On one side stand some of our era’s most accomplished movie directors: Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, John Landis, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam, Pedro Almodóvar, Jonathan Demme, Costa-Gavras, Jean-Jacques Annaud . . .
On the other side, a much shorter list: justice and common sense.
The recent arrest of Roman Polanski, the celebrated Polish-born movie director who pleaded guilty in 1978 to having illegal sex with a 13-year old girl, and has been a fugitive ever since, has become a strangely polarizing event.
The artistic elite, as well as many high-profile European politicians and members of the media, appear to believe a lifetime of admired work can be a mitigating factor in the application of justice.
French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand denounced the arrest in Zurich as “absolutely horrifying” and claimed it showed “a side of America which is frightening.” Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, demanded immediate clemency for his country’s famous son.
In one of the more bizarre defences of Polanski, comedian Whoopi Goldberg appeared on the daytime television show The View to argue the moviemaker’s action fell into a grey area of legality. “I know it wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.”
Finally a legion of famous directors and artists, just a few of whom are listed above, signed a petition organized by a French writers’ union. The petition reads in part: “Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renown[ed] and international artist, now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequence and will take away his freedom.” Which is, of course, precisely the reason why everyone else thinks it ought to occur.
Polanski committed a crime in 1977. He admitted committing this crime. And it was certainly not an inconsequential act. On the eve of his sentencing, he fled the country and has lived as a fugitive from justice ever since. That he has continued to make movies, win awards (including an Oscar for best director in 2002) and live a life of conspicuous luxury in Europe should not be misinterpreted as an exculpation of his original deed, regardless of how many of his peers sign a petition.
The quality of an artist’s oeuvre can never be considered an excuse for criminal behaviour. And Goldberg’s grotesque gradient of sexual assault, in which a 44-year-old man having sex with a 13-year-old girl despite her repeated protestations does not meet her criteria for “rape-rape,” is insulting to both women and men.
To its credit, the French government has lately come to its senses. “Roman Polanski is neither above nor beneath the law,” said Luc Chatel, the minister of national education who serves as the official spokesman for the French government. “We have a judicial procedure underway for a serious affair, the rape of a minor, on which the American and Swiss legal systems are doing their job.”
As for the culture minister’s initial remarks? “Frédéric Mitterrand was speaking from the heart,” Chatel added. The Polish prime minister has similarly qualified his foreign minister’s position on convicted rapists.
But the artistic community remains unbowed in its defence of Polanski. Because the case is not in dispute, it must be that Hollywood doesn’t consider itself bound by the same rules as other folk. Justice and common sense would disagree.
In 1977 Polanski arranged to take pictures of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, an aspiring model and actress, for Vogue. During their second photo session, they ended up at Jack Nicholson’s house.
In grand jury testimony provided two weeks after the incident and released to the public in 2003, Gailey explained in excruciating detail—and in the unmistakable cadence of a 13-year-old girl—how Polanski plied her with champagne and Quaaludes to get her naked, drunk and drugged. When she resisted his advances in a hot tub by faking an asthma attack, Polanski manoeuvred her onto a couch in one of Nicholson’s bedrooms.
In this excerpt from her testimony, Gailey explains to Roger Gunson, the deputy district attorney, what came next:
“Gunson: What happened when you sat down on the couch?
Gailey: He sat down beside me and asked me if I was okay.
Gunson: What did you say, if anything?
Gailey: I said, ‘No.’
Gunson: What did he say?
Gailey: He goes, ‘Well, you’ll be better.’ And I go, ‘No, I won’t. I have to go home.’
Gunson: What happened then?
Gailey: He reached over and kissed me. And I was telling him, ‘No,’ you know, ‘keep away.’ But I was kind of afraid of him because there was no one else there.”
According to Gailey’s testimony, she said no to Polanski another four times. After which he engaged in oral sex, intercourse and anal sex with her.
So perhaps Goldberg’s observation that it wasn’t “rape-rape” is correct after all. It was rape-rape-rape. And even then only a knock on the bedroom door disturbed Polanski sufficiently to allow the girl to leave.
So there’s no question Polanski had sex with a minor. He pleaded guilty to this charge after striking a bargain that saw additional charges dropped, including rape by means of drugs.
Unable to deny his guilt, Polanski’s supporters muster a variety of irrelevant arguments that he should be excused from the consequences of his actions. Polanski is “a great artist,” movie mogul Harvey Weinstein opined last week in an open letter to Hollywood demanding his release on humanitarian grounds. “Whatever you think of his so-called crime, Polanski has served his time.”
Beyond the curious labelling of statutory rape as a “so-called crime,” Weinstein is simply wrong. Polanski did spend 42 days in jail, but this was a court-ordered pre-sentencing observation period supervised by the California probation department as part of a process to determine if he should be considered a “mentally disordered sex offender.”
Polanski was expressly aware that his sentencing decision would not occur until after the probation report was complete. And the judge was under no obligation to accept any plea bargain. That’s how the justice system works. For everyone.
A 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired claimed Polanski had good reason to flee, as it purported to show evidence of judge tampering and misconduct. But the lawyer who made the key claim in this regard has since recanted his allegations and now admits to lying to the filmmaker.
Other sympathizers, such as columnist Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, consider Polanski’s tragic past, including a mother who died in Auschwitz and the brutal murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult, as reason enough to cut him a break. Besides, she writes on her blog, “He has paid for his crime in many, many ways: in notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma.” That lawyers’ fees might be considered an alternative to jail time should be an intriguing proposition for anyone accused of a crime. Applebaum, by the way, is married to the Polish foreign minister.
Then there’s the fact that Gailey, now Samantha Geimer, has publicly forgiven Polanski and requested that he be released. Her family settled an undisclosed civil suit with Polanski many years ago. In 1997 she said publicly that Polanski ought to be allowed to return to the U.S. “without the threat of more time spent in jail.” She repeated these arguments more recently.
While forgiveness of this sort is a noble sentiment, it misses the point. In the Western justice system, it’s not up to the victim to decide the punishment. Polanski’s crime violated the standards of society, not simply those of the Gailey family. His crime cannot simply be wiped away on her say-so.
Lastly, whatever the arguments of Polanski’s sympathizers regarding his original crime, artistic output, scarred life or mistreatment at the hands of philistines, it remains a fact that fleeing the U.S. justice system is a serious offence. As a fugitive from the law, he should have every expectation that he will be pursued and eventually brought to justice. To do otherwise would invite further escapees, particularly among an artistic community that appears to consider itself exempt from law or morality.
There is no denying Polanski’s genius as a filmmaker. His legion of supporters and many accomplishments are testament to that. But these professional achievements cannot exonerate his personal actions.
Society has an obligation to protect 13-year-old girls from sexual predators, whether they make great movies or not.