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National Society of Film Critics honors The Pianist

The National Society of Film Critics, comprising 55 of America’s top critics, holds its 37th annual meeting at Sardi’s Restaurant in New York City on this day in 2003. The critics chose the director Roman Polanski’s wrenching Holocaust drama The Pianist as best picture of the previous year,.

As a young boy in Krakow during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Polanski saw his parents interned in a concentration camp, where his mother would die. Polanski was able to escape a similar fate by going into hiding during the war years, an experience that The Pianist echoes. He later studied directing at the State School of Cinema and in 1962 left Poland to direct films in England and America, including Repulsion (1965) and the Academy Award-winning Rosemary’s Baby (1968), starring Mia Farrow. In 1969, Polanski’s pregnant second wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was one of several people brutally murdered by members of a cult led by Charles Manson. Polanski’s next film, an especially gory adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1971), seemed to reflect his darker outlook in the wake of the murders.

After directing his most acclaimed film yet, the noir thriller Chinatown (1974), Polanski became involved in a criminal scandal of his own, when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl after giving her alcohol and drugs. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but subsequently fled to London and then France, violating the terms of his plea agreement. In France, Polanski continued to actively work on film and theater productions. In 1989, he married the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who appeared in his films Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992) and The Ninth Gate (1999).

The Society of Film Critics’ award in early January 2003 was just one of the many honors bestowed upon The Pianist (2002), based on an autobiographical work by the celebrated Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. The film, which told the story of Szpilman’s hard-fought efforts to survive the Nazi occupation of Warsaw during World War II, won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002 and would go on to win Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Picture and Best Director. The National Society of Film Critics also awarded its top acting honors to the film’s star, Adrien Brody, who played Spilman, and screenplay honors to Ronald Harwood.

At the 75th annual Academy Awards, held that March in the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, The Pianist was nominated in seven categories. Harwood won for Best Adapted Screenplay, and an exuberant Brody took home the Best Actor statuette, surprising the award’s presenter, Halle Berry, by bending her backwards for a lengthy kiss. Polanski, a front-runner in the Best Director category, was not present at the ceremony; in order to avoid arrest, he could not return to the United States. When his name was announced as the Best Director winner, many of those in the audience gave him a standing ovation.

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