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Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski was born in Paris of Polish parents on 18th August, 1933. When he was three years old, the family moved to Krakow. In 1941, Polanski's father was deported to the Mauthausen labor camp in Austria and his mother to Auschwitz, from which she never returned. Polanski himself was subsequently taken in by a succession of Polish families. Of this period in his life, Polanski recalls in his autobiography, Roman (1984), that movies became my ruling passion my sole escape from the depression and despair that so often overwhelmed me.€ After the war, Polanski was reunited with his father who later remarried. At the age of fourteen, Polanski took up acting, appearing in the theatre, on radio, and later in films.

In 1955, Andrzej Wajda cast Polanski in a small role in Pokolnie (A Generation) and later in Lotna (1959), Niewinni czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers, 1960) and Samson (1961). He also appeared in several other feature films including Ewa and Czeslaw Petelski's Wraki (Sunken Ships, 1957), Julian Dziedzina's Koniec nocy (End of the Night, 1957) and Janusz Morgernstern's Do widzenia do jutra (See You Tomorrow, 1960). During this time Polanski attended art school in Krakow, studying painting and graphics.

In 1955, he was accepted on the directing course at the Lodz film school. His first film, Rower (The Bicycle, 1955), was based on his own experience of being robbed by a man wanted for three murders. Unfortunately, due to blunders at the laboratory only half the film stock was processed and the project was abandoned. Two years later Polanski created a stir in the school with a sensational one-minute short, Moderstwo (A Murder, 1957). This and another sketch, Usmiech zedbiczny (Toothy Smile) presaged the more disturbing themes of Polanski's outstanding films of the sixties and seventies. But his other short films at the Lodz film school reveal a wider range of subject matter to which he brought an approach that was often mischievous, witty and reflective. Of these Dwaj ludzie z szaf (Two Men and a Wardrobe, 1958), a light-hearted avant-garde masterpiece, he made to order for the Brussels Festival of Experimental Film and won a bronze medal. However, the most striking aspect of these early shorts is their nostalgia, often critical, of which Lampa (1959) and his graduation film Gdy spadaja anioly (When Angels Fall, 1959) are the most outstanding.

Because Polanski did not complete the theoretical thesis required by the school, he never formally graduated. Nevertheless, 'Kamera', a production company, employed him as an assistant director and, because of his fluency in French he was given the job of assistant to Jean-Marie Drot, a French director working in Poland, who was making a series of documentaries on Polish culture. Polanski was also employed as an assistant to Andrzej Munk on Zezowate szczescie (Bad Luck, 1960).

Between 1960 and 1961, Polanski worked in Paris where he directed and played in another short, Le Gros et le Maigre (The Fat and the Lean). A year later he returned to Poland determined to make his first feature film based on a script written by himself, Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski. However, approval by the authorities was delayed by bureaucratic red-tape and so Polanski made another short, Ssaki (Mammals, 1962), financed illegally with private money from Andrzej Kostenko, who was also the cinematographer, and Wojtek Frykowski.

In due course, Polanski started on his first feature, Noz w Wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962). Despite restricted domestic distribution and public condemnation by Wladyslaw Gomulka, the First Secretary of the Polish communist party, the film was a huge success abroad, receiving in 1963 an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Turning down an offer to remake the movie in Hollywood, Polanski chose to pursue his career elsewhere. In Holland he shot La Riviere de Diamants, an episode of the portmanteau film, Les Plus belles Escroqueries du Monde (The Most Beautiful Swindlers in the World, 1964). It was the first time he collaborated with the writer Gerard Brach.

Deeply impressed by Noz w Wodzie, the producer Gene Gutowski tracked Polanski down in Munich and persuaded the young director to follow him back to England. In 1965, financed by Compton Films, Gutowski produced Polanski's first English language film, Repulsion, from a screenplay by Polanski and Brach. The movie won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and propelled Polanski into a director of international importance.

Next came Cul-de-sac, a pet project of Polanski and Brach, shot on location on Holy Island, which in 1966 won the Golden Bear in Berlin. This was followed in 1967 by an Anglo-American co-production, a pastiche of vampire horror films, The Fearless Vampire Killers also known as Dance of the Vampires. Polanski himself was brilliant in a cameo role and the film starred Sharon Tate whom he later married.

Despite the movie being re-cut by the American co-producer and re-titled, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, and failing at the US box office, Polanski was approached by Robert Evans, the newly-appointed vice-president in charge of production at Paramount Pictures, to direct Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. Released in 1968, the film is one of Polanski's finest and certainly one of his most commercially successful.

Tragedy struck in August 1969. Sharon Tate, then heavily pregnant, Wojtek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Jay Sebring were senselessly and brutally murdered in Beverly Hills by the Manson gang. In mourning and deeply distressed, Polanski was unable to focus on work and so abandoned a United Artist project, Day of the Dolphin, and the development of the French novel, Papillon.

But in 1971, he returned to directing with Macbeth, which he adapted from Shakespeare's play in collaboration with Kenneth Tynan. The film was more successful in Britain than in the US, and Polanski resolved to remain in Europe to direct Che? (What?, 1972), produced by Carlo Ponti. The film failed both critically and commercially but Polanski followed it with his most critically acclaimed movie, Chinatown (1974) starring Jack Nicholson. The film received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Director. Robert Towne won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Polanski's next project he describes as 'a flawed but interesting experiment,' The Tenant (1975) based on the novel Le Locataire by Roland Topor. Polanski not only directed but also played the tortured central character, Trelkowski, a Pole with French citizenship, and whose descent into paranoia ends in suicide. The film is still the subject of controversy, but regarded by many as a masterpiece.

His next movie would be based on Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Tess (1979), starring Nastassia Kinski, is the story of innocence betrayed, seduction and of human behavior governed by class barriers and social prejudice. Tess proved to be an outstanding critical and commercial triumph, earning 6 Oscar nominations, again for Best Director, and winning for Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume Design.

A long absence from the cinema was ended in 1986 when Polanski directed Pirates with Walter Matthau, a comedy swashbuckler, which he followed with Frantic (1988), a thriller set in Paris, starring Harrison Ford and Polanski's future wife, Emmanuelle Seigner.

Next came Bitter Moon (1992) based on a novel by Pascal Bruckner, uncompromising, candid and funny; followed by the critically acclaimed Death and the Maiden (1994) adapted from Ariel Dorfmann's highly regarded play. In 1999, Polanski directed a thriller, based on Arturo-Perez Reverte's El Club Dumas. Re-titled The Ninth Gate, the film starred Johnny Depp.

Polanski's next movie was an adaptation of a memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto by Wladislaw Szpilman, entitled The Pianist. An autobiographical account of courage and survival in the face of inhuman conditions, The Pianist (2002) allowed Polanski to explore his Polish roots and his own childhood experiences. Unsentimental and objective, the film was universally acclaimed, winning many awards including three OscarsÂ, Best Actor for Adrian Brody, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ronald Harwood and Best Director for Roman Polanski, the film also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the BAFTA for Best Film and Best Director.

In 2005, Polanski directed Ronald Harwood's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, starring Ben Kingsley as Fagin. In 2009, he directed, co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay for The Ghost Writer. The film, which starred Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams, won the Silver Bear at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival as well as Polanski receiving the award for Best Director. The Ghost Writer also won six European Film Awards that year including Best Film and Best Director.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2012.
Read earlier biographies on this page.

Roman Polanski Facts

Birth NameRoman Liebling
OccupationDirector, Actor, Writer
BirthdayAugust 18, 1933 (90)
BirthplaceParis, France
Height5' 5" (1m65)  How tall is Roman Polanski compared to you?
Awards2003 Academy Awards: Best Director (for The Pianist)
2003 BAFTA Awards: David Lean Award for Direction (for The Pianist)
1975 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director - Motion Picture (for Chinatown)

Selected Filmography

The Ninth Gate
The Pianist
Rosemary's Baby
The Ghost Writer
Oliver Twist
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