In March 1977, director Roman Polanski, renowned for films such as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, was arrested in a Beverly Hills hotel for a series of devastating charges: giving Quaaludes to a minor; child molestation; unlawful sexual intercourse with that minor; rape by use of drugs; oral copulation; sodomy. The young woman in question was a 13-year-old model who was taking part in a photo shoot for Vogue. She claimed that Polanski had plied her with drugs and champagne, and later said that she wouldn’t describe the sex as rape, but that it was nonconsensual.
Polanski was given a psychiatric evaluation and held in Chino State Prison for 42 days – but then he fled the country upon hearing that the judge in his case had decided that he would be sent back to jail. He had, at this point, pleaded guilty to one count of sexual intercourse with a minor. 31 years later, after winning Oscars for The Pianist and garnering a good deal of sympathy for his supposed persecution at the hands of the U.S. justice system (most recently, he was the subject of a 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, where the judge was cast in the position of villain) he has still never set foot back in the United States. Late Saturday night, in a surprise move by American prosecutors, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland – and the decades-old case has been reopened.
There are people who will defend Polanski as a victim of the prudery of Middle American sexual mores, and others who decry him as a sexual deviant who drugged and raped a young girl and was arrogant enough to escape justice for 30 years. Still more look back at his history – his mother died in Auschwitz and Polanski himself escaped the Jewish ghetto in Krakow and spent the years of World War II hiding in the countryside; later, in 1969, Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was one of the victims of the followers of Charles Manson (strangely, Susan Atkins, the woman convicted of stabbing Tate to death, died of brain cancer in prison last week) – and claim mitigating circumstances. Others claim leniency based on his artistic work and vision. During the 2003 Oscars, the Academy made the bold choice to give the Best Director award to Polanski for The Pianist, despite the fact that Polanski was unable to return to the country to accept it. When the award was announced, the audience gave Polanski a standing ovation.
Already, I’m being asked what the “feminist” perspective is on all of this. My answer: I don’t know. But I do know that although I love Polanski’s work, I don’t think its artistic merit should factor into this at all. In terms of power dynamics, it sounds as though the situation was clear-cut: Polanski drugged, coerced and raped a young girl. He was unrepentent, and although the young woman herself, Samantha Geimer, said that it wasn’t rape per se, the sex was not consensual, which sounds like rape to me. If it were still 1978, I would say that Polanski absolutely deserves some kind of punishment outside his month-long stint in prison for psychiatric evaluation – and that it was a failure of the U.S. justice system to allow him to flee.
But it’s not 1978. It’s 31 years later, and the victim herself has asked that the charges against Polanski be dismissed, saying, “My views as a victim, my feelings as a victim, or my desires as a victim were never considered or even inquired into by the district attorney prior to the filing…True as they may be, the continued publication of these details causes harm to me, my beloved husband, my three children, and my mother.” This is a completely fair request from a woman who shouldn’t have to constantly relive a horrible act from 30 years ago. Geimer says that the plea bargain was an attempt to save her from a trial that would have attracted worldwide media attention – but the fact is that because of Polanski’s flight, media attention is something that she’s never been able to escape. Polanski’s plea seemed to be motivated primarily by self-interest, and not by concern for the victim.
The 2008 documentary about Polanski, which I haven’t seen, apparently casts the judge in the 1978 case as a sexual moralist who intended a much harsher sentence, egged on by pictures of an unrepentent Polanski out on the town. The film also indicts the media for its role in creating a slanderous portrait of Polanski, ripe to be condemned by American prudery. But then there is the other portrait of Polanski, the one that makes him more sinned against than sinning, a brilliant artist with an unfortunate predeliction for young girls, that has been equally well promoted. When the audience at the Oscars stood in Polanski’s absence, they made a powerful and troubling statement.
Too much time has passed for this case to be tried fairly. How on earth will a judge be impartial, given the media firestorm over the case? And will it really help to punish Polanski, who is now 76 years old, 20 years married and the father of two children? But what message will it send if Polanski is allowed to go free? We’ve gotten ourselves into a no-win bind here: everyone involved just wants to forget what happened, and the media is feverishly rehashing details that inevitably can’t help this case to be decided. Instead, we should be asking: what can we do to prevent this from happening again? How can we keep actors, directors and other public figures from hiding behind their celebrity and using their considerable power for sexual coercion? Why don’t we start by refusing to blame the victim and glorify the assaulter? We have the power to decline to put the victim through a media circus that makes them sorry they ever admitted to being assaulted.
I’m thinking immediately of Dov Charney, the CEO of American Apparel, who has been repeatedly accused of harassing models and uses women’s bodies as sexual tools to sell his clothes, or of the Ben Roethlisberger case, which broke earlier this summer and resulted in the victim being called a “lying golddigger.” Even if we can’t mete out justice in this case, we can learn from Roman Polanski. In some sense, he has been punished – his work will always be mitigated by the knowledge of this act, and he has been barred from returning to the United States, which has surely affected his ability to create films. Whether this punishment is “enough” has become irrelevant. We need to admit that there was a failure here, and instead of wasting energy trying to punish or vindicate one man, we can attack rape culture in all forms and make sure that next time, we’re not still debating guilt or innocence over a three-decade-long case while ignoring the people who are being assaulted today.
Photo courtesy of Rita Molnar on Wikipedia Commons. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Polanski