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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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10/04/2008 Archived Entry: "Book review: Polanski: A Biography"

Polanski: A Biography
By Christopher Sandford
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN-10: 0-230-60778-0
ISBN 13: 978-0-230-60778-1

Review by Chad Denton

More than any other film director in recent decades, Roman Polanski is a case study of the artist as a celebrity in ways detached from his own work. Within his own life Polanski embodies the history of the West in the twentieth century: a Holocaust survivor, an émigré from Communist Poland, a champion of the Sexual Revolution, the husband of the Manson Family's most well-known victim Sharon Tate, a mass media villain, and to this day, by being a culture hero to many French and a notorious pedophile to many Americans, an example of stark, perhaps insurmountable cultural gaps between continental Europe and the United States. Even without such a colorful life, which may not be stranger than fiction but is certainly more interesting than the plots of most novels on the bestseller lists, Polanski's corpus of work could fuel any number of books. After all, his filmography contains a milestone in horror cinema (Rosemary's Baby), a gritty but straightforward Shakespeare adaptation (Macbeth), a homage to sadomasochism (Bitter Moon), "neo-noir" (Chinatown), a parody of Hammer-style horror (The Fearless Vampire Killers), and a big-budget pirate-themed action movie (Pirates), just to name some.

Although the book is an "unauthorized" biography, the author, Christopher Sandford, is respectful but smoothly objective, despite his statement that his goal is to "help rescue Roman Polanski from his detractors", those talking heads who view Polanski as no one but the man who had anal sex with a 13-year old girl in Jack Nicholson's pool house in 1977. A veteran of biographies on cultural titans like Kurt Cobain, Steve McQueen, David Bowie, and Paul McCarthy, Sandford is mainly interested in, to coin a phrase, "the man and the myth."

Although he does not apologize for or exonerate Polanski for his much-publicized sin, he does attempt to explain the possible psychological reasons for Polanski's recklessness, a distinction often lost in the Age of Nancy Grace. Speaking of Nancy Grace, Sandford does take some pages to critique the media's role in the scandal's aftermath, which he describes, quoting Marshall McLuhan, as "voyeurism dressed up as a public service." Sandford's chief concern is to portray a director whose personal life and hubris nearly derailed his career, but in parts he also provides a critical history of the relationship between celebrity and mass media, drawing an unflattering parallel between the media hydra turning Polanski into a monster that deserved nothing less than life in prison and the speculations of several journalists that by simply directing "Rosemary's Baby" Polanski caused Sharon Tate to be murdered by Satanists.

Using material drawn from more than 270 interviews with friends, relatives, and acquaintances, Sandford's biography is rich with the sort of anecdotes and minutiae true fans of an artist love to devour, from Polanski's near-fatal mugging in an abandoned German bunker during his days in war-torn Krakow to the disconcerting fact that he was billed for cleaning up his wife and friends' blood days after the Manson murders to shoving a producer into a bowl of dip on the set of The Ninth Gate, all brought together by a lively style that manages to be sympathetic but also miles from being hagiographic. Other readers may be more disappointed that Sandford's treatment of Polanski's films is not as in-depth as his treatment of the artist's life. Although Sandford does anything but ignore Polanski's professional life and his insights on the films are not insubstantial, he relies mainly on the reviews of mainstream critics, details on Polanski's perfectionist directorial style, and interesting but unrevealing trivia like budget numbers and filming mistakes such as a reflection of the director's face that appears in The Pianist. There is nothing quite like the thorough film critiques Joseph Lanza gave in his biography of cult film director Ken Russell, Phallic Frenzy, although of course insightful reviews of Polanski's work, even his more obscure films, are not hard to find elsewhere.

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