I’m not wildly excited to be at the barricades with film producer Harvey Weinstein, who has organized a petition on behalf of jailed film director Roman Polanski. But a thing may be true even though Lord Beaverbrook—or in this case Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen—says it. Actually, not quite true because the petition isn’t really about Roman; its beef is that Polanski was arrested “on his way” to a film festival, which “by their extraterritorial nature” are special safe zones. If this decision stands, states the petition, no filmmaker will ever feel safe attending a fest again. The thought of a world film-fest free is almost enough to bring me on board against Polanski.
But let’s pretend that discussion on Polanski can yield to rational consideration rather than utter hysteria. On March 10, 1977, Polanski, 43, and Samantha Gailey, 13, had a sexual encounter in the home of actor Jack Nicholson, who was out of town. Only they know what happened. The reason we don’t know is that the case never went to trial. Grand jury testimony is meaningless since the accused and his lawyer are not present and the alleged victim not cross-examined.
Polanski initially faced six felony charges, including rape and sodomy, but pleaded guilty to one count of intercourse with a minor. This agreement might have been the truth of what happened, though that is rarely the logic of a plea bargain. Perhaps the DA wanted to protect the girl from a trial’s publicity. Perhaps the prosecutors felt their charges would not hold up in court, though Polanski admitted to giving the girl one third of a Quaalude pill and champagne. Whatever, all involved must have had their reasons for the plea.
The court’s pre-sentencing report concluded Polanski was not a deranged sex offender and it did not recommend prison. The judge, now dead, apparently decided to send Polanski to Chino State Prison for a further pre-sentencing 90-day psychiatric evaluation as “punishment”—not normally the purpose of an evaluation—after which Polanski would be released. The judge coached prosecution and defence on what to say in court for the benefit of the press. He himself held a press conference—unheard of for a judge.
Chino released Polanski after only 42 days, which irritated the judge. He then reneged on the deal and once more tried to get prosecution and defence to take part in a staged courtroom show. (They refused. Polanski fled to Paris before sentencing.)
How do we know this? Both the defence lawyer, Douglas Dalton, and the deputy district attorney, Roger Gunson, say so in Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. They reiterated it in court declarations this year as Polanski moved to have his case dismissed.
Even though she had some drug and sexual experience, for Polanski to take a young girl he had met only once before into a house and give her alcohol and even the smallest dose of medication was insanely stupid. And normally a 13-year-old would refuse the invitation. But this was Hollywood, he was a star director, she a would-be actress and daughter of a sometime actress, and so she went.
Polanski has never been a sympathetic figure in spite of his survival of the Holocaust as a child alone in Poland, and the horrific murder of his 8½-months-pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson’s family. Because he was a sexual libertine in the Hollywood-bohemia set, this terrible murder was played by some tabloids as his own fault. He was “strange,” foreign and Jewish—but not in a familiar North American way. His films had peculiar sexual themes. The encounter with Samantha demonstrated both an abuse of his position and a sense of entitlement to a life many envy and resent. Even so, it is still a shock when such intellectual muscle as Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout disregard judicial shortcomings to emerge in print with the reflex lock-him-up rant.
P.D. Ouspensky, an early 20th-century philosopher, had a strange theory that everything in the world was finite; take away from one thing and its losses will be compensated by an increase somewhere else. This odd idea is a good metaphor for our attitude to consensual sexual encounters between adults and children. When I was growing up, homosexuals were beaten up, sent to prison and regarded as moral lepers. Single mothers would leave town, their families made pariahs. Adultery and illegitimacy were still in the Scarlet Letter category. All has changed: it’s fine to be gay, a positive virtue to announce you are a single mum, adultery and illegitimacy barely raise an eyebrow. But the hysteria and hatred these once-despised states evoked has now emigrated holus-bolus to sex between adults and underage respondents. Prison inmates consider it okay to beat up child molesters—“chomos”—who are prison untouchables. One can imagine the terror Polanski has of being sent back to an American prison.
The definition of childhood depends on the culture. Samantha was underage in California but not in South Korea or Spain. In more than 30 other countries the age of consent is 14. By now, happily married, she has publicly forgiven Polanski for whatever happened and repeatedly asked the courts not to send him to prison. Polanski himself has been successfully married for 20 years. The events of that day had only one lasting effect: Polanski went into exile from America and Hollywood, the capital of his profession.
For the past 30 years Polanski has been shut out of American films or films made where America has an extradition treaty. No higher price can ever have been paid for a smaller amount of pleasure.