Roman Polanski is, as was Michael Jackson, a great artist and a damaged person. Each sought to satisfy his needs at the expense of pubescent children.
Yet the reactions they stirred this year differed. Around the world, the public joined the music industry in mourning Jackson’s death. Polanski’s detention last week by Swiss authorities acting on an American extradition request brought him support from cultural authorities in France and Poland, where he holds dual citizenship, and from some colleagues in the film industry. But there was a sharp public backlash against the director, who has been a fugitive from American justice for 31 years.
The distinction makes sense to me. Jackson, who was indicted for allegedly molesting a 13-year-old boy amid a series of questionable relationships with adolescents, surrendered himself, faced his accusers in court and was acquitted.
Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex in 1977 with a 13-year-old girl, who told a grand jury that the director had given her drugs and alcohol and then raped her. But, while on pre-sentence release after 42 days in a California prison for psychological evaluation, Polanski jumped bail and fled to Europe. His supporters have said he ran because he feared a publicity-hungry judge would ignore a deal with prosecutors and put him back behind bars.
Jackson’s acquittal buttressed his claims that he never sexually abused anybody. The singer maintained that fortune-seeking adults and aggressive prosecutors manipulated purported victims into making repeated allegations against him, only one of which resulted in charges.
But, based on Jackson’s own interviews with British journalist Martin Bashir and American newsman Ed Bradley, it is clear that he did not know where to draw the lines with young people. He insisted that it is perfectly appropriate for a middle-aged man to share his bed with a teen-age friend, though Jackson said he stayed on the floor during his sleepovers.
Not many attentive parents in stable homes would permit their child to participate in such a relationship. While an accomplished, immensely talented man such as Jackson can be a mentor, role model and guide to a young person, and in this sense might be a “friend,” a 40-something adult is not a teenager’s peer. Behaving like one may satisfy the needs of the regressed grownup, but it has nothing healthy to offer the youngster.
The public understands this, just as it understands that Jackson himself had a difficult, traumatic childhood. I do not believe Jackson was forgiven because people think he did nothing inappropriate; I believe he was forgiven because he accepted the consequences of what he did. People who never would have allowed their own children to privately visit Jackson paid homage when he died.
Polanski also suffered great trauma. His mother was murdered by Nazis and his wife and unborn child were butchered by deranged members of a cult whose trial was one of the 20th century’s great media circuses. (Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi vividly recounted the crime and trial in his book, Helter Skelter.)
There have, however, been millions of traumatized adults who did not proceed to rape children. If Polanski’s sad history could somehow explain his actions, it still would not excuse them. Nor did his hope for lenient sentencing justify running from the consequences of his crime when those consequences loomed large. A mere 42 days of confinement would have been an amazingly light sentence for sex with a 13-year-old. When, in his 1975 hit “Livingston Saturday Night,” singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet warned, “Fifteen may get ya 20,” he didn’t mean 20 days.
Polanski was en route to the Zurich Film Festival, which had planned a tribute to him, when he was arrested. More than 100 people in the film industry promptly signed a petition demanding his release, including American directors Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese and actresses Tilda Swinton and Penelope Cruz. His supporters have cited statements by Polanski’s victim, who settled a civil suit against him for an undisclosed payment and has publicly identified herself, saying she would like the criminal case to be dropped. (The Associated Press reported Friday that the 1993 settlement was for $500,000, and the victim apparently spent years trying to collect the money from Polanski.)
California authorities rightly refused to settle the case while Polanski remained on the lam. Allowing Polanski to buy his freedom would send a message that the innocence of a 13 year old is for sale, and that courts cannot be counted upon to balance the rights of the accused against those of an alleged victim.
A Hollywood crowd gave Polanski a standing ovation when The Pianist won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Directing, even though Polanski stayed away to avoid arrest. The Zurich Film Festival was about to hand Polanski a lifetime achievement award when he was apprehended. His supporters cite his exceptional work, his personal suffering, his amends to his victim and his lengthy self-imposed exile, and say enough is enough.
The film industry has a blind spot here. Polanski owes a debt that remains uncollected. It taints everything he has done since he fled. The director’s work speaks for itself, and much of it is undeniably great. But do we honor the art or the artist?
Pete Rose is baseball’s all-time hits leader, but he is not in the Hall of Fame because he admitted betting on games, leading to his lifetime ban from the sport. Mark McGwire set a single-season record for home runs, but he is not in the Hall and is not likely to get there. It is questionable whether Barry Bonds, the lifetime home run champ, or Roger Clemens, one of the great pitchers of his era, will ever be so honored, either, because of persistent suspicions — never proven in court or to a similar legal standard — that they used steroids. Their records stand, but that does not mean they can expect their craft’s highest personal recognition.
I like baseball’s approach, especially for individuals who are still alive. Great work does not make great people. Respect the work, but honor only the honorable.