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Polanski: Hollywood exile with a troubled past

As dark and disturbing as Roman Polanski's films are, the real life of the 69-year-old director - who won the Oscar for best director - is even more defined by horror, violence and sex.

india Updated: Mar 24, 2003 10:56 IST

As dark and disturbing as Roman Polanski's films are, the real life of the 69-year-old director -- who Sunday won the Oscar for best director -- is even more defined by horror, violence and sex.

Polanski, born in Paris on August 18, 1933 to parents who soon took him back to their native Poland, learned early about the dark side of human nature.

He was eight when the Nazis took away his parents and he was forced to flee the Jewish ghetto in Krakow -- an experience that lends an almost autobiographical tone to "The Pianist."

Wandering the Polish countryside, going from family to family and dodging German soldiers, Polanski saw first-hand the perversity and cruelty in people.

That experience shaped his performance as a teenage actor in post-war Poland in the 1950s, and underpinned his own short movies, made after a course at the Lodz Film School.

His feature debut, "Knife in the Water" (1962), an erotic thriller about a couple inviting a switchblade-toting hitchhiker onto their yacht, was immediately acclaimed in the West and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, even though it generated little interest at home.

That prompted Polanski to move to England -- the first of many self-imposed exiles that nurtured the sense of alienation so faithfully reproduced in his work.

There, despite shaky English, he blossomed, making "Repression" (1965), starring a young Catherine Deneuve; "Cul-de-Sac" (1966); and "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967), all of them inhabited with a wry psychology.

Taking up offers in Hollywood, he moved to Los Angeles in 1968, where he set about making his first big international hit -- "Rosemary's Baby," a creepy story of a mother-to-be (Mia Farrow) who finds herself singled out to carry the devil's spawn. Polanski's script was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

The following year, real-life horror again visited Polanski.

His eight-month-pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and four friends were slaughtered in his mansion by the Charles Manson gang. Tate, who appeared in "The Fearless Vampire Killers," was stabbed and hanged to death, and her blood was used to scrawl the word "Pig" on their front door.

Devastated, Polanski left for Europe to make forgettable movies that seemed overshadowed by his tragedy.

In 1974, he returned to Hollywood and immediately made "Chinatown," an atmospheric tale in the film noir mould starring his good friend Jack Nicholson, giving himself a small part as a hood who slashes Nicholson's nose.

Still considered a classic, "Chinatown" was nominated for 11 Oscars and walked away with one, for Best Original Screenplay.

Although Polanski intended the film as his spectacular return to US filmmaking, his sojourn was short-lived -- this time because of his obsession with sex.

In 1977, he lured a 13-year-old model back to Nicholson's house, where he plied her with drink and drugs and, by his own admission, had sex with her. Rather than face a 50-year jail sentence for statutory rape, he fled the United States.

"Normal love isn't interesting. I assure that it's incredibly boring," an unrepentant Polanski is on the record as saying, and soon after he landed in France, he started dating 15-year-old Nastassja Kinski. In 1989, he married French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, then 23.

US prosecutors have vowed to have Polanski arrested if he ever returned, so one of Hollywood's most respected directors was not in Hollywood to accept her award.

Recently, Polanski's career stagnated with a number of poorly received movies and expensive flops -- until "The Pianist" suddenly made him hot again.

The girl Polanski raped, Samantha Geimer, now aged 38, wrote a piece in The Los Angeles Times last month, arguing that he should have been allowed to return to the country to accept his award.

"I don't really have any hard feelings toward him (Polanski), or any sympathy, either," she wrote. "What he does for a living and how good he is at it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me."

First Published: Mar 24, 2003 10:56 IST