From renowned filmmaker to international criminal, the twisted arc of Roman Polanski’s public life resembles something of a Greek tragedy. The Polish Holocaust survivor, against all odds, lived in the Kraków Ghetto and eventually made it to Hollywood where his directorial talent was celebrated. He even married the beautiful American actress Sharon Tate.
After his pregnant wife was slaughtered in the hideously evil Manson Family murders, still Polanski continued to work successfully in the movie industry. But in 1977, he fled the U.S. to avoid his sentencing for having unlawful intercourse with a minor. And the full story behind this infamous sex crime includes even more shocking details.
The Rise of Roman Polanski
When Roman Polanski was just a boy, his mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she died. His father was sent to Mauthausen, another concentration camp. Polanski survived the war alone, barely scraping by in Poland’s Kraków Ghetto. In one oft-repeated story from Polanski’s youth, a group of Nazi soldiers playfully used him as target practice, laughing while the child frantically dodged their bullets. Suffice to say, it was a brutally horrific upbringing. But Polanski made it, and by the early 1960s, he was a young and determined man, still living in Poland and working on his first feature films.
Director Roman Polanski’s 1962 debut, Knife in the Water, was nominated for the United States Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Following the success, Polanski moved to France, then to England where he met the actress Sharon Tate who was appeared in his 1967 vampire parody, The Fearless Vampire Killers. The couple married at the start of 1968 and soon after, moved to the United States. Paramount studio head Robert Evans offered Polanski the chance to translate Ira Levin’s new horror novel Rosemary’s Baby to the screen.
Enthralled by the suspenseful and creepy book, Polanski wrote the 272-page screenplay in less than a month. The final product, Rosemary’s Baby, starred Mia Farrow and was a box-office triumph. No longer an outsider of the industry, Polanksi became one of the states’ most eminent filmmakers. Just a year later, Sharon Tate, along with four friends, was murdered by the cult of Charles Manson. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
Chinatown was Roman Polanski’s first major American release following the bloody tragedy which had so rocked Los Angeles — and the world. Inspired by the California water wars of the early twentieth century, Chinatown follows the story of Jake Gittes, an inquisitive PI played by Jack Nicholson. With the water conflict as a backdrop, Gittes — and Polanski — examine the bottomless corruption upon which the unnatural paradise of Los Angeles is predicated.
One particular scene in Chinatown distills the perverse power structures at play. Jake Gittes sits down for lunch with the greedy corporate tycoon, Noah Cross, played by John Huston. They dine at Cross’s grand estate, eating on a white tablecloth, and stabbing at fish with the heads still on. Beyond the table, birds chirp loudly in the background: a seemingly lovely day in L.A. The two men chat politely until Cross warns Gittes: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
A smirk creases Jack Nicholson’s face as his character cannot yet correctly place the film’s true evil. Gittes is blind to the extent of Cross’s responsibility in the murder of his business partner Hollis Mulwray, and beyond that, for the rape of his own daughter, Evelyn (played by Faye Dunaway). When Gittes finally does finally confront Cross, the old man’s defense is simple. “I don’t blame myself,” Cross says. And why should he? Cross is the richest man in the San Fernando Valley. His sole satisfaction is the limitlessness of his own domain. “What more can you buy?” Nicholson wonders. And Cross declares boldly, “The future!” Cross revels in his position as a rapist within the precious, draught-thirsty landscape of Chinatown. He is proud, and defensive, of desire.
John Huston’s appearance in Chinatown is symbolic, outside the world of the film. Huston directed the Maltese Falcon in 1941, a genre-defining noir that had greatly inspired the young auteur Roman Polanski. Additionally, Jack Nicholson was romantically involved with Anjelica Huston, John’s daughter, throughout the making of Chinatown. Their relationship was famously troubled. This knowledge imparts a personal quality to their distrustful performance together, forever linking the film (at least in part) to reality.
Chinatown spoiler alert: After Noah Cross is revealed to be an incestual predator, the famously gory ending of Chinatown is heart-wrenchingly cruel. Evelyn is shot, the camera cutting to reveal a memorably clean, black bullet hole cut through her eye socket. This image is set against the haunting shrieks of Sophie, her secret daughter (slash-sister). But worse still is when Noah Cross seizes this moment to grab the young teenager, finally, by pretending to shield her from the scene. The physical act goes unnoticed in all the commotion; Cross covers the girl’s eyes and drags her away. Despite Jake Gittes’ intentions, it’s clear that Cross will take on custody of the orphaned Sophie, no doubt repeating his vile crimes against a new generation.
The Rape of Samantha Gailey
On March 10, 1977, three years after completing Chinatown, Roman Polanski met with a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Geimer (née Gailey) at Jack Nicholson’s home on Mulholland Drive. Mullholand Drive, of course, is named for William Mullholland, who spearheaded the water infrastructure which allowed Los Angeles to flourish into a thriving metropolis. Mullholland alone ensured the principle of public ownership of the city’s water supply. He also inspired the character of Hollis Mulwray, Evelyn’s husband in Chinatown, whose righteous persona serves as a direct foil to the eerie, menacing Noah Cross. (A professor of mine once identified the martyred Mulwray as “a rare commodity: a powerful man who is good.”) Mulholland Drive was paved in 1924. In 1975, Jack Nicholson moved in — right next door to Marlon Brando’s own bungalow estate.
Jack Nicholson was out of town that spring day, on a ski trip in Colorado. So his good friend Roman Polanski decided to take advantage of the empty house. Polanski hired the young model Samantha Geimer to take part in a French Vogue photoshoot that he was co-organizing. Geimer’s mother agreed to a private shoot; the meeting between her daughter and Polanski on March 10 marked Geimer’s second modeling session for this project. During the first, Geimer testified that Polanski had asked her to pose topless which made her uncomfortable and unwilling to continue participating. However, she did eventually agree to pose again for the second set of photographs. These were staged around the swimming pool of Nicholson’s ranch-style home.
According to Samantha Geimer’s grand jury testimony, Roman Polanski pressured the girl into entering a bedroom after plying her with champagne and quaaludes. Geimer later told the Star-Bulletin: “Toward the end it got a little scary, and I realized he had other intentions and I knew I was not where I should be. I just didn’t quite know how to get myself out of there.”
On the bed, despite her protests, Polanski penetrated Geimer repeatedly against her will. In the midst of these heinous acts, Anjelica Huston arrived back to the house coincidentally. She and Jack Nicholson, true to their fiery history, had gotten into a fight during their trip and so the actress returned home early. She instantly became suspicious, banging on the closed bedroom door but did not interfere further after Polanski insisted the pair was finishing up a photo shoot.
The Rape Case Continues
The next day, Roman Polanski was arrested for sexual assault. He was indicted on six counts of criminal behavior, including statutory rape, and pleaded not guilty to all charges at his arraignment. A plea bargain was then arranged, which dismissed five of the six charges; Polanski accepted this deal and pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.” As was required, Polanski underwent 90 days of psychiatric evaluation at California Institution for Men at Chino. Then, after spending 42 days in state prison, Polanski was released. His plea bargain was supposed to result in a time served, along with probation.
However, sentencing judge Laurence J. Rittenband spoke openly to friends about his plans to disregard the plea bargain and throw the book at Polanski: 50 years in prison. “I’ll see this man never gets out of jail,” Rittenband reportedly told the screenwriter Howard E. Koch. According to the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney David Wells had shown Rittenband photographs of Polanski partying with young girls, indicating that Polanski was not taking the charges of unlawful sex seriously. Geimer’s attorney then confirmed that Rittenband had changed his mind regarding the punishment for the plea bargain.
Hearing this, Roman Polanski did not show up to his sentencing. The day before the hearing, on January 31, 1978, Polanski fled the U.S. on a flight to London and one day after that, left London for France where he held already citizenship. This citizenship protected Polanski from extradition; his criminal charges in America are still pending. There is no statute of limitations for a crime in which the defendant has already pled guilty and been charged.
In 1988, Samantha Geimer sued Roman Polanski for sexual assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress and seduction. The case was settled out of court in 1993 for an undisclosed number of millions. After Polanski missed a payment in 2008, Geimer made news again when she filed papers with the court. And while that outcome remains unclear, she has since become an outspoken proponent for dropping the charges against the director.
Due to his outstanding arrest warrant, Polanski was detained at Zurich Airport in 2009 after trying to enter Switzerland for a film festival. In the end, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court rejected the Americans’ request for extradition and released Polanski from custody, with a $4.5 bail and the condition of house arrest (Polanski was monitored via ankle bracelet from his chalet in the Swiss Alps.)
In 2017, a woman named Renate Langer told the Swiss police that Roman Polanski raped her in Gstaad during the year 1972 when she was 15 years old. The same month, Marianne Barnard accused Polanski of having assaulted her when she was 10 years old, in 1975.
The painful event — and its emotional, political fallout — distinctly echoes some of Roman Polanski’s work. Rosemary’s Baby grapples firsthand with irrepressible urges and the theme of physical consent. Inside Rosemary, an uncontrollable evil bubbles. In Chinatown, the parallels between Noah Cross and Roman Polanski seem even more direct. Both powerful men prey upon the same age group: young teens. And like Noah Cross, Roman Polanski got away with inflicting sexual abuse.
Operating from his residence in Paris, Polanski has continued directing critically acclaimed films, such as The Pianist, for which he earned the coveted Oscar for Best Director. In the past forty years, he has worked with such major stars as Jodie Foster, Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, Kim Cattrall, and Pierce Brosnan.
However, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein horror and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the unusual fate of Roman Polanski has been seriously reexamined. In 2018, Polanski was expelled as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In support of her husband, Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner denounced the organization and rejected her own invitation to join the Academy. Polanski and Seigner have been married since 1989 and they have two grown children.
Samantha Geimer has also married and had children. She and her family lead an intentionally private life on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.