sensational story and exile to France.

Zenovich doesn't make excuses for Polanski's crime, one that would almost certainly be prosecuted with even more fervor today, in the age of "To Catch a Predator" and Megan's Law. But she does make a compelling case that Polanski was the victim of a kind of '70s version of celebrity justice. "People have been more interested in the lurid details, because this is such a sensational case," says Zenovich. "This part of the case somehow got lost."

The film recounts the details of the night Polanski brought 13-year-old Samantha Gailey to Jack Nicholson's house for a magazine photo shoot and allegedly gave her champagne and quaaludes before having sex with her. Gailey, now Samantha Geimer, tells the story from her point of view in the film, saying she's not angry with Polanski. Polanski, now 74, declined to participate in Zenovich's movie. "He felt it would look like self-promotion," Zenovich says. "He said I don't want to seem like a prima donna. I want to help you but it's just not right."

Whether Polanski will do publicity for the film in France and other countries that don't have extradition treaties with the U.S. is uncertain, says Zenovich. But Harvey Weinstein, whose company purchased the foreign rights to the film, was overheard breathlessly speculating on that possibility in the balcony of another Sundance screening Saturday night. (HBO purchased the domestic rights).

Many of the interviews in the film, with neighbors and friends like Mia Farrow, paint a picture of Polanski at his peak, when he was one of Hollywood's hottest directors, fresh off the critical and commercial hit Rosemary's Baby and married to the beautiful actress Sharon Tate. "At a certain point in his life, Roman Polanski had a lot of hope," says Zenovich. "He was living this great life. He was so talented and everyone wanted to work with him. He had survived the Holocaust, soared out of Poland on sheer personality. I wanted to put his life in perspective, not apologize for him."

That hopeful period ended when Tate, eight months pregnant, was murdered by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. Polanski spent the first years after her death on a kind of sexual spree, and began spending time with younger and younger women, like 15-year-old Nastassja Kinski.

When Polanski was arrested for assaulting Gailey, his case drew the attention of Judge Rittenband, who had also presided over Elvis Presley's divorce, Marlon Brando's child-custody battle and a paternity suit against Cary Grant. Rittenband, in a manner reminiscent of the one-liner-dropping judge in the Anna Nicole Smith case, liked the spotlight. He even had a bailiff maintain a scrapbook of his newspaper clippings.

Breaking years of silence, Polanski's defense attorney Douglas Dalton and the district attorney Roger Gunson detail the strange manner in which the case proceeded. Two court-appointed psychiatrists examined Polanski and determined that he was not a mentally deranged sex offender. Both attorneys and the victim argued for a plea bargain, but Rittenband, concerned with appearing soft on crime, sent Polanski to Chino State Penitentiary to undergo another 90-day evaluation period. On several occasions, Rittenband persuaded the attorneys to put on a show for the media, Dalton and Gunson say, arguing their sides even though the judge had already told them his plans in chambers. The attorneys also cite various times in which Rittenband promised to do one thing and then changed his mind. "What fascinated me about the legal systems was how much stuff takes place behind closed doors," says Zenovich.

The judge's bizarre behavior might have continued had Polanski not fled to France, where he has lived for the last 30 years, ultimately marrying again and having two children. He was unable to come to collect his Oscar for The Pianist in 2003. Polanski does not want to return to the U.S., Zenovich says, until a deal is made in his case.