The Restoration of Roman Polanski
Macabre, unseemly: not Polanski himself so much as his presence two winters ago at the premiere of Macbeth, his first movie since the slaughter of his pregnant wife at the hands of Manson & Company. You have resolved not to allow the specters of Sharon & Jay & Abigail & Voyteck & Charlie to hover over the proceedings like the glum tabloid Eumenides created by the press at the time of the murder, nor to expect that Polanski should make this, his first large public appearance since the crime in August, 1969, an occasion to skulk in wearing black and looking inaccessible; still, the ambiance in the then-new Playboy Playhouse, Manhattan, is jarring. Down in row one is little Roman, in a blood-colored velvet suit, chattering with Hugh Hefner, who has, incredibly, served, from his dark tower in Chicago, as Macbeth’s producer. The screen before them is covered with the pastel heads of decapitated rabbits. After the celebrity audience has rubbernecked at the diminutive, legendary director, the rabbit heads dissolve to the portentous Macbeth titles, which dissolve to a curious movie relentlessly bloody, which dissolves to a garish, Hogarthian gala atop the Playboy Club up the street, featuring the usual Bunnies like Breughel barmaids, medieval crowns of sculptured ice on the buffet tables and Polanski grinning demonically for the flash cameras of Women’s Wear.
Why do you distinctly mistrust him that night? Because his handshake is too firm and his smile like something dipped in instant silver cleaner? Because Macbeth is being hyped like the Playmate of the Year? Because you wonder why, after brilliant work on films conjured from his own obviously unique vision — Knife in the Water, Cul de Sac, the impeccable Repulsion — he would have bothered with Macbeth at all, unless in the cause of some silly classics jerk-off? Because, for a recent piece in Esquire by his friend Ken Tynan, he posed satirically for the photographer with a butcher knife? No matter, except that when you are asked to write about him, you have only these sour memories, and the knowledge that he is back in L.A. making his first large movie since Macbeth, a large, expensive, movie star-sounding project, something with the commercial smell of Sydney Pollack or Peter Bogdanovich. You have no way of knowing then that this picture, called, oddly, Chinatown, will be so perfect a suspense piece and so perfectly a satire of one that it could put Hitchcock out to pasture forever in regional college film-night nostalgia orgies; that watching it, you will be convinced that only Polanski could have made Gatsby exciting or The Exorcist intelligent; that the man himself, this Polish troll, this cunning urchin, will turn out, through his egomania, his arrogance, his grace, his bluntness, his brillance, to alter your focuses and perceptions irrevocably. “That bastard,” a compatriot of his whispers one night at his house, watching him cross a room exuding charm, “that son-of-a-bitch. I would die for him.”
The preliminaries to meeting him are infuriating: a mound of unheeded messages left with his polite but French houseboy, finally the master’s voice, weary, impersonal, somehow challenging, British inflections pock — marked with something harsh and Germanic. He does not like interviews, he allows, and doesn’t do any. OK, let’s forget it. No, no, come round Sunday, this invitation extended as if to an IRS investigator. One arrives purposely late, after a late night, in dark glasses, with Scotch and various stimulants still staining the vocal chords. Beyond the gate, electronically and otherwise locked, awaits an aspect like that which confronted Margaret O’Brien when she found the right door in The Secret Garden: huge carnivorous plants, a deafening waterfall feeding a kidney pool, a house glassy and transparent as a terrarium, with an oppressive view of the enchanted mauve mist of Beverly Hills smog, all the property of Dinah Shore’s former husband George Montgomery, “Actor and furniture maker” of the televised Johnson Wax commercials. The house’s lessee stands resplendent like a small, athletic sunburst in the living room’s merciless light, tensed as if for first serve, effortlessly deep-breathing. He is known to hate cigarettes. One lights one.
“I am awake since nine, I like to take cold showers mornings,” he offers, bounding around the room finding an ashtray, gesturing to the houseboy for coffee, “Ice cold, terrible of course, but half-hour later you feel terrific!” He speaks in a sort of emphatic shorthand, with extra consonants. “I go to fly in an hour, I take flying lessons, I want to go fly last evening, the weather is perfect in Hollywood, but at airport a great bank of greyish stuff is rolling upon me.” Conversationally you remark that that’s probably smog, expecting, if anything, a nod, but he considers sharply. “No! What causes sudden changes of weather is flow of air, constant moving of it, change of temperature within it which is called, in meteorology, fronts! Cold front comes under warm front, great lift occurs… clouds, crystallization into ice!” There is in this something ingenuous and amazed and at the same time something professorial, a more than casual interest in being right; for the moment you miss wicked ironies under these explanations of his, which burgeon unexpectedly from chance remarks, fragments of thought, like lush plants growing from seedlings in speeded-up photography. A half-hour later I ask something about actors who work from instinct and again he starts: “But none of us are born with instinct! We’re born only with certain capacity to develop instinct, some to develop their imaginations, others only their muscles! This is not enough realized! That all peoples on this planet through all the ages, there were never two born exactly alike, every cell of my organism is different from yours, only certain basic things are genetic, all newborn babies will move its arm away if you burn it, will suck at the breast if you put one in its mouth, and do things only necessary for survival. Instinct, which is something which tells you by the tone of your wife’s voice that she has been fucking other man, that is not born, that is accumulated experience. . . ”
Though these extraordinary monologues may spin on indefinitely, they can be instantly terminated: He watches your face carefully whenever he talks and if he detects the slightest flicker of restlessness near your eyes or mouth, he will change the subject with great purpose, with an almost physical will, like a nervous keno dealer.
There is also this: that he watches intently when you talk, for what you may be, may be concealing or secretly intent upon; this is not to ingratiate, though clearly he is capable of calculated niceness. Ignoring his coffee, he suddenly wants to know about writing, why one does it. “Is writing not a certain special kind of verbal memory? Is it not a lot like film editing? By arranging order of words in sentence, you arrange a meaning? In Chinatown, for example, I just realize that by changing a hand gesture of one very minor character — it takes four frames and there are 36 frames per second — we change whole meaning of scene. Changing series of shots in scene can also destroy picture, an example there is my The Fearless Vampire Killers, made in Europe, but a man called Gene Gutowski was producer and he convinced me he should be in charge of the final cut for the U.S. because he knows U.S. audience. OK, I trust him, and he takes my movie away, cuts 20 minutes from it, redubs it and changes music around, then adds a little cartoon at the beginning to explain what it’s about because now, after the cuts, nobody understands it any more! My version has played almost constantly in Europe since it opens, seven years! His version, which plays here, is a disaster, I tell you, it made more money in Formosa than it’s ever made in U.S. and Canada put together! They show it here all the time on television, I get the shakes, it is so bad, but it is out of my control. So, does this happen to you as writer? Is this cutting done at Rolling Stone?” Never, one explains; well hardly ever. He isn’t listening.
“I learn from that, on this one Bob Evans and I have complete approval of final cut.” He means Robert Evans, goad of Paramount, head of its production; while Evans was largely responsible for Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby and The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Chinatown is the first Paramount movie he has produced entirely on his own. “Evans, lemme tell you, is no fool: Public thinks of him simply as good-looking former husband of Ali McGraw and so on, but there would have been no Rosemary’s Baby without him. Look, when you are making a picture, you are continually under attack — from your stars, crew and studio with its financial statements. I am publicly called by many of these a megalomaniac and they are absolutely right, you must be one to make a good film! Because you must believe at all times that your decisions are utterly right — even when they are wrong. There is one reason why you do a film at all: to make happen in cinema a vision, a concept, which is totally yours, only in your mind, no one else’s, it is cinema of one human being, I am the only one who perceives my vision! I am known as an expensive perfectionist; truth is, sometimes a certain scene is not quite within your vision correctly yet, but you dunno why, so you must do 50 takes of it to find out. OK, the moneymen do not comprehend this. And here you need a man like Evans, who does. The other corporate big boys, they dunno what Rosemary’s Baby was about at all, they think it is some cockamamie thing like The Exorcist or something, they are screaming at Evans, ‘Make him work fast, throw the fucking little Polack out!’ We have a big meeting, I blow, I tell ’em, ‘OK, I know how to shoot your way, like TV, ten pages a day, I finish your fucking movie in three days!’ They nod happily and Evans gets up, and I swear, he was putting his job then on the line, he tells them, ‘This is just jacking off, Roman, go back to the set and do just what you’ve been doing, making a good movie.’ You dunno the guts that took him then, and he has totally preserved me from such bullshit on Chinatown. . .”