Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski with a knife in his masterpiece: Chinatown (1974)

Roman Polanski with a knife in his masterpiece: Chinatown (1974)

  • Born:  1933
  • Rank:  12
  • Score:  767.90
  • Awards:  Oscar / 2 BAFTAs / Golden Globe / LAFC / 2 NSFC / 2 BSFC
  • Nominations:  3 Oscars / 3 DGA / 2 BAFTAs / 2 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films:  17
  • Best:  Chinatown
  • Worst: Pirates

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Chinatown – 1974
  2. The Pianist – 2002
  3. Rosemary’s Baby – 1968
  4. Repulsion – 1965
  5. Knife in the Water – 1962

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1963 – 6th – Knife in the Water
  • 1965 – 2nd – Repulsion
  • 1966 – 5th – Cul-de-Sac
  • 1968 – 2nd – Rosemary’s Baby
  • 1971 – 6th – Macbeth
  • 1974 – 1st – Chinatown
  • 1980 – 6th – Tess
  • 1994 – 8th – Death and the Maiden
  • 2002 – 3rd – The Pianist

How strange to write this today with the news of Susan Atkins’ death, the woman who murdered Polanski’s wife and unborn child.  I hadn’t intended really to mention Polanski’s personal life.  In a lot of ways it does bear some mentioning because of its obvious influence on his work.  Is there any major director whose work is so consistently bleak in its outlook?  Should it really have been any sort of surprise when Polanski chose to adapt Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the screen?  Hardy fits Polanski like a glove.  His whole life bears out the tragedy of the naturalist who survives.

There is the early life; whether or not he really lived through what Kosinski wrote about in The Painted Bird, there is no question that he endured horrors during the war and his family was lost in the Holocaust.  Then his wife was stabbed in the most brutal murders in California history and the only reason guilty sentences were ever handed down was because we were all lucky enough that Vincent Bugliosi ended up on the case and did the job the detectives didn’t.  Then there was the rape case and Polanski’s flight to France.  So there you have it, his personal life in a nutshell.

Then there is the work.  Polanski made Two Men and a Wardrobe, a fantastic short film, then made his first feature film and immediately ended up on the international map.  Polanski’s work for the rest of the sixties as Sarris wrote, “introduced a peculiarly European sensibility to the English-language cinema.”  There was Satan and there were vampires and psychological horrors abounding.  And this was all before the Manson murders.  Afterwards he dove back into work and into blood with the most violent adaptation of Shakespeare ever made.  Then came the slip-up (Diary of Forbidden Dreams).  But then came the masterpiece.

Robert Towne had the idea for a Los Angeles trilogy and he mapped it all out, but it was Polanski who made him change the ending, who understood the bleak reality of life and that was made the film an instant classic.  And Polanski was no longer just a horror director.  He had made the big time, complete with Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination.

However, his personal life intervened again and since Chinatown, Polanski’s work has been much more of a mixed bag.  There is the occasional critically praised film (Tess), the masterpiece that was pretty much ignored (Death and the Maiden), and the film that finally won him the Oscar (The Pianist).  But there was also Pirates, his huge money losing venture and artistic failure, not to mention the mess of The Ninth Gate.

So there we have it.  Several brilliant films, a number of good ones, two failures and one mediocrity.  But he continues to work and his next film is due out next year.  And he is always worth watching, always has been since his student days in Poland.

Chinatown – #1 film of 1974

I tell people I grew up in the desert.  They say they thought I was from L.A. and I explain “L.A. is the desert.  But the people water their lawns a lot and the beach isn’t too far away so the illusion sticks.”  But it has the essential desert problems of heat, and more importantly, lack of water.  You have to find a way to bring the water to the city.  William Mulholland did find a way to do that, but Robert Towne thought up a more interesting story.  He had an idea for a Los Angeles trilogy that would connect across the modern era and establish the three aspects of modern life in L.A.: water, oil, cars.  The first part was a modern masterpiece, the second was a mediocre flop and the third never got made (though the inclusion of the plot idea in Who Framed Roger Rabbit made it unnecessary anyway).  Towne had written one hell of a script, focusing around a private detective, a perfect successor to Sam Spade, and one that would highlight the corruption of Los Angeles in the middle of the twentieth century.

Then came the inclusion of three main people, three dominating personalities who were all brilliant in their fields and together the film got made.  On the producing end was Robert Evans, the golden boy of Paramount who was coming off The Godfather, who pushed the project until it was done.  Then there was Roman Polanski, the director with the nightmare past for whom this film was almost a cheerful departure.  And there was Jack.  Back then he wasn’t Jack, of course.  He had three Oscar nominations under his belt and he was turning into a star but nothing like he is now, the biggest star in the universe, perhaps only rivaled by Clint Eastwood for sheer stardom power.  But Jack was still known primarily as an actor and this was his tour-de-force.  He didn’t win the Oscar of course, because performances of this caliber so rarely do actually win (such as Peter O’Toole for Lawrence of Arabia, Marlon Brando for Streetcar, Orson Welles for Kane), but it is this performance, more than any other, that he will be remembered for.  I will always in my head hear him saying “He died two weeks ago and he bought the land a week ago.  That’s unusual.”

Then of course there are the two other performances that the film hinges on.  The first is Faye Dunaway.  In just three films, Bonnie and Clyde, Network and Chinatown, Faye Dunaway proved that she was as good an actress as anyone who was ever put on screen, yet she never developed herself into a star.  But without her, the film doesn’t hold together.  He mix of strength and desperation plays off Nicholson perfectly, in the same way she did as Bonnie Parker.

Then there is John Huston.  Huston had been nominated for an Oscar years before, so people knew he could act, but did anyone really suspect he was capable of this?  That deep gravelly voice, that I would so long associate with Gandalf, is so deadly, like snake’s venom as he explains the way things work to poor J.J. Gittes.  That he should walk away with the ending, with the future, is perhaps something that only could have happened in a film made in this era.

And so much of what is brilliant about this film is contained in the ending.  There are films that stumble at the end (L.A. Confidential really should have ended on the line “You’ll need more than one.”) and some films kind of fade away at the end.  Very few films have the strength to move forward into the darkness and allow things to come to the ending that really would have happened.  There was never any happy ending coming at the end of this, no matter what Towne thought he could have pulled off.  Just like it was right for Rick to let Ilsa get on the plane (an ending that only happened because Bergman had already cut her hair for For Whom the Bell Tolls), the only way this film truly works is the way it does.  And so we are left with the bleakness that Polanski understood, that he tried to make the rest of us understand and we are left with that final haunting line.

“Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”