‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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George Lazenby on Why He Played James Bond Only Once

George Lazenby as James Bond

More than 40 years after “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was released, George Lazenby still has the dubious distinction of having the shortest tenure as James Bond. To many, he’s the joke of the franchise and referred to by others as “the one that failed.” Whether or not you agree with this, everyone still wonders why he ended up starring in only one 007 movie. Did critics rip his performance to shreds in the press to where it was too painful to continue? Did he have other plans? Well, he told a sold-out audience at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood why his tenure as Bond lasted only for a single film.

Lazenby said he does and doesn’t regret doing more Bond movies and that, after all these years, he still doesn’t know why he got the part. The producers did, in fact, want him to play Bond again and even offered him a contract to do several more. The 70’s, however, were just around the corner (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was released in 1969), a time of long hair and bell bottoms, and his agent informed him the Bond franchise would not last beyond the 60’s. Although we know this was clearly not the case, Lazenby listened to his agent.

Lazenby also admitted he was happier as a model in Paris and didn’t like getting up early in the morning. When the movie was released, he had already grown a beard to hide from the public. But once he became unrecognizable, he had a little trouble getting into the premiere.

The things Lazenby did enjoy included going to fine restaurants whose owners invited him back and said, “The check’s on us.” It also got him instant access to nightclubs where he fearlessly jumped onstage with the dancing girls as if it were perfectly allowable. At one club he even told the head bouncer, “Send the girls to my place for a drink!” Now he didn’t think the bouncer would honor this request, but sure enough, there were 20 girls waiting for him and his buddies at the hotel. The next morning, four of them were still hanging around.

Albert R. Broccoli remarked that had Lazenby done more James Bond films, he would have been seen as the best actor to have portrayed 007. While many still consider him the least of the Bond actors, he still has many fans who considered his performance in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” terrific, and he still holds the record for being the only Bond who could perfectly throw his hat onto the hook. To quote a line from the beginning of the movie, “This never happened to the other fellow.”

George Lazenby Reflects on Playing 007 in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

On Her Majestys Secret Service movie poster

After all these years, George Lazenby is still the only actor to play James Bond in just one movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” While nowhere as respected as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, Lazenby still has his share of fans who gave him a standing ovation when he appeared at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The evening’s moderator, Stephen Rubin, proclaimed Lazenby was a “terrific James Bond,” and if he had to do just one Bond movie, he picked the right one to star in.

After five movies, Connery quit playing Bond as he had grown tired of what he described as “impossibly long schedules.” Lazenby was not the first choice to replace Connery as he had no acting experience other than doing commercials, and Lazenby claimed he got considered for Bond when the late Cubby Broccoli spotted him at a haberdashery getting a Connery-like haircut.

Directing this 007 adventure was Peter Hunt who apparently got the job as a Christmas present from the Broccoli family. Lazenby described him as tough and that he got his way most of the time. He also admitted lying to Hunt about being an actor, and when Lazenby later told him he wasn’t, Hunt went crazy and fell down on the floor laughing. Once he composed himself, he told Lazenby, “Stick to your story. I’ll make you the next James Bond!”

The two of them, however, had a falling out on the first day of shooting, and Lazenby said Hunt didn’t speak to him again for nine months. According to Rubin, Hunt’s challenge in getting a performance out of Lazenby was to “piss him off.” Rubin also remarked how tough the last scene must have been for Lazenby as it’s the most emotional in the Bond franchise, and Lazenby said he did one take with tears and that Diana Rigg, who plays Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” bit him to get the desired emotion in another which he said wasn’t needed.

One thing’s for certain, Lazenby’s work in the action sequences was nothing short of excellent. On top of holding several black belts in martial arts, he credited a lot of his toughness from living in Australia where you “smack your mate.” Sounding almost Russell Crowe-ish about his birthplace, Lazenby said he could take care of himself once he got the first hit in, and back then he was too stupid to be afraid.

Regarding his fellow cast mates, Lazenby said Rigg thought he was a “complete idiot,” and she got pissed at him after he beat her in a game of chess. She also didn’t want him mucking around with other girls during filming, a promise Lazenby admitted he was unable to keep. He was discovered having a tryst with a receptionist, and when asked if she was memorable, Lazenby replied, “She was!”

Telly Savalas played Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Lazenby described him as a “great guy who loved to gamble.” When Lazenby got a raise from $100 to $1,000 a week during shooting, Savalas saw his money and asked, “Hey, do you play poker?” Lazenby also said Savalas used to bet everything he had including his house.

Even if Lazenby is still considered the worst actor ever to portray James Bond, it certainly didn’t seem to be the case considering the standing ovation he got upon entering the Egyptian Theatre. He gave us a 007 at his most relaxed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this makes his interpretation of the role the most unique in the long-running franchise.