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May 13, 2006

Polanski, the Academy, and rape

Amanda rightly rejects Jennifer Pozner's allegation that Roman Polanski's Oscar was proof of misogyny in the Academy and Hollywood at large.

Polanski won Best Director in 2003 for the The Pianist, the story of a Polish musician who survives the Holocaust after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Polanski accepted the award in absentia because he is a fugitive from the United States, having skipped bail after pleading guilty to the statutory rape of 13-year-old girl in 1977.

As Scott says:

The fact that a truly great film (about the Holocaust, no less) was made by someone who raped a 13-year old is an interesting puzzle about the human condition, but really nothing more than that; the work, like his grossly immoral act, speaks for itself.

Even if you reject the idea that an artist's personal life is relevant to the aesthetic evaluation of his work, the Polanski case still raises troubling ethical questions. The fact remains that he has been able to live and work as a fugitive from American justice for nearly three decades.

Frankly, I'm not sure whether it's ethical for actors like Adrian Brody to go work with Polanski while he's still refusing to accept his punishment for the rape. The issue is that Polanski hasn't done his time. People who work with him are helping him to evade justice. Arguably, in so doing, they are becoming Polanski's accomplices many years after the fact. If so, viewers like me who paid to see the movie are also complicit to some extent.

Nevertheless, if the Academy Awards are based on merit, then Polanski deserved his Best Director award. According to its own guiding principles, Academy was right to set aside the moral complexities surrounding the making of the film. Polanski's direction was better than that of any of the other directors nominated that year. Therefore, he deserved the award.

You don't have to pretend that foie gras tastes bad in order to condemn the way it's made.

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Comments

It's empirically supported that awarding an Oscar like this will increase a film's profits. I don't see how the Academy gets out of its moral obligation not to fund Polanski's patrician fugitive lifestyle simply by cloaking its award in a manufactured concept of meritocracy. The Best Director Oscar isn't the 100 meter dash - the voters have completely unbridled discretion to choose their winner on whatever grounds they choose, regardless of the guidelines they're provided with. And I think it's fairly clear that they often make their choices on entirely merit-independent grounds (see, e.g., every Oscars of my lifetime). They had the option to include a desire not to fund Polanski's evasion of charges that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl in their deliberations, but apparently it wasn't important to them.

I don't think this is a hard question. Every single person who contributes a dollar to Polanski is funding an exemption from California's rape laws for entertainment industry aristocrats. The people who voted for his award are as guilty as anyone. No, you don't have to pretend foie gras tastes bad to condemn how it's made. But if you condemn how it's made, you shouldn't be funding an ad campaign for its deliciousness either.

Mel Gibson and Ron Howard have both won Best Director Oscars, but neither Spike Lee nor Peter Weir has. So I don't see how the Academy gets off the hook on the basis of merit. Like Eli says, that's rarely what the Oscars are about.

And what if Polanski had been caught participating in a film piracy ring, instead of just raping a 13 year old girl (statutory rape seems to be a lesser charge that he accepted. From what she said, it was probably child rape)?

I don't think they'd have given the Oscar to a film pirate, even if it was for Schindler's List.

I don't want to seem like I'm making excuses for Polanski in any way, but if you take a detailed look at the case, his fleeing was precipitated when the judge in the case, with whom Polanski and his lawyers (and the victim and her family) thought they had worked out a deal, pulled the rug out from under everyone at the last minute. And it is also worth remembering that the victim herself, apropos the Oscar nod for "The Pianist," contributed an op-ed piece (I believe to the L.A. Times) entitled "Judge the Movie, Not the Man." Again, I'm not drawing any conclusions here. Just that these bits of info ought to be part of an informed discussion of the topic.

I don't think the Academy has a "moral obligation" to do anything whatsoever with regard to how it votes. It is however an interesting question: why does an industry (or a culture) forgive certain acts and not others, etc., even acts that are expressly immoral, illegal or evil. In the case of Polanski, the rationale needn't be any more complicated than the obvious financial one (from the studios' point of view). The same thing happened when Spielberg and his producers were under investigation for negligent homicide in the "Twilight Zone" case. Producers fled the country for a couple of years till things "died down" and experienced no deprivation or inconvenience whatsoever (other than having to live in another country's lap of luxury). And the studios shockingly continued to bankroll Spielberg movies.

I do enjoy the idea that a voter is morally responsible for the effects of his/her cast vote. Maybe all those academy members just took Polanski's word for it (his innocence, I mean), just like all those millions of Bush voters who take his (or "His") word ("Word") for everything that would otherwise be morally troubling.

Also, I have to believe that a lot of people just take it for granted that big powerful movie, music and sports stars have underage groupies, that the groupies are complicit and (from the point of view of future blackmail) dangerous. And I'm sure a lot of people in the academy have the attitude that the only reason polanski got busted was that he didn't have the money or the clout to make it go away.

I don't see how the victim's editorial is relevant to the ethical question at hand, which is if it is acceptable to help provide more of the material resources and prestige that have allowed Polanski to evade his legal obligation to face the charges in California.

And I certainly don't see how it's even remotely relevant to anything that Polanski "only" fled rape charges when it turned out he wasn't going to be able to get as sweet a deal as he'd hoped out of it. I understand that you gave a "not to sound like I'm excusing Polanski" disclaimer, but how else are people supposed to take that? It doesn't excuse his fleeing by even one iota, and I don't see any other theory for it being relevant. The idea that anyone could even peddle that story as if it's somehow supposed to make Polanski's beahvior even slightly more acceptable, or the decision to fund it any less objectionable, only highlights how extraordinarily important it is that Polanski be shunned and condemned at every opportunity - because the fight over how to treat Polanski is a fight over if we believe the law applies to everyone or not, and some people obviously believe it doesn't.

Boo fucking hoo for Roman Polanski. Everyone else in his position has to answer for it. People accused of much less - selling pot, carrying a gun while on a suspended sentence for a minor crime, etc - have their lives wrecked and their families shattered by incarceration. Meanwhile, Polanski fucks models in a mansion. I'm not sure if there's a more disgusting non-murderer on Earth.

Not everyone can win an academy award, boohoo. Not everyone can be president of the united states and you are never going to get unanimity on who deserves either one. That doesn't negate the process of voting or the achievement of even getting nominated.

But getting back to the issue at hand, I think it comes down to a matter of separating the art from the artist. Most artists are messed up idiots who commit crimes of varying seriousness. In this case a pretty heinous one. If we never appreciated art created by someone who commited a crime... there wouldn't be much in the gallery.

Also, I find this sort of 'controversy' disingenous, the man commited a crime... but part of the whole philosophy behind our criminal justice system is rehab... and becoming a useful member of society. I don't think anyone will argue he avoided some serious 'punishment', but with a better lawyer he might have gotten off anyway. And he is contributing to society now. Hopefully he even learned a lesson. Prison doesn't guarrantee that.

And besides from what I read he only pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement and he only ran after he heard the judge was going to toss it out and he might get 50 years. Crimes aside, if you thought you weren't getting a fair trial....wouldn't you run?

And what if Polanski had been caught participating in a film piracy ring, instead of just raping a 13 year old girl (statutory rape seems to be a lesser charge that he accepted. From what she said, it was probably child rape)?

I don't think they'd have given the Oscar to a film pirate, even if it was for Schindler's List.

Probably not, but that in itself does not indicate giving Polanski an Oscar was wrong. It's likely that the Academy is hypocritical like that, but still, the process is ostensibly about merit, and even if once in a while there are deviations, it doesn't justify other deviations.

"I'm not sure if there's a more disgusting non-murderer on Earth."
Enron
Tuskeegee Syphilus scientists.
the Milgrams sadists.
the entire Bush Administration
Ann Coulter
pedophile-priests
sybil's mother (the buttonhook, etc.)
joseph mccarthy
james dobson (see "dog care")
those parents who locked their kid in a box for five years
white-supremicists
child traffickers
war-profiteers
Kitty Genovese's neighbors


Jonah Goldberg

I don't quite see how pedophile priests beat pedophile directors. But, ok, Jonah Goldberg makes sense.

"I don't quite see how pedophile priests beat pedophile directors"

Well, without parsing that too closely, I would just say that one is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and the other is a wolf in wolf's clothing. We (at least, used to think we could) trust priests. Nobody in his right mind would think to entrust their children to a celebrity.

The same thing happened when Spielberg and his producers were under investigation for negligent homicide in the "Twilight Zone" case.

Er, you're thinking of John Landis. True, Spielberg was the executive producer, but he was nowhere near the set and had no control over it when Vic Morrow and those two children died.

That is, incidentally, yet another example of how screwed up the LA District Attorney's office is. They could quite easily have gotten a manslaughter or even third degree murder conviction, but they insisted on second degree or nothing, and the jury found that the crime (which was primarily negligence) didn't quite rise to that level.

And because the DA's office fucked up, John Landis is still directing films today, because a jury found him not guilty and gave producers an excuse.

How you like them apples?

Oh, and in Spielberg's defense ... he has not worked with John Landis since the "Twilight Zone" movie in 1983.

I should like to point out that the word "only" which Quisp puts in quotation marks is not used in the comment I posted and Quisp responded to. I should like it understood that I did not use the word to characterize the circumstances under which Polanski fled, nor would I. I know, I know—I don't like having my points mischaracterized? Boo fucking hoo...

Er, Speilberg was a producer of "Twilight Zone", picked the directors of the various segments, his two producers and heads of his company (one of whom was standing feet from the accident) left the country for a few years.

Er, Speilberg was a producer of "Twilight Zone", picked the directors of the various segments, his two producers and heads of his company (one of whom was standing feet from the accident) left the country for a few years.

Which two producers -- Frank Marshall or Kathleen Kennedy?

I may not be completely up on the law -- is the CEO of a company completely responsible for the actions of his/her managers, including any criminal prosecutions for actions that occurred when the CEO was not present and that the CEO had no foreknowledge of?

Oh, but that's right -- Spielberg should have used his magical psychic powers to know that Landis' carelessness would cause that fatal accident six months after he hired Landis. Sorry, I forgot about Spielberg's magical psychic powers. That changes everything.

far from excusing polanski for the statutory rape charge, i find it surprising the tate-la bianca murders are not mentioned. as the 'surviving victim' (no matter how you break it down) of this highly-profiled and extraordinarily-violent crime, how is polanski to be objectively judged in any crime without that case being brought to mind, particularly in public perception? if it were not for that atrocity, i believe he would not have been given the lenience he's been given. and at the risk of due criticism, he is a great film-maker.

I like your blog, but I'm also extremely curious: where does the analytic philosophy come in? (p.s. got here from your flickr site.)

also, i'm not blaming or indicting spielberg or his producers. i like his movies and i even liked that movie. and any negligence in that case was far removed from them, as i recall. I'm just pointing out that the studios make decisions based on the bottom line, profit, and morality doesn't enter into it unless it has an appreciably big $$ penalty.

i also wanted to mention, it occurs to me that the academy is OLD. If they're misogynists (as the original article/post claimed), you don't need Polanski to prove it, because they're misogynists like our grandparents are (i.e. obviously and while thinking they're not), and, you know, bigoted and the rest of it. By the time we're old, the academy will be populated solely by enlightened non-sexist non-bigots. But they (we?) will be having a hard time with whatever our children come up with, equality for robots probably.

Well, and i might as well say something on issue!

I'm slightly disturbed, i'm afraid to say, by what seems like waaay to much emphasis on the individual act --"not a more disgusting non-murderer" etc. Do any of you know Mr. Polanski personally? Isn't it at least theoretically possible that an otherwise (i stress the otherwise because the charge is heinous) decent person might act terribly once or even twice in his or her life-time? Has he done anything since then, for instance, that would suggest there wasn't something unique about what happened in 1977?

I don't know myself.

also, i'm not blaming or indicting spielberg or his producers.

No? You said that "shockingly" the studios continued bankrolling his movies. That means that you think that Spielberg must have had some culpability in the accident despite the Los Angeles DA's office deciding otherwise.

What's the point of a justice system if having nothing to do with an accident means you lose your career anyway? Why should Spielberg have been punished for something that Landis did? Is it because Spielberg is a bigger and more successful director?

i agree with epitaphforacentaur. and it's not only the tate murder but his own escape from the nazis, his mother's death at auschwitz, etc., and since the "lenience" in question is specifically regarding a movie he made on the topic of the Nazi persecution of Polish Jews (it's not actually "his" story, but it may as well have been and the press and public have treated it as though it was), his oscar for "pianist" is not entirely...oh, I don't know...that's a hard sentence to finish. Let's just say, the academy, in their voting, knew a good story when they saw it, and provided a nice little ending. Note: for "nice" you could substitute "marketable."

G.K., that wasn't quisp, that was me. I didn't mascharacterize your point b/c you obviously somewhat sheepishly disavowed any desire to make a point. You said that that information "ought to be part of an informed discussion of the topic," for which you gave absolutely no argument or explanation. The only even intelligible argument for the information being relevant is if Polanski's behavior was at least partially mitigated by the (completely legal) decision of the judge not to agree to give the sentence Polanski expected. The "only" was a reference to this attitude - an attitude that anyone who respects the criminal justice system's authority to punish rape should find repugnant.

Has he done anything since then, for instance, that would suggest there wasn't something unique about what happened in 1977?

Polanski was/is quite notorious for liking underage girls. Nastassja Kinski was living with him at the age of 14.

By most accounts, it was a pretty classic date rape scenario of the 1970s -- he thought she was consenting, she was too drunk/intimidated to say no.

And speaking of leaving your children alone with celebrities ... IIRC, her ambitious mother dropped her off at the house hoping Polanski could find her daughter film work.

Polanski in fact kicked off the whole thing by tricking the girl into thinking he was photographing her for a magazine. He used a position of professional authority, as so many pedophiles do.

re: quisps statement:
" regarding a movie he made on the topic of the Nazi persecution of Polish Jews (it's not actually "his" story, but it may as well have been and the press and public have treated it as though it was), his oscar for "pianist" is not entirely...oh, I don't know...that's a hard sentence to finish."
no it's not, the word is 'undeserving'. the work and the creator must be separated ultimately. the work is more important, the work continues without limit while the crimes and trespasses of the creator are specific. that is not to say he should not face due prosecution for his crimes, but one's work exceeds beyond the personal, and should be given that allowance.

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