Essays, Roman Polanski

Real to Reel… Roman Polanski… Reel is Real?

(c) Vanessa Cowan, 2005

You have to show violence the way it is. If you don’t show it realistically, then that’s immoral and harmful. If you don’t upset people, then that’s obscenity.”   Quote courtesy of

 “I am a megalomaniac – you have to be to make good films.”   Quote courtesy of Polanski Par Polanski

What do the Holocaust, the Manson family, and the Academy Awards have in common?  The answer is Roman Polanski.  Holocaust survivor, actor/writer/director/producer, widow, convicted rapist, husband and father, and Oscar winner – all of these labels apply to Roman Polanski and contribute to his iconic status in Western society.  The iconography of Roman Polanski has been almost entirely constructed from the interplay between his reel and real lives.  He is the proverbial fine line between fact and fiction, the embodiment of la cinéma vérité.  He is an artist whose work serves as a figurative parable to his experiences.  The blurring of real and reel has led the media and consequently the public to believe that the two are synonymous, a perception Roman has both fought against and perpetuated through his work.  His forty-three years and counting in the media’s consciousness has allowed his image to evolve and the public’s interest has followed suit.  This essay will deconstruct the iconography of Roman Polanski by discussing in brief the seminal events of his life as they relate to his popular image, a semiotic analysis of his complex symbolism, how the constant interplay between the media and Polanski informs the evolution of his image, and how the intricacy of his iconography is matched by my complicated feelings toward him.

Recent photographs show a white male who appears to be between the ages of sixty and seventy.  He stands no taller than five foot six with a compact build.  His head is supported by a short neck.  His face bears a prominent nose, thin lips, closely set eyes with large brown irises and folds of skin beneath the lower eyelids, a prominent chin with a slight cleft, and almost indistinguishable eyebrows.  His brown hair is wavy and mixed with grey, covering the tops of his large ears.  This man is Roman Polanski. 

Born Raimund Liebling in Paris in 1933, Roman’s Jewish parents returned to Poland in time for Krakow’s occupation, which sent Roman’s parents to Nazi concentration camps (E! Online; IMDb).  Roman sought refuge wherever he could until reunited with his father at war’s end – his pregnant mother was killed in the Auschwitz gas chambers (E! Online; IMDb).  He began as an actor; his first notice as a director was for the film Nóz w wodzie (  He came to Hollywood with Rosemary’s Baby and married American actress Sharon Tate the same year (E! Online; IMDb; Polanski fr, appendix).  In 1969, Sharon was eight months pregnant with their first child when she was murdered by the Manson family (E! Online; Polanski fr, appendix).  The noire detective story Chinatown was Roman’s second successful Hollywood movie.  In 1977 Roman was indicted on six counts relating to a sexual encounter with thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer (E! Online;  He pled guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” (Polanski, 408) and underwent a six-week psychiatric evaluation at a California state prison (  Upon his discharge he fled to Paris, France (Polanski, 425).  In 1989 he married French actress Emmanuelle Seigner; they have two children (E! Online; IMDb).  Roman’s Hollywood career experienced a renaissance when he was awarded the Oscar for Best Director for The Pianist in 2003 (

What makes Roman Polanski an iconic figure in Western society?  For the same reason we watch his films, we watch Roman – “he shows us how we are perversely fascinated by spectacle” (Leaming, 12).  Polanski’s cinema cannot be separated from his image – he recasts painful personal events in his films (Leaming, 12).  His work is keyed to the viewer’s awareness of his image (i.e. violence and crime) and as that image has evolved in the media, he has used it as material in his films, further shaping his image (Leaming, 13).  His movies from Macbeth onward allude to a biographical legend, half self-created and half media-created (Leaming, 207).  Macbeth’s scenes of violence evoke Sharon’s murder and Tess shows the rapist’s point of view on rape – both these cinematic accounts came two years after their real life inspirations.  Parallels are also apparent in The Pianist[1] (an artist survives the Holocaust), The Tenant (a child-victim wears a Polanski mask and cries out in Polanski’s voice), and the upcoming Oliver Twist (the classic orphan tale).  Films without a semi-autobiographical element nevertheless resonate with eroticism and violence – Nóz w wodzie (erotic thriller), Repulsion (sexually repressed woman driven to murder), Rosemary’s Baby (young woman’s rape and impregnation by the devil), and Chinatown (incest victim is murdered trying to save her daughter from their father).  His personal life took a central position in media coverage when the Manson family murdered Sharon – his image was consumed and he was linked to the same violence that he had long cultivated in his films (Leaming, 112).  He essentially lost control of his image – according to both the media and the public a link existed between his life and his art (Leaming, 206-207) and this conviction was further cemented by his encounter with Samantha Geimer.    

Beyond the controversy that has infused his public persona, Roman Polanski has a myriad of meanings for his perceivers.  To Emmanuelle Saigner and their children Morgane and Elvis (E! Online; IMDb) he is a husband and father.  To Samantha Geimer, he is the man with whom she had non-consensual sexual intercourse.  To the American criminal justice system he is a fugitive – to [now-deceased] Judge Laurence J. Rittenband he was to be made an example of[2].  For the American media, Roman is a constant source of gossip fodder.  To the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he is an Oscar recipient[3].  Roman is a foreigner who achieved professional success in the land of opportunity (although his “American dream” is being fulfilled in France).  As a Holocaust survivor, he symbolizes the tenacity of the human spirit and triumph over adversity.  As a former U.S. resident and current French citizen, he embodies the long-standing American-French political tensions[4].  Being European-raised, his ideals and values strongly contrast with those of American society – this clash was strongest in his denial of wrong-doing with Geimer[5].  For critics of the American justice system, his case demonstrates its failings and inefficacy in achieving justice.  Though some Westerners likely do not know who Roman Polanski is, they know his work.  In his 1984 biography Roman wrote about his persona.  “I have been on the receiving end of so many inaccuracies, misapprehensions and downright distortions that people who don’t know me have an entirely false idea of my personality.  Rumor, harnessed to the power of the media, creates an image of public figures that clings to them forever – a sort of caricature that passes for reality.  I know what I am, what I have and haven’t done, how things really were and are” (Polanski, 450).  Fifteen years later in an interview with Esquire magazine Roman claimed the incident with Geimer was “all [his] fault” and that there is “a different justice system for people who are public figures” (quoted on E! Online).

The icon of Roman Polanski has yet to be co-opted into a brand as such however, the media have gamely used his image over the years to entertain and titillate consumers.  Following his introduction to the Hollywood media with Rosemary’s Baby, Roman’s activities became increasingly newsworthy.  As the most cosmopolitan of directors (Butler, 11) Roman Polanski was instantly attractive to the U.S. media.  He was used to hype the hedonistic hippy 1960s lifestyle (Leaming, 95).  His house was known as “one of the most open spots in town” (Leaming, 96 italics in original).  His penchant for squiring his young ingénues around town was well-known – for example Nastassja Kinski began her relationship with him at age fifteen (E! Online).  Roman’s image was again utilized in the 1970s to promote the “Hotel California” scene (E! Online).  His friendship with legendary playboy Jack Nicholson further fuelled media interest in him (E! Online;  That the incident with Geimer took place at the home of Nicholson and Angelica Huston and included drugs and alcohol was sufficient enough to attract media attention; the Hollywoodized trial that ensued with both Nicholson and Huston testifying against their friend ( was too salacious for anyone to ignore.  It was a ready-made scandal for the decadent time – prosecutors constructed the image of a forty-something famed director plying a young girl with Quaaludes and champagne at an actor’s Hollywood home and the media latched onto this image (E! Online).  Thus the media went from hyping hedonism using Roman to condemning him for it, forever endowing him with the image of a seducer of [young] women.

Recent uses of Roman’s image in the media have included an A&E Biography and an E! True Hollywood Story, which demonstrate that the media believe public interest in Roman has not diminished over time.  Media interest in the Manson murders has had a cyclical pattern and Roman’s name is mentioned every time.  Sharon was the most famous victim because she was Roman’s wife; his name is mentioned to give the gruesome story more human gravitas (he is the bereaved husband and never-to-be father).  In this instance Roman’s icon serves as a morality tale – a story of what befalls those who transgress society’s code of ethics and proper behaviour.  The hedonism of the 1960s in which Roman so unabashedly engaged culminated in the vicious murder of his starlet wife and their unborn son.  The rape scandal serves as a consequence of ill-advised actions, a barrier to Roman’s re-entrance into Hollywood.  All of his movies since then have been made outside the Hollywood system[6] and not even his Oscar win can barter his complete acceptance.  Roman is currently suing Vanity Fair magazine for libel concerning a 2002 article which stated that he seduced a woman soon after Sharon’s murder (E! Online).  Thus despite his willingness to admit guilt and responsibility for the Geimer incident, Roman is not about to let the media perpetuate the image of him as a seducer any further than it has already.  

His iconic work as an artist has had an enduring impact on the way that movies are created for the public.  Rosemary’s Baby went beyond the Hitchcock formula and became a seminal horror film with its visceral violence and urban realism while Chinatown rewrote the detective story – literally – as Roman himself scripted the ending in which genre violence and desire triumph (Leaming, midsection).  In this way Roman’s work has been used to the benefit of Hollywood movie-making for decades. 

I tried to come up with an original subject (as suggested) for this icon essay and the name Roman Polanski came to mind for reasons unknown.  Although unsure at first whether he constituted an icon the magnitude of a James Dean or Madonna, I thought his less obvious iconic status would prove more challenging to decipher.  Roman Polanski has not had a major impact on my life or consciousness nor has he influenced my consumer attitudes or beliefs; nevertheless his iconography fascinates me.  As a feminist, I am alarmed by the encounter between Roman and Samantha Geimer to the extent that it was non-consensual.  Samantha has spoken publicly about the experience and she does not wish to apply the term “rape” to what transpired[7] and I respect her feelings.  As a humanist, I am sympathetic to the horrors of having survived genocide and the immense loss Roman suffered upon Sharon’s murder.  As a sociology/criminology student, I identify with the themes in his cinematic narratives and am saddened by the overzealous actions of Justice Rittenband, which cast a pawl on the entire criminal justice system.  While I question the absence of a French-American extradition treaty, I respect the sovereignty of France in making its own decisions (i.e. not being bullied by the U.S.).  As a movie-enthusiast and pop culture consumer, I enjoy watching Roman’s movies and am entertained for my money’s worth.  Irrespective of his personal trials, he is an artist[8] and I am an art appreciator therefore we have a symbiotic relationship.  

Roman Polanski is an actor/writer/director/producer however the irony is that his life is more sensational than any Hollywood tale could ever aspire to be.  Through his movies and his actions alike, Roman Polanski has shown us how very thin the line between fact and fiction is as well as how that which repels us is not so dissimilar from that which attracts us.  His iconography is defined first and foremost by what has happened to him and second by what he has contributed to movie-making.  His multi-faceted persona means that he possesses different meanings for different individuals.  Roman has never transcended Sharon’s murder or the statutory rape conviction.  Until media and public interest wane in the Manson family, Roman Polanski’s name will forever come up by association and every media blurb will also mention his fugitive status.  Whatever my feelings for him as a person (which are mediated by the lack of first-hand knowledge of him), I cannot deny his artistry.  Whether his iconic status in Western society will endure remains to be seen as does his place in Hollywood history.



Butler, Ivan.  The Cinema Of Roman Polanski.  New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1970.

Leaming, Sharon.  Polanski A Biography: The Filmmaker As Voyeur. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1981.

Polanski, Roman.  Polanski Par Polanski. Paris: Chêne, 1986. (Cited in-text as Polanski fr)

Roman.  New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1984.


Oliver Twist.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, and Leanne Rowe.  Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2005.

The Pianist.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Adrian Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, and Emilia Fox.  Focus Features, 2002.

Tess. Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin, and Rosemary Martin.  Columbia Pictures, 1979.

Le Locataire.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, and Bernard Fresson.  Paramount Pictures, 1976.  (U.S. title: The Tenant).

Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Diane Ladd, and Roy Jenson.  Paramount Pictures, 1974.

The Tragedy of Macbeth.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler, and John Stride.  Columbia Pictures, 1971.  (U.S. title: Macbeth).

 Rosemary’s Baby.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy.  Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Repulsion.  Dir. Roman Polanski.  Perf. Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, and Patrick Wymark.  Royal Films International, 1965.

Nóz w wodzie.  Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, and Zygmunt Malanowicz.  Kanawha, 1962.  (U.S. title: Knife in the Water).

Television programs

“Roman Polanski: Reflections of Darkness.” A&E Biography.  A&E.  2000.

“E! True Hollywood Story: Roman Polanski.” E! True Hollywood Story.  E!.  1998.


Internet Movie Database Inc.  The Internet Movie Database. An company.  Copyright © 1990-2005.  March 27, 2005.  <;.

Author unknown.  Roman Polanski Productions. Site Officiel du realisateur Roman Polanski.  March 27, 2005. < >.

E! Entertainment Television, Inc.  E! Online.  Copyright © 2005.  March 27, 2005.  <>.

A&E Television Networks.  Biography Channel.  Copyright © 1996-2005.  March 27, 2005.  <;.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  © 2005 The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences & ABC, Inc. March 27, 2005.  <>. 


[1] Interesting factoid: Roman Polanski was asked to direct Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg but he declined since he found the material too painful and personal (E! Online).  Nine years later he made his own Holocaust movie The Pianist.

[2] Re: Roman’s criminal case: “The appearance of a state prison sentence must be maintained for the press” (Rittenband quoted in Leaming on p. 189); Justice Rittenband vowed to have Roman arrested if he ever set foot in the United States and put in jail for up to fifty years (E! Online).

[3] Which led the media to remark that “Only in Hollywood can Roman Polanski be a convicted felon and an Oscar winner” (E! Online).

[4] France does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. (Note I know this due to my criminology degree).

[5] In the beginning Roman claimed he had done nothing wrong by European standards (Leaming, 175).

[6] To be fair, Roman made only two movies in Hollywood prior to 1978 – Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown – and it is impossible to postulate as to whether or not he would have made more had he not fled the U.S as a fugitive.

[7] In a 1997 interview with the TV program Inside Edition she said it was not rape but it was not consensual sex either: “I perceived it as he made me have sex with him.  The word ‘rape’ always brings to mind for me a level of…violence that wasn’t there” (quoted on E! Online).

[8] Interestingly, Samantha Geimer makes the same distinction and wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times prior to the 2003 Oscars in which she said the following: “I believe that Mr. Polanski and his film should be honoured according to the quality of the work.  What he does for a living and how good he is at doing it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me” (quoted on E! Online).