Roman (Polanski) Circus
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Even in this age of hyperthyroid tabloid stories, the alleged rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey by 44-year-old film director Roman Polanski at Jack Nicholson’s home in Hollywood in 1977 has had a bizarrely long lifespan and enough twists and turns that, had Polanski wanted to film it, it could have kept him busy from that day to this. It’s a story about stardom and sex, people who are famous and people who want to be (or want their children to be), with an overlay of social evil and political corruption. It’s hard not to hate Polanski for what he did — abuse the trust both of 13-year-old Samantha and of her mother, who left him alone with her hoping (I suspect) that he’d do a killer photo shoot of her girl, get it in Vogue magazine, launch her on a star career and maybe even direct her first film himself. But it’s also hard not to feel a certain degree of sorrow for him, not only because of the brutal background he came out of but also because of the shabby way the case was handled by the criminal justice system.
I’ll come out right now and say that I think what happened to Roman Polanski -— his arrest in Switzerland (a country he’s routinely visited for years and where he owns a home) where he had been invited to attend a film festival and receive a lifetime achievement award; his incarceration without bail and the likelihood that he’ll be extradited to L.A. to face sentencing on 32-year-old charges in a case even his victim has repeatedly stated she wants to see dropped — is disgusting. That doesn’t let Polanski off the hook. What he did to 13-year-old Samantha — getting her drunk, feeding her a Quaalude and having both vaginal and anal sex with her when she was so drunk and stoned she couldn’t possibly have resisted him even if she hadn’t been too afraid of him to try — is also disgusting. But I can’t bring myself to think that a criminal justice system which had already revealed its malevolence towards him has any business, or any moral authority, punishing him now.
I’m not taking Polanski’s side because of his personal history — even though he happens to have a direct connection with some of the most brutal horrors of the 20th century. His family members were killed by the Nazis, his friends by the Communists and his wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson’s gang. Indeed, when my husband Charles and I attended the preview screening of Polanski’s film The Pianist (which I reviewed in his pages), it was Charles who pointed out that out of all the Holocaust-related stories he could have dramatized, he picked one about a great artist who was prevented by a repressive regime from practicing his art — evidence that the case, and his resulting exile from the center of his industry, had hurt him more than his rather snippily dismissive comments about it on European TV would make it seem.
Nor am I sympathetic to Polanski out of some misguided idea that because he’s a great artist he shouldn’t be judged by the same rules as everybody else. It’s true that a lot of artists are crazy — they practically have to be to handle the years of rejection and privation that generally precede success — and it’s an additional paradox that an artist who does succeed in a mass medium like film or pop music thereby becomes a celebrity. Celebrities live in such a bubble — at least in part because they engender a lot of nuts who want to kill them, or just get so close to them that they can’t function as artists or people — that not only do they often lose the connection with ordinary people that made their art appealing and successful in the first place, most of the people they do interact with every day are paid companions or hangers-on who give them an aura of invincibility, a sense of, “I’m a star! I can do anything!”
Roman Polanski’s current troubles are at least in part the result of how, in his case, that celebrity bubble got punctured. When director Marina Zenovich made her 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, her thesis was that Europeans, more easygoing about sexual matters in general, accepted Polanski and didn’t think his crime was such a big deal; while Puritanical, hung-up Americans saw him as a perverted little runt whose movies and life were equally sick. The public reactions to Polanski’s arrest — with opinion polls in both the U.S. and Europe running 2-to-1 against him — suggest the split was more between filmmakers and other artists, who saw him as “one of us” and were willing to forgive him for what seemed to them a minor trespass; and everybody else, who saw him as an overprivileged celebrity brat who had got away with a heinous crime for far too long and was finally being held to account.
One of Polanski’s problems is there’s been a sea change between 1977 and 2009 in how adult-child sex is viewed — and it’s been a change in the direction of more condemnation and hatred. In 1977, Polanski’s conduct was viewed as reprehensible and wrong — but there was also a certain roguish appeal to his story, a sense that maybe if you were really lucky you, too, would be able to get an invite to take a girl to Jack Nicholson’s house and seduce her there. You’d probably want her to be older than 13 — that part of it you’d likely have objected to — but hey, there were plenty of girls of legal age you could imagine would have sex with you if you could impress them with a résumé as a film director, a camera, a connection with an internationally known fashion magazine and access to the home of a superstar.
When Polanski was first arrested, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen published a joke that his next movie was going to be called Close Encounters with the Third Grade. That a legendary and respected writer like Caen could publish that — and that a lot of his readers would find it funny — is itself an indication of how much our attitude towards sex with underage partners has hardened since then. Today a columnist who dared print something like that would get a lot of nasty letters from self-proclaimed “child savers” or “children’s advocates” saying that child sex abuse was never a laughing matter and his employer should fire him forthwith for making so tasteless a remark in print.
In 1977, the sexual revolution was still in full swing and organizations like the Renée Guyon Society and North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) had something of a public presence and at least a small audience for their argument that age-of-consent laws were infringements on the rights and freedoms of children and should be abolished. By 2009 we’d had not only the AIDS epidemic but also the rise of a professional industry of activists committed to the idea that adult-child sex was the most heinous crime there was — worse than murder, said one of these advocates, on the ground that murder killed the body but sex with an adult left the child’s body alive but killed the soul.
I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons sanctimonious hypocrites like Steve Lopez and Joe Mozingo of the Los Angeles Times have grabbed hold of Samantha’s testimony before the grand jury in 1977 and are publishing extensive excerpts of it, including the most lubricious details of her alleged abuse, is they perhaps unconsciously distinguish between “the victim” and the victim. In the name of protecting “the victim” — 13-year-old Samantha Gailey — they’re ignoring the clearly and repeatedly expressed wishes of the real victim, 45-year-old Samantha Geimer, that Polanski be forgiven and the case just go away. The last thing Samantha Geimer wants is to have the public’s nose rubbed yet again into the intimate details of her abuse.
But because she’s recovered from the incident, married, had children and led a normal life, Samantha Geimer has to be punished. The “child savers” can’t bear the fact that she didn’t get hooked on drugs, end up hopelessly mentally ill, become either outrageously promiscuous or totally frigid, or die at an early age of an overdose or suicide. Because she isn’t playing by their script of what a child sexual abuse victim is supposed to be like — because she’s a living rebuke to all their rhetoric about the destructiveness of this crime and how its victims supposedly never recover — they have to punish the real victim in the name of protecting the conceptual “victim.” In essence, Samantha Geimer is getting raped again, over and over, by newspaper writers, editors and hypocritical “activists” who want to shame her and intimidate her into destroying herself and therefore behaving the way they want a victim of child sexual abuse to behave.
Polanski’s case can also not be understood without the context of the long-standing vendetta between him and Los Angeles County law enforcement. It began in August 1969, when not only were his wife, an old friend of his from Poland and two of his closest Hollywood acquaintances were brutally and savagely murdered, but Polanski himself was seriously suspected of the crime simply because of a superficial resemblance between the crime scene and a sequence from his film Rosemary’s Baby showing Mia Farrow’s body being painted in blood. Polanski struck back in 1974 when he made the film Chinatown, which though set in the 1930’s was based on a real-life L.A. scandal from two decades earlier: William Mulholland’s theft of the Owens Valley’s water supply, so the lush valley became a virtual desert — and L.A. had the water it needed to expand into a major city.
I suspect the slimy 1977 court proceedings depicted in the documentary Wanted and Desired — particularly the way Polanski was toyed with by the original judge in the case, Laurence Rittenband — were at least in part revenge for Polanski’s having rubbed the L.A. elite’s collective nose in one of the nastiest and most corrupt parts of their city’s history in Chinatown. And his current arrest seems to have had a we’ll-show-him! attitude about it. When Polanski’s lawyers tried to get the case dismissed following the release of Wanted and Desired and the revelations of judicial corruption in the film, one of the grounds they gave was that L.A. County hadn’t seriously been pursuing his extradition. That seems to have had the effect of waving the red flag in front of the bull — “He says we haven’t been pursuing his extradition? All right, we will pursue his extradition — and this time we’ll nail his ass!”
But the main reason I don’t want to see Roman Polanski punished any further — however loathsome his conduct on that afternoon in 1977 was — is a quality that seems to have been relentlessly purged from our justice system: mercy. It used to be that the countries that incarcerated the highest percentages of their citizens were creepy dictatorships like Soviet Russia, Maoist China or apartheid South Africa. Today, by a wide margin, it’s the good old “democratic” U.S.A. Laws giving the victims or their families the right to participate in the judicial process have led to a vindictive mentality that treats the criminal justice system as an instrument of private revenge. Time and time again, whenever a particularly famous murderer is about to be executed, TV shows air interviews with the victim’s relatives pleading that the state kill him so they can have “closure” — and claims that these people’s lives should be spared because they have bettered themselves, because they are no longer the people they were when they committed their crimes, are routinely ridiculed and dismissed.
Well, I think it’s relevant to whether someone should still be punished for a crime committed decades ago to look at who they are now and compare it to who they were then. That’s why I didn’t think Sara Jane Olson should have had to return to prison for her shenanigans with the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970’s; though she’d technically been a fugitive, she’d turned her life around and was pursuing the same causes that had led her to the SLA — but now only in legal, legitimate ways. That’s why I thought it was wrong to dredge up senile octogenarian Ivan Demjanjuk and try him for atrocities he allegedly committed as part of the Holocaust sixty-plus years earlier — crimes he probably couldn’t even remember whether he had done or not.
Likewise, I think Roman Polanski’s case is a legitimate one for mercy. He certainly isn’t the same man he was 32 years ago; he’s a long-time married man (albeit to a woman younger than Samantha Geimer), he’s a father, and he’d probably be outraged if anyone pulled on his kids today what he pulled on Samantha in 1977. The person most injured by his actions, Samantha Geimer, has forgiven him and wants us to move on. We should.