LONDON — Mia Farrow testified Tuesday that she would “swear on a stack of Bibles” that Roman Polanski had not behaved in any way to “disrespect” the memory of his murdered wife, Sharon Tate.
With Polanski watching via video link from Paris, Farrow took the witness stand in a London courtroom to testify on behalf of the helmer in his libel action against Vanity Fair magazine.
Polanski is suing Conde Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair, over a 2002 article that alleged he had attempted to seduce a woman at Elaine’s restaurant in New York when he was on his way from London to Tate’s funeral in Los Angeles in 1969.
The magazine reported that Polanski had told the woman he would make “another Sharon Tate” out of her. In the final part of his own evidence Tuesday, Polanski again branded the report “a blatant lie.”
Vanity Fair has since conceded the alleged encounter did not take place before Tate’s funeral, claiming instead that it happened in the weeks immediately afterward.
Polanski said the defense kept changing its story “to make it more realistic.” “If I had proposed a scene like that in one of my films, I would be immediately sent back to the drawing board, and that’s what you’re doing now,” he told defense attorney Tom Shields, acting for Conde Nast.
The wood-paneled Court 13 in London’s imposingly gothic Royal Courts of Justice was jammed with reps from Conde Nast, including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, along with reporters from the British media.
The high-def TV screen erected in the witness box for Polanski’s testimony struck an incongruously modern note amid the Victorian splendor of the surroundings.
Polanski is testifying by video link from France, where he has lived since fleeing charges of sex with a minor in the U.S. in 1978.
Under cross-examination, Polanski was feisty and acerbic, at one stage extending his ironic sympathy to Shields for the “harrowing” task of trying to defend Vanity Fair.
According to Polanski, the only time he went to Elaine’s during that period was a few weeks after Tate’s murder, to meet Farrow.
Farrow told the packed court that Polanski “was unable to talk about anything else” but the murder, which at the time was unsolved. She was struck, she said, by “his utter sense of loss and despair and bewilderment and shock.”
She recalled two women trying to flirt with him, which she regarded as “inappropriate,” but said he “just brushed them off.”
Although she admitted her recall of how the evening started and finished was “fuzzy,” she insisted she had not left him alone at the restaurant at any time. She was unsure whether she and fiance Andre Previn had given Polanski a ride back to his hotel, or whether she had left him in the company of close friends at the restaurant.
The defense played heavily on her uncertainty, highlighting several discrepancies between her original witness statement two years ago and the version of that evening that she presented to the court.
The defense has built its case so far on Polanski’s admitted promiscuity, both during his marriage to Tate and in the months after her death.
Farrow said: “I could never pass judgment if someone in that frame of mind seeks comfort in that way. If he did that, it would not detract from his feelings for Sharon.”
Shields played the court a tape recording of a polygraph test taken by Polanski six weeks after Tate’s murder, in which he boasted that he had recently “fucked” two airline stewardesses.
Polanski told the court that this boast was a lie, designed to break the tension with the police officers conducting the test. “Not that I object to it, particularly in those times. It would be something I would not miss if I had the opportunity.”
Vulgar, not callous
But he denied that it showed callous indifference to his wife’s memory. “It proves I’m vulgar, particularly when I’m with police officers,” he said.
But when he was reminded of being shown photos of Tate’s body during the same polygraph test, his voice broke and he had to pause to dab his eyes with a red handkerchief.
The court also heard testimony from Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister. She described Polanski as “an absolute wreck” in the days after the killings, “heavily sedated to the point where he couldn’t walk without assistance.”
The last prosecution witness was film producer Andrew Brownsberg, who was with Polanski in London when they received the call from the helmer’s agent, Bill Tennant, with the news of the murder.
“I handed the phone to (Polanski) and he literally unraveled in front of my eyes,” Brownsberg recalled. “He disintegrated. He put the phone down without hanging up, rushed into his bedroom and was weeping and crying and banging his head against the wall.”
Brownsberg recounted how he and a couple of friends flew with Polanski back to Los Angeles, where Paramount production topper Robert Evans arranged for them to stay on the studio lot, surrounded by bodyguards. It was not thought safe for them to stay at a hotel, as the murderers were still at large.
“It was like the monster from the black lagoon. People believed this would not be the last of the killings,” Brownsberg said. Polanski was “in a state of complete shock and breakdown.”
But under cross-examination, Brownsberg also testified he was surprised to have learned recently that Polanski had admitted to resuming casual sex within four weeks of his wife’s death.
The trial continues today with the defense presenting its witnesses and is expected to conclude by the end of this week.