You too, Polanski

Hollywood has finally washed its hands of a sexual predator, a mere 40 years after his conviction

Nick Cohen

Long after the time when speaking out might have made a difference, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has expelled Roman Polanski. It had awarded him a best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003 and nominated him in 1981 for Tess, even though he had been on the run from the US since 1977 for the statutory rape of a child. Inspired by the Me Too movement, Hollywood had a pang of  conscience last month. Enough was enough: as a moral institution, filled with expensive liberals it could no longer tolerate a sexual predator on its membership rolls.

The natural reaction was to burst out laughing. Hollywood had spent decades lauding Polanski. Only a few years ago, no less an authority that Whoopi Goldberg had decided that his abuse of the 13-year-old Samantha Gailey that caused him to flee the US before a judge could sentence him was not “rape-rape” and therefore did not really count. When The Pianist won an Oscar, Martin Scorsese led the audience as it rose to give Polanski a standing ovation.

You could say in their defence that the life has nothing to do with the work; that an artist’s personal conduct is irrelevant. Wholesome and kind men and women can make terrible art and the most shameful specimens of humanity can make great art. Arguing against the “therapeutic fallacy” that art makes people better, Robert Hughes told the salutary story of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. The Lord of Rimini was one of the most discerning connoisseurs of the Renaissance. His patronage of Leon Battista Alberti, Agostino di Duccio and Piero della Francesca did not stop Pope Pius II making him after his death the only man to be officially condemned to reside in Hell — a distinction he earned by trussing up a papal emissary, the 15-year-old bishop of Fano, and sodomising him before his cheering troops in Rimini’s main square.

You could turn the “it’s the art not the man” argument upside down and defend Polanski by saying the man is the art, and it is daydreaming to believe otherwise. Kevin Spacey portrayed calculating villains far better than actors whose private lives were models of gentleness exactly because he was a scheming predator.

Polanski, however, tried a tactic he had used before: a tactic that goes to the heart of the difficulties the Me Too movement faces: he threatened to sue.

The justice system is at the centre of any attempt to improve the treatment of women. Rapes aren’t reported because the alleged victims think the police won’t listen to them, and 13 out of 14 reported rapes do not end in a conviction because prosecutors and the courts don’t believe there’s enough evidence to convict a defendant. Contrary to the excuse trotted out by every ageing celebrity marched off by the gendarmerie that “everything was different in the 1970s”, the police took Samantha Gailey’s accusations seriously in 1977. The testimony they presented to a Californian grand jury can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Polanski met Samantha’s mother and offered to get her daughter into Vogue. He took her to Jack Nicholson’s mansion instead, gave her a glass of champagne and drugs. She was frightened and kept saying she wanted to go home.

“He reached over and kissed me. And I was telling him ‘no,’ you know, ‘keep away’. He goes ‘Are you on the pill? And I went, ‘No’. And he goes, ‘When did you last have your period?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know’.” Polanski had heard all he needed to know. The girl was not on the pill, and she could not remember when her last period was. According to her testimony, he therefore sodomised her.

Polanski fled to France rather than face sentencing. No one can say that the American justice system did not try to catch him in the dark days before the third wave of feminism. Ever since 1977, he has faced arrest and a date before an angry judge if he returns to the US. Polanski was sustained because the wider culture in which he moved did not think child abuse mattered. When he arrived in France, fashionable Paris lauded him. In a textbook example of nostalgie de la boue, Le Matin said he was a victim of America’s “excessively prudish petite bourgeoisie”. 

Along with French indifference, Polanski was able to mobilise English authoritarianism. In 2002, he seized on a passing reference in Vanity Fair to his alleged attempt to seduce a woman in a New York restaurant and sued for libel in London. Even by the low standards of the English libel law, the case was absurd. Libel is meant to protect men and women of “good” reputation. Polanski was in exile fleeing charges of child abuse, and had no good name to lose on matters sexual. Anyone in any doubt should have noticed that if he had appeared in court in London to defend his good name, the Metropolitan Police would have arrested and deported him. An obliging English judge pooh-poohed these objections. He ruled that the jury could not read the full transcript of Samantha Gailey’s testimony. “We are not a court of morals,” he continued. “We are not here to judge Mr Polanski’s lifestyle” — even though the naive might have thought the lifestyle of a convicted sex offender had some bearing on the case. In these circumstances, Vanity Fair inevitably lost and had to pay damages of £50,000 and costs of £1.5 million.

The culture that allowed Scorsese to cheer him, the French to protect him, and the English to compensate him is meant to have changed. I am not doubting that  third-wave feminism is transforming the landscape. We are witnessing a feminist bourgeois revolution against the aristocratic pretensions of male managers in the workplace, most noticeably their droit du seigneur.

But change when it comes never progresses in a straight line. Women, and indeed young men preyed on by the likes of Spacey, still face vast challenges when they speak out. It’s worth noticing that every report on Harvey Weinstein in the UK media contains the line that “he denies the allegations against him”. It’s there, not because journalists believe his denials, but because their lawyers insisted on its insertion. Worth noting, too, is that Polanski dismissed Me Too as mass hysteria comparable to McCarthyism or the French Revolution, and is now suing the Academy for failing to follow due process. There’s no guarantee that he will lose.

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