Polanski: A Biography

Polanski: A Biography

by Christopher Sandford

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"Exactly fifty years ago, a young director named Roman Polanski made his first completed film - a two-minute student exercise which he called Murder. In the half-century since, Polanski has become an iconic figure, widely admired for his mordant, sexually charged films and yet derided as - in his own words - 'an evil, profligate dwarf'. In January 1978, facing a…  See more details below


"Exactly fifty years ago, a young director named Roman Polanski made his first completed film - a two-minute student exercise which he called Murder. In the half-century since, Polanski has become an iconic figure, widely admired for his mordant, sexually charged films and yet derided as - in his own words - 'an evil, profligate dwarf'. In January 1978, facing a possible fifty-year sentence for 'unlawful sexual intercourse' with a 13-year-old girl, Polanski fled the United States and flew to France, where he was a naturalized citizen. Thirty years later, he remains in exile: the much revered eminence grise of filmmakers and a criminal fugitive 'never, for a single day', the US Justice Department has said, free of the 'dread of arrest'." Others have told pieces of this story, but Christopher Sandford brings it all together in one lucid, gripping account, beginning with Polanski's horrific experience in the Holocaust and ending with his current life in Paris, where he provides a 'living symbol of Franco-American misunderstanding.' The book draws on dozens of interviews with actors, writers and other Polanski collaborators, previously sealed transcripts of his criminal hearings, testimony before the California grand jury and the graphic evidence of former lovers and friends. There is a wealth of unpublished material, too, on what Polanski has called the 'central tragedy' of his life - the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate and others by members of the so-called Manson Family -an event which, for sheer savagery, rivals anything in modern criminal history.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
Polanski has lived for his work, and it is by his work that he must be judged. It is a pity that there are so many stains on his record, but there are few stains on his films. In this fine biography, Sandford gives those films the praise they deserve, and he is fair as well to Polanski the man.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Celebrity biographer Sandford (McCartney, etc.) tackles the life of director Roman Polanski, but only scratches the surface of one of cinema's most controversial figures. Born in Paris in 1933, Polanski, with his family, moved to Poland in 1936 on the eve of World War II. His mother died in Auschwitz and his father was imprisoned for the duration of the war, leaving Polanski to fend for himself in the Kraków ghetto. He later attended Lódz's National Film School and began attracting attention for themes that would become his trademarks: voyeurism, sexual tension and latent violence. Polanski took full advantage of the "swinging" '60s in Paris, London and later America, and developed a reputation as a lothario with an eye for younger women. His life and career in America, which included the classics Rosemary's Baby(1968) and Chinatown(1974), were marred by two pivotal events: the 1969 slaying of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, by members of Charlie Manson's "Family" and Polanski's own arrest in 1977 for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

Biographer Sandford (McCartney; Kurt Cobain) delivers the latest work to explore Roman Polanski, notoriously controversial director of Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist. Recounted are many of the hideous events Polanski witnessed as a child in German-occupied Poland, from which he formed a worldview often reflected in his films. Sandford takes every opportunity to address the transformative events of Polanski's life, often initiated by Polanski himself; not surprisingly, the author speculates on the possibility that many a metamorphosis was, and is, intentional fabrication. Drawing from firsthand interviews with the director's associates and colleagues, as well as Polanski's autobiography, Roman by Polanski, Sandford writes this life-spanning survey with casual fluidity-seemingly appropriate for a man so well known for his nonchalant personal exploits. Stories of Polanski are seemingly always up for dispute and practically by default evoke conflicting views of his personal moral character. Nonetheless, Polanski's artistry is generally held in high regard, and Sandford's obvious knowledge and critical estimation of Polanski's work conveys a tough but appealing fairness that should be welcomed by scholars and lay readers alike.
—Eric Pasteur

Kirkus Reviews
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 personalhistory, 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. First printing of 100,000

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

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Early on the morning of 14 March 1943, the Krakow ghetto was finally liquidated. It was exactly a month since [Roman’s mother] Bula Polanski had disappeared; the destruction of families “one Jew at a time” was specifically encouraged in the German plan. [His father] Ryszard was able to smuggle Romek [Roman] out of the immediate area, [his friend] Stefan being left to his fate, before the SS came for him. From there the 9-year-old took to his heels, crossing Podgorze Bridge and riding the tram out of town to the [neighboring] Wilks, who happened to have been away. Unsure of what to do next, Romek doubled back to the bridge, where he found a column of men being marched off to the waiting trains. Among them was Ryszard.

Romek came as close as he dared and gestured to his father. As the long line of prisoners went by, Ryszard was able to slip back through the ranks to a position furthest away from the guards. Like all the detainees, he had had his tie, belt, and shoelaces removed. It was standard procedure.

For several seconds, the irregular-looking squad shuffled on in silence towards the wagons. Then Ryszard’s lips moved, though just barely, and he spoke in a voice so low that Romek had to strain to hear it from six feet away.

Zjezdzaj,” he said. “Get lost.”

This was the backdrop at the time Romek Wilk, as he styled himself, went into permanent hiding in the spring of 1943. It was hard to say which was worse, the war situation or his own predicament. Either way, he was alone

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