Should Polanski Get an Oscar for Best Director -- or Best Actress?
At Sunday's Q&A after the DGA screening of Summit Entertainment's The Ghost Writer, Olivia Williams, who plays the knife-sharp wife of ex-British Prime Minister Pierce Brosnan, said director Roman Polanski's involvement with actors is so deep, he deserves more glory than we know. "He acts the scene for you," said Williams. "And if you don't copy what he does, he goes, 'No! Like this,' -- pause, movement, intonation, the works. So the prize for any performance really does go to Roman."
Polanski shot Brosnan's toughest scene first, a seven-page rant reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" soliloquy. "Your heart's pounding on the first day," says Brosnan, whose character hires a hack (Ewan McGregor) to rewrite his memoir. Polanski made Brosnan wait six hours or so ("I went back to my trailer and paced back and forth"), then finally shot a take, and said, "That's very good, yes, but when you laugh you gotta laugh from the top of your cock." "This is really doing my head in," said Brosnan. But Polanski's odd advice did make Brosnan's laugh resonate onscreen.
"It's so bewildering," said Williams. Eight hours into a 22-hour scene with Jim Belushi, "he decided Belushi should not have any hair. They shaved his head." On the Chinatown DVD commentary, she had just watched Polanski boast of yanking a hair off Faye Dunaway's head. "To me he said, 'Your ear is bizarre!' So I thought, is it going to get the Faye Dunaway treatment?"
"Once you're on the set, you're in his domain," said Brosnan. "His life is a constant, I dunno, investigation of his own weird shape of heart and mind. You feel it when you're on the set." "He creates incredible parameters," said Williams. "You're really no more important nor less important than a beam of light."
Williams got an illuminating glimpse of Polanski's mind when he closed his eyes during her tough bedroom scene. "Roman had his head in his hands, and I said, 'Roman, as a woman crying, shagging, naked, when you've got your head in your hands it's a bit disappointing. Can you give me some feedback here?' He didn't at the time. Later, he said, 'When I've got my head in my hands, I'm closing my eyes trying to see the original model I had in my head before all this -- he waved at all of us, cameras, equipment -- arrives."
"In the dinner scene," said Williams, "Roman had chosen the food, eaten the meal, said the lines, to see how many mouthfuls we were gonna get. I had some quibble. Roman said, 'What do you think? I wrote this script in front of the fucking football?' [The great Robert Harris, who wrote the Ghost Writer novel, shares screenwriting credit.] Ewan said to me, 'It's actually insulting.' So I backed down most of the time." Even though Brosnan said Polanski didn't shoot lots of takes, he made Williams do one scene 25 times, so the trousers she carried precisely caught the light, got set on the bed with no crease, and Williams still managed to seem effortlessly lifelike.
Polanski wasn't inflexible. He let Williams make her character a lowborn intellectual snob instead of an aristocrat, and Brosnan based his role partly on Tony Blair "even though Roman was saying, 'No no no! You're not playing Tony!' " Asked if Polanski gave equal praise and criticism, both Williams and Brosnan said, "I wouldn't say equal."
Williams thinks Polanski "honors actors," evident in his hiring Kim Cattrall for an utterly un-Samantha-like Ghost Writer role. "One advantage of his extraordinary isolation is he doesn't engage in the pigeonholing that popular culture does." Polanski is now the poet of isolation, the vital ghost in his own machine. In exile, his vibe has become more like D.H. Lawrence's line: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."
If the directing Oscar should go to the most totally controlling auteur, maybe it should go to Polanski.
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Scott Feinberg, the lead awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, is one of the entertainment industry's most experienced and trusted experts about the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. He started on the awards beat in 2001, writing for independent websites including his own ScottFeinberg.com before joining the Los Angeles Times and then THR, for which he writes “The Race” blog, which won the LA Press Club’s National Entertainment Journalism Award for best entertainment blog of 2012-2013. A voting member of both the Broadcast Film Critics' Association and Broadcast Television Journalists Association, he is also writing a book about film history for young people for which he has interviewed more than 500 high-profile Hollywood figures whose careers span the silent era through the present.
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