STEVEN REA: Yes, Polanski was guilty of having sex with a minor. But after his arrest, after months in the public spotlight, dogged by TV cameras and the press — a press intent on resurrecting the horrid 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s pregnant wife, at the hands of Charles Manson’s homicidal hippie cult — the filmmaker became something of a victim himself. As revealed in Marina Zenovich’s 75-minute film, which premieres on HBO tomorrow night at 9, the Polish-born Polanski was at the mercy of a grandstanding, media-obsessed judge. Laurence Rittenband, a Santa Monica jurist who sought out celebrity cases (Marlon Brando and Cary Grant both appeared on his docket), presided over the trial with a reckless authority that not only shook Polanski’s defense attorney, but rattled the prosecution and the victim’s lawyer, too.
It was on the eve of his sentencing, after Polanski had heard from his attorney, Douglas Dalton — who speaks about the case for the first time in Zenovich’s doc — that the filmmaker decided to flee. Rittenband, Dalton recounts, was set to ignore a plea bargain struck with the D.A.’s office. Defying all precedent, the judge was going to sentence Polanski to serious time – possibly as much as 50 years.
The legal maneuvering, the courtroom theatrics, the closed-door deals are all detailed in Wanted and Desired. Dalton, who could have been played by Buddy Ebsen, comes off as forthright and honorable. So does Assistant D.A. Roger Gunson, a Mormon and a family man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Redford, and who is also interviewed in the film. Gunson’s incredulity and shock at Judge Rittenband’s behavior jibes with Dalton’s. Both lawyers say they saw Rittenband’s actions as bordering on illegality.
There is no defending Polanski’s behavior on the night of March 10, 1977, at the Mulholland Drive home of Jack Nicholson (out of town), where Polanski took nude photos of the girl, fed her champagne and Quaaludes, and engaged in sex with her. In his 1984 autobiography, Roman by Polanski, he asserted that the girl’s mother had set him up as part of a blackmail scheme. [The girl, now 45, in a 2003 op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, and again in Wanted and Desired, indicated that she believed Polanski did not, and does not, deserve to go to prison. MORE
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