If you’ve never seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and still intend to, be warned that this piece begins with a spoiler. It’s the famous scene in which Jake Gittes, the private eye played by Jack Nicholson, bullies the mysterious Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) into revealing that she conceived her daughter with her father. Dunaway’s lines, punctuated by Nicholson’s slaps—“She’s my daughter . . . she’s my sister”—are so familiar they’ve become the stuff of parody. But the most intriguing moment occurs just after, when Gittes turns to her and says, “He raped you?” Sobbing, she looks up at him, stricken by shame, then shakes her head, unable to answer.
This haunting exchange, which was not part of Robert Towne’s original screenplay, deepens the horror of a sexual crime with a creepy undercurrent of complicity. And that takes on a bizarre resonance in light of the current debate about rape, retribution and Roman Polanski. Three decades after Polanski fled America, convicted of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, his past has caught up with him. After a marathon game of cat and mouse, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office finally has him cornered and awaiting extradition—thanks to Swiss police, who nabbed him at Zurich Airport as he arrived to accept a lifetime achievement award from a film festival.
For the 76-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker, the timing has a cruel irony. This week saw the release of a new DVD edition of Chinatown, marking the 35th anniversary of the movie that some consider Polanski’s greatest achievement. With a plot that involves the sexual abuse of a teenage girl and a corrupt L.A. justice system, that movie now hits awfully close to home. Coincidences abound. Set in the 1930s, this noir tale of conspiracy, murder and rapacious greed is loosely based on a scandal that swirled around the corrupt William Mulholland, L.A.’s one-time czar of water and power. His name is enshrined in Mulholland Drive, the winding mountaintop road where Jack Nicholson lives—although the actor wasn’t home, it was in his house that Polanski had sex with the young Samantha Gailey on a March night in 1977 after plying her with champagne and Quaaludes, and photographing her nude in Jack’s outdoor Jacuzzi. Water and power indeed.
Now, 32 years later, it’s as if the unforgiving gumshoe spirit of Chinatown has come back to haunt its maker, threatening to drag him back to Los Angeles. Polanski’s predicament has become an international cause célèbre, and a new flashpoint in America’s culture war. As French politicians jumped to condemn his arrest, a petition demanding his release drew support from the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch—and Woody Allen (a dubious ally under the circumstances, even if Allen didn’t break the law by seducing Mia Farrow’s daughter). The petition has provoked a fierce backlash from those who argue that Polanski committed a despicable crime and deserves no special treatment for being a celebrated filmmaker.
It’s hardly an open-and-shut case. Wade into this debate and you step into a quicksand of moral relativism as slippery as the plot of Polanski’s masterpiece—“Chinatown” is really a place in the mind, where nothing is as it seems and everyone walks a fine line between innocence and guilt. But then, Polanski’s crime and the movie both belong to a bygone era of Hollywood entitlement. Under the current studio system, no one could get away with making a mainstream picture as dark and complex as Chinatown, especially one that requires the star to wear a bandage on his nose for half the movie. And in today’s hyper-scrutinized world of celebrity culture, a famous director would never dream he could get away with drugging and raping an underage girl, even one who was “modelling” for him with her mother’s permission.
Sexual abuse lies at the core of Chinatown’s onion-skin plot, as the ultimate horror at the end of the maze, and a metaphor for the film’s broader themes of violation and corruption. Just days before Polanski’s arrest, I interviewed Towne—who won the sole Oscar among Chinatown’s 11 nominations—and he told me the story was inspired by his outrage at the environmental rape of his hometown. “Los Angeles, more than most cities,” he said, “seems to have always been a place where people never thought they would come to live but had to strike it rich and get out of there. It was a place to be mined, whether for gold or oil, or fame and Hollywood. You make your bundle and get out regardless of the collateral damage that’s done.”
Towne wasn’t referring to Polanski, but he could have been. The director was one of those bold outsiders who struck it rich in L.A., then fled. Yet in the long lens of a lifetime, he is as much victim as predator. A Holocaust survivor who lost his mother in Auschwitz, the Polish director rose to Hollywood fame and fell in love only to see the fairy tale shattered in 1969 with the Manson family’s gruesome murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. In the media frenzy around the crime, Polanski became all too familiar with the guilt of the victim. Because his movies—from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby—had revelled in the macabre and the occult, the press conflated Tate’s murder with gross rumours that the couple had indulged in a satanic lifestyle of drug-fuelled orgies, as if Polanski were implicated by osmosis in his wife’s death.
Five years later, when Polanski was charged with sex crimes, his image as a decadent poster boy for Hollywood Babylon was sealed in stone. But he received lighter legal treatment than he might expect today under similar circumstances. Initially, he was charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. And despite Whoopi Goldberg idiotically musing on The View that his crime wasn’t “a rape-rape,” the victim’s testimony suggests it was more than statutory: she repeatedly said “no.” Yet neither she nor her mother wanted to drag the case through the courts. Under a plea bargain, the more serious charges were dropped and Polanski pleaded guilty to a lesser count of engaging in sexual intercourse with a minor.
Polanski did serve 42 days of a 90-day prison term for psychiatric evaluation before being let out on probation. After being assured he wouldn’t have to go back to jail, he became convinced the judge was going to break the deal and slap him with a harsh sentence. So he fled on the eve of sentencing, finding refuge in Paris, where he lives with his third wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and their two children. In America, Polanski has said he’s “widely regarded as an evil, profligate dwarf.” In France, he’s a brilliant auteur with a flair for erotic transgression.
Over the decades, while various L.A. district attorneys made stabs at extraditing the director, his lawyers worked to get the case dropped. They found fresh ammunition in a 2008 HBO documentary by Marina Zenovich, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which uncovered startling evidence of judicial misconduct. Portraying Polanski as a tragic figure who deserves a break, the film has a clear bias. But it makes a compelling case that Polanski was unfairly tried by judge Laurence J. Rittenband, a publicity hound with an appetite for celebrity cases. (His portfolio ranges from the Priscilla-Elvis divorce to Marlon Brando’s child custody case.) Rittenband’s trial became a media circus. In one perverse Solomonic stunt, he had the victim’s semen-stained panties cut in two with a pair of scissors so he could divide them between the prosecution and the defence.
In the documentary, the defence lawyer and the prosecutor both agree the judge mis-handled the trial. Even the victim, Samantha (Gailey) Geimer, concurs. “The judge was enjoying the show,” she recalls. “He didn’t care what happened to me and he didn’t care what happened to Mr. Polanski.” Geimer now seems more scarred by the justice system than by her ordeal on Mulholland Drive. “All that stuff was so traumatic,” she says, “I never really had a chance to worry about what happened that night with him.” Now 45 and married with three children in Hawaii, Geimer has publicly forgiven Polanski and formally asked that the case against him be dropped.
The Zurich arrest came out of the blue. Polanski had assumed he was safe in Switzerland, where he owns a house and spent the summer editing his new film, The Ghost, a thriller starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor and Kim Cattrall. Though shot in Germany, it’s his first movie since Chinatown set in the U.S. Despite his exile from Hollywood, the director has a flourishing career.
Ironically, by being forced back to America, Polanski may finally win back his freedom. But at what price? He would become fodder for an orgy of media moralizing. He would no longer be a defendant or a director, but a symbol as fictional as any of the characters from his films. In crying for blood, some have even compared him to aging Nazi war criminals, which is outrageous given his history.
Perhaps what irks Polanski’s enemies more than anything is not his crime, but his attitude. In a celebrity culture geared to a talk-show spin cycle of confession and contrition, he’s shown no remorse, and retained a lofty air of Euro-entitlement. “I like young women,” he shrugs in Zenovich’s documentary. “I think most men do.” His insouciance recalls the scene in Chinatown, when Jake finally confronts Noah Cross, the murdering tycoon played by John Huston. Cross just brushes him off: “See, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” For Polanski that time and place are long gone. But as much as he might like to escape the past and say, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” the past will not forget him.