The whitewashing of Roman Polanski

Over thirty years ago, Roman Polanski fled the US after being charged with statutory rape.  The victim, a 13-year-old girl, accused the then-44 film director of forced sexual intercourse and sodomy.  After getting generous terms of release during the pretrial procedures, he fled to France in 1978 and has never returned.  A Los Angeles court convicted Polanski in absentia.

Last year, a documentary attempted to spin the case to make Polanski the victim of a judicial conspiracy, rather than the fugitive from justice that he is.  In Salon, Bill Wyman takes aim at the auteurs behind Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and the Hollywood whitewash of one of their own:

Bad art is supposed to be harmless, but the 2008 film “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” about the notorious child-sex case against the fugitive director, has become an absolute menace. For months, lawyers for the filmmaker have been maneuvering to get the Los Angeles courts to dismiss Polanski’s 1978 conviction, based on supposed judicial misconduct uncovered in the documentary. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza ruled that if Polanski, who fled on the eve of his sentencing, in March 1978, wanted to challenge his conviction, he could — by coming back and turning himself in. …

Polanski deserves to have any potential legal folderol investigated, of course. But the fact that Espinoza had to state the obvious is testimony to the ways in which the documentary, and much of the media coverage the director has received in recent months, are bizarrely skewed. The film, which has inexplicably gotten all sorts of praise, whitewashes what Polanski did in blatant and subtle fashion — and recent coverage of the case, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and elsewhere, has in turn accepted the film’s contentions at face value.

For now, the Los Angeles judge has injected a dose of reality into the debate. But “Wanted and Desired” seems to have inserted into the public consciousness the idea that Polanski, an irrepressible European, had been naughty during a colorful time, and that he has been toyed with by a monstrous legal system. Creepy and disturbing, the film does show us a few of the director’s moral warts. But it leaves the strong impression that Polanski was a wronged man, jerked around by a cartoony, publicity-hungry judge to the point where fleeing was his only viable option.

In some ways, it should hardly surprise anyone that the film industry would try to rehabilitate Polanski.  His annual appearances at Cannes always come with the wistful reminder that he cannot travel to the US or practically anywhere else without fear of extradition.  These usually neglect to mention Polanski’s conviction, and also the brutal nature of the crime against a girl who could barely be called adolescent.  Wyman, though, doesn’t spare readers:

Now, that’s one way to portray those two men — and one that Polanski’s current lawyers would prefer. But there’s another way, too: You could show one as a child-sex predator who drugged a 13-year-old girl with quaaludes and champagne; lured her to pose for naked photographs; ignoring her protests, had sex with her; and then anally raped her. …

It’s a drag to include a scene of anal rape of a 13-year-old in your moody documentary about such a Byronic figure, but it’s also fairly relevant.

It’s equally a drag to include the fact that Mumia Abu Jamal shot and killed a Philadelphia policeman into the protests against his execution, but that’s also fairly relevant.  Hollywood has for decades championed the criminals over the victims when its politics coincide with the former rather than the latter.  That explains, for instance, the massively epic biopic that Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro are making about Che Guevara, the murderous revolutionary and terrorist.

But Polanski is more than just a sympathetic figure to Hollywood for his politics.  He was one of their stars, in the advent of independent directors, mentioned in the same breath as people like Scorcese, Frankenheimer, Malick, and others.  Unlike Mumia and Che, Polanski belonged to Hollywood — and Hollywood used its power of propaganda to turn Polanski into the victim, rather than the villain, in this play.

Read all of Wyman’s article; it’s definitely a keeper.