This article about roman Polanski originally appeared in the French magazine Technikart in 2009 and was further revised in 2011.
In September 2009, at the request of US authorities, Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland and facing extradition over charges against him in the US. Over 100 people from the film industry petitioned for his release, while others voiced their support for Polanski — especially progressive Hollywood, where you’d think no one would ever defend a child rapist. Many of those who led the 2017 Me Too movement put their name to the petition; others would themselves later face allegations and/or charges of perpetrating sexual abuse against under-age youth, such as Woody Allen, Asia Argento, and of course Harvey Weinstein. My interest was and remains why these people were so eager and adamant in defending Polanski.
The New York Times has declared, “September will be Roman Polanski month,” with Polanski’s God of Carnage opening the New York Film Festival, and the Museum of Modern Art running a retrospective of his work September 7–30. The scandal that keeps Polanski from showing up in person to all but get the key to the city does not seems not to have affected the appreciation of his work. And that’s probably for the best, because the sublime can speak through any of us. But what does it mean when we so love the work of an artist that we feel obliged to sweep the Master’s trespasses under the carpet, lest they infringe upon our adoration?
“What happened to Roman Polanski was just not fair.” You hear it from any number of people: artists and writers, producers and directors, politicians and intellectuals, the wealthy and well connected. Roman is a great artist, everyone knows that. He has suffered deeply and lost much: his childhood to war, his mother to genocide, and his wife and unborn child to mad, cinematically brutal violence. 1977 was decades ago; now he is 78, with a wife and two children and a brilliant body of work. So much time has passed. So much has changed.
Granted, these three decades of irresolution have precisely one cause: Polanski’s flight at the moment suprême, on the cusp of his sentencing for a crime to which he pled guilty. The facts of the case remain clear: Roman Polanski drugged and raped a child and fled the country. Say it one more time, out loud if it helps: He drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. He was caught, he confessed, he was convicted, and he ran. He ran because he was scared. He abandoned his Mercedes at the airport and hasn’t set foot in the US since.
Say it one more time, out loud if it helps: He drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl.
The girl’s own account of her abuse at Polanski’s hands, given in 1977 to a Los Angeles grand jury, make his methodical, calculated approach — and his sense of entitlement — as legible as a theatre marquee. The scene was artfully directed. “Sit this way. Put on this shirt and don’t smile.” Later: “Here, take off your top now.” Still later, on the way to the Jacuzzi after a phone call telling her mother they’d be late: “Take off your underwear.”
Step by step, he gets her where he wants her: intoxicated, isolated, intimidated. He is a mature man of 44, one of the most famous directors in Hollywood. She is a girl of 13, naked, alone, and dizzy with the champagne and Quaalude he gave her. Time after time she tells him “No,” says she wants to go home, heads for the door. Time after time he ignores or deflects her objections — engineering consent, or just inventing it. He penetrates her vaginally, anally. He comes to orgasm. The scene ends with her crying in the car.
Of course, no one argues Polanksi’s innocence, not even Polanski himself. What they argue is that the rules should not apply to him — because he has suffered, because he’s a great artist, because he is not like us. To apply the rules to him is to be vulgar and vengeful, and to reflect the petty incomprehension of weak common minds.
Put another way, there are two sets of rules. Why should Polanski and his victim answer to the same law? As Whoopi Goldberg has observed, what happened wasn’t “rape-rape,” any more than Zeus “rape-raped” Europa. A god descended among mortals to take his pleasure. If someone’s daughter got hurt, those are the breaks. Lie back and enjoy your brush with fame. Hollywood is built on such stories. In the interpenetrating worlds of politics and entertainment and industry and finance, thousands of young boys and girls are enjoyed and discarded every day. In tiny villages and great capitals, children are drugged and duped and bullied, sacrificed to the depraved ego of any john who can pay the fare.
Sexual abuse is a commodity in Hollywood. The act itself will get you an audition, a part, a deal. The trauma becomes a story, which pays off in talk shows, tabloids, maybe a book someday. Someone victimized you? That’s power. They owe you. Don’t think all those starlets are having sex with geriatric trolls because they love it. Want the golden apple, gotta bite the worm. If you’re smart, you’ll swallow.
But there is an unwritten rule. Trading on that experience makes it part of the deal, the price of admission. Once you’ve done it, shut up. You might write a book about your child stardom or your struggle with addiction or the producers, directors, agents, and hangers-on you had to screw to get to the top. But you made the deal. You’ve got nothing to complain about.
When Whoopi talks “rape-rape,” here’s the translation: This girl was paying the price of fame. Her mother made the Hollywood deal. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the jacuzzi. Never mind the possibility that there was no such bargain, and the fact that 13 is a little young to be making a pact with Satan. If you showed Polanski’s defenders a Thai or Indian child sold into a brothel to support his or her family, they would rush to the rescue, and rightly so. Yet to these same people, the victimhood of that 13-year-old girl in Hollywood is invisible. Why?
They made the Hollywood deal and live by the Hollywood rule: That which does not kill me makes me famous.
Because they have commodified their own experience as well as hers. How can the girl be a victim when she got paid? First it was with the promise of fame; then, years later as an adult, came the money. When it’s a commodity, it’s not a crime. And they can believe that because they’ve shut off a part of themselves. They made the Hollywood deal and live by the Hollywood rule: That which does not kill me makes me famous.
What happens to truth in a world where such judgments prevail? It finds refuge in fiction. And for over 30 years Polanski has been running from the truth of his actions — while unearthing indelible truths in a series of classic films. He has earned the month of September given to him in New York because he is a gifted storyteller, with a lifetime of stories to prove it. But one wonders how he tells this one to his children.