Hollywood awaits return of Polanski

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Just what Hollywood may have been missing since Roman Polanski skipped town is sadly demonstrated in L.A. Confidential, the late-summer release described by Time as "cinematic gold".

L.A. Confidential, with Kim Basinger as the femme fatale, is a 1950s drama of LAPD cops good and bad, hailed as the best evocation of Los Angeles since Polanski's Chinatown. But the truth is that it comes nowhere near it.

One reason was Polanski's insistence that Jack Nicholson's character, Jake Gittis, is in the end powerless to save the life of Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray. There was to be no romantic walk away from the evil clutches of a California baron in a corrupted city. The celebrated screenwriter Robert Towne protested at the change in his plot, apparently claiming that it was impossible for Polanski to make a movie in which a blonde woman was not murdered. As Chinatown has become a classic, however, Towne's position has softened.

Now it looks as though the Polish-born director may be returning to Hollywood. Twenty years after he fled the US rather than face sentencing after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, an LA radio station reported a deal to keep him out of jail. The judge who found him guilty has since died; all that has been confirmed so far is that there were talks earlier this year between prosecutors and Polanski's lawyers in the chambers of the judge who took over the case.

The woman, now aged 33 and living in Hawaii with two children, four years ago settled a civil suit against Polanski for $250,000 (pounds 155,000), but recently she has gone public with her wish that the 63-year-old director be allowed to return and put the case behind him. "Our position has always remained the same, that Mr Polanski must surrender. We have not agreed to any sentence," said a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's office. But it left open the possibility that the judge, rather than prosecutors, had indeed offered leniency.

Would Hollywood welcome Polanski back? In all likelihood, he would have no problem getting a major film. He has top-flight connections - he is repre- sented by ICM, the powerhouse agency - and admirers: Stephen Spielberg offered him Schindler's List to direct, but Polanski, whose mother died at Auschwitz and who narrowly escaped the Holocaust with his father, turned it down, saying he did not wish to revisit those memories.

Polanski has always had a lurid reputation, which the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969 did little to dissipate. "In a strange way," suggests film writer Joseph McBride, "Hollywood blamed him subconsciously for the murder of his wife. Somehow people felt he had brought this on himself." The Manson group, it is thought, simply went to the wrong address. But Polanski's work had always shown a fascination with evil - he moved in wild circles, with rumours of orgies and drug use. Hollywood has a prudish streak, and even now Polanski will have to ensure he negotiates a graceful exit from the case.

But the bottom line, as ever, will be profit. Polanski has cult status as the director of Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, but they are 25 and 30 years old. The younger, mainstream American audience has probably forgotten his name. Since he left America, films such as Bitter Moon in 1992 - whose star, Emmanuelle Seigner, half his age, is now his wife - have fared poorly at the box office.

Polanski may get a second chance, but acceptance will hinge on results. "Hollywood is absolutely unjudgmental," says Mr McBride, "as long as you make money."