Oscar Preview: The Old Master – Roman Polanski

Every week from now until the critics groups start giving out their prizes for the best of the year, I’m going to be spotlighting the big Oscar players and their chances at Oscar glory this year.

Although I’ve never warmed up to his rather detached view of humanity, there is little denying Roman Polanski’s place in cinema history. Like most directors, every film he made was not a masterpiece, but those that were (or are considered to be), are strong reminders of his legacy. Having survived the Holocaust while his family perished, Polanski has filmed productions in his native Poland, France, the United Kingdom and the United States and has earned a reputation as an international filmmaker. His films have been nominated for every award under the sun and he’s picked up prizes from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, the French Academy, Cannes, Berlinale, Venizia and many others.

His debut feature, the Polish feature Knife in the Water, produced after a series of short films, was that country’s entry and nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Polanski lost to Fellini, but his success enabled him to produce a series of films that were thrilling, comedic or tragic, drawing on inspiration from literary, painting and filmmaking legends.

Repulsion marked his first entry into the strict thriller genre, which would help mold his future features The Fearless Vampire Killers and especially Rosemary’s Baby, the horror classic about a demon pregnancy which earned Polanski his first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. And although he made two more features after, it wasn’t until his next, Chinatown, that he became one of the great helmers in film history. Chinatown is both an homage and a redefinition of the film noir genre that is as iconic for his craft as it is for Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson’s performances. While the film is emotionally distant, the style of the picture and the history of the genre were perfect fits for such nihilistic observations on human interpersonal relationships.

It was during this creative period that Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, and four other individuals were slaughtered by the merciless minions of cult leader Charles Manson. The devastation led not only two a brief hiatus, but also colored many of his future works, including the aforementioned Chinatown. After Chinatown, his next film, The Tenant became the final chapter of a loosely-knit “Apartment Trilogy” and was a critical success. Shortly after, Polanski was embroiled in a legal nightmare after pleading guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor. Despite arrangements to the contrary, an overzealous judge wanted to make an example of Polanski and changed the terms of the plea deal he had already reached. Fearing what might happen under the guidance of the judge in the case, Polanski fled to Europe where he would spend the next thirty years and likely several more beyond.

While in exile in Europe, Polanski mounted the expensive, but commercially successful production of Tess, an epic feature starring teenager Nastassja Kinski and British actor Peter Firth. He dedicated his film to the memory of his late wife Tate and took a short sabbatical from filmmaking. After seven years, Polanski re-emerged to direct the costly commercial flop Pirates with Walter Matthau, a film in tribute to his childhood favorite Errol Flynn and his swashbuckling adventures. In 1988, he made another suspense thriller called Frantic, another in a long line of disappointments from the director including Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden and The Ninth Gate.

In 2002, Polanski would direct an incredibly personal story set during the Holocaust following a Jewish-Polish pianist as he fled persecution in Poland. The Pianist became Polanski’s biggest international awards success since Chinatown 28 years earlier, which went on to earn seven Academy Award nominations and winning awards for Best Actor (Adrien Brody), Adapted Screenplay and his own award for Best Director, a prize thought to be going to the director (Rob Marshall) of that year’s Best Picture champ Chicago.

Since then, each new movie Polanski directs has been considered a potential Oscar nominee. Oliver Twist in 2005 was considered a contender for nominations in Art Direction and Costume Design, but its poor critical reception and box office performance kept it sequestered from Oscar. Five years later, his The Ghost Writer was well received by critics and many thought its star Olivia Williams might earn a Supporting Actress nomination and the film could have picked up a handful of mentions including Best Adapted Screenplay. However, despite awards from Berlinale and the European Film Awards, the movie came up empty-handed with Oscar.

This year, however, we have a distinct possibility of multiple nominations for Polanski’s new film Carnage, but how Polanski himself will fare is a big question mark at this point in the race.


Based on the hit Broadway play God of Carnage, this Roman Polanski adaptation promises to give us some interesting performances by its small cast, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet. The play earned Tony Award nominations for Best Play, Best Actor (Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini), Best Actress (Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis) and Best Direction of a Play. The production picked up three of those awards for Play, Direction and Actress (Harden). With that kind of attention from Tony voters (the entire cast earning nominations), it’s not hard to see why the film is such a strong competitor in the acting races if nowhere else. For an intimate character drama hinge on its actors, Polanski takes a big risk. While he has always been a fine director of actors, his productions have often been fraught with a lack of sentimentality, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but when it’s pared with a pessimistic view of human relationships and an emotional distance between director and subjects, I worry that some of the weightier elements of the play may be muted by that fact. Regardless, this is one of the films to watch this year, keeping an eye out for the performances. Critics’ notices and awards should give an indication of how strong a contender the film is.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Picture, Director, Actor (Waltz), Actress (Foster), Supporting Actor (Reilly), Supporting Actress (Winslet), Adapted Screenplay, Editing

Roman Polanski’s Oscar History

  • Knife in the Water (1962) – Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film
  • Repulsion (1965)
  • Cul-de-sac (1966)
  • The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Gordon); Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Polanski)
  • Macbeth (1971)
  • What? (1972)
  • Chinatown (1974) – Received the Oscar for Best Original Screnplay; Nominated for Best Picture, Director (Polanski), Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Dunaway), Original Score, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound
  • The Tenant (1976)
  • Tess (1979) – Received the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design; Nominated for Best Picture, Director (Polanski), Original Score
  • Pirates (1986) – Nominated for Best Costume Design
  • Frantic (1988)
  • Bitter Moon (1992)
  • Death and the Maiden (1994)
  • The Ninth Gate (1999)
  • The Pianist (2002) – Received the Oscar for Best Actor (Brody), Director (Polanski), Adapted Screenplay; Nominated for Best Picture (Polanski, et. al.), Editing, Cinematography, Costume Design
  • Oliver Twist (2005)
  • The Ghost Writer (2010)
  • Carnage (2011)

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