At the Venice Film Festival a few years ago, Jack Nicholson and producer Robert Evans got an idea. “We said, ‘Let’s fly to Paris and surprise Roman Polanski,'” says Evans. Until Polanski opened the door to his apartment, the three old friends—who collaborated on the classic 1974 movie Chinatown—hadn’t been in the same room in 20 years. “We were up all night, just talking and laughing,” Evans says. “It was three guys who had been through thick and thin together.”
Polanski, 69, is still in the thick of trying times. Though nominated for Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Pianist—which won both honors at Britain’s BAFTA Awards Feb. 23—he faces arrest if he returns to the U.S. to attend the March 23 ceremony. Polanski has lived abroad since 1978, when he fled to France to avoid being sentenced for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in L.A. An associate says Polanski refuses to risk being separated from his family if he travels to the U.S. “He wants to be able to go back,” says another colleague, but talks with L.A. court officials stalled in 1997. “I haven’t heard of any breakthrough.”
The nominations mark a bittersweet chapter in a harrowing life. The Pianist, based on Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of eluding the Nazis in occupied Warsaw, mirrors Polanski’s boyhood: At 9, he escaped Krakow’s ghetto through a hole in a fence; his mother died in a concentration camp. In 1969—just months after Polanski earned an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of Rosemary’s Baby—Charles Manson’s gang murdered Polanski’s 26-year-old pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. Polanski rarely discusses his ordeals. “He’s closed the gate,” says friend Jeff Gross, a screenwriter. “I don’t know if anyone really has access to the personal turmoil he’s been through.”
Yet his 25 years living abroad have been far from unhappy. Wed to French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, 36, since 1989, Polanski is a devoted father to children Morgane, 10, and Elvis, 5, friends say. With an apartment just off the Champs Elysées, Polanski leads a low-key social life, often hosting American pals such as Nicholson or Pianist star Adrien Brody. He has kept busy directing plays and movies including 1994’s Death and the Maiden and 1999’s The Ninth Gate. But none dazzled critics like his Hollywood films did—until The Pianist. For Polanski, who had long wanted to make a motion picture about the Holocaust, “this movie was a chance for him to tell this story without having to retell his own history,” says Brody. Still, while shooting in Poland and Germany, “there were moments which suddenly were such vivid memories of certain events, I felt taken aback,” Polanski told Newsweek last year. Brody recalls Polanski kneeling in the dirt to show an extra how to die: “He had seen a woman die like this, and he wanted to make sure the extra did it right.”
Polanski survived the war sheltered by Polish families that his factory-owner father, Ryszard, had paid to take him in. (Polanski’s father and half sister Annette both survived concentration camps.) After film school in Lodz, Poland, the director worked in Paris and London before moving to the U.S. with then girlfriend Tate in 1967. On Aug. 9, 1969, Polanski was in London when he got word Tate and four friends had been stabbed to death at the couple’s L.A. estate. Devastated, he moved to Paris. He was back in the U.S. the next time scandal surrounded him. In 1977, after taking pictures of ninth grader Samantha Galley—for a European magazine, he said—Polanski drove Gailey to Jack Nicholson’s empty house. He gave her champagne and part of a Quaalude and had sex with her despite her protests, Gailey told police. After Polanski pleaded guilty and spent 42 days in prison for psychiatric evaluation, Santa Monica Superior Court judge Laurence Rittenband threw out an agreement to sentence him to time served and told Polanski’s lawyer he faced more prison time and possible deportation. Polanski fled.
Now 38, Samantha Geimer—her married name—has said she forgives the director. “He did something awful,” she wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece on Feb. 23, but “he never should have been put in the position that led him to flee.” As for the Oscars, she wrote, “Mr. Polanski and his film should be honored according to the quality of the work.” Evans hopes the awards will restore Polanski’s renown for his skills, not his scandals. “This will let Hollywood know who Roman Polanski really is,” Evans says. “This is a wonderful beginning of a third act.”
Michael Fleeman and Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles and Dietlind Lerner, Peter Mikelbank and Cathy Nolan in Paris