‘Government ministers, movie directors, writers and intellectuals have expressed shock and outrage after the detention of Oscar winning director Roman Polanski in Switzerland on three-decade-old child sex charges,’ begins an AFP article run by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun.
Three-decade-old charges? How dare they! Just because he raped a child doesn’t mean he should be persecuted for it, should he? I mean, it’s yesterday’s news. The victim (or according to some reports, ‘victim’ - note the quotation marks) has moved on with her life, so why shouldn’t we? And he’s an Oscar winning director – isn’t that what’s really important here, not some past misbehaviour back in the hedonistic free love 1970s?
Of course, the official charge is statutory rape – that he unlawfully had sex with a 13-year-old aspiring actress in Jack Nicholson’s Mullholland Canyon mansion. What happened, according to the girl’s 1977 grand jury testimony, is that he took topless photos of her, ostensibly for French Vogue, followed by naked photos in a hot tub. He then stripped off and followed her into the hot tub. ‘That’s when I realised something was wrong,’ she later said. When she got out, inventing an asthma attack and asking to go home, he followed her into the bathroom, where she was wrapped in a towel, lured her into the master bedroom (where she told him she didn’t want to go), performed oral sex on her (while she repeatedly asked him to stop and asked to go home), had vaginal sex with her (while she asked him to stop and asked to go home), then anally raped her (while she – that’s right – asked him to stop and asked to go home). When asked why she followed him into the bedroom, why she went with him, why she didn’t call for help or more forcefully resist, she said ‘Because I was afraid of him’.
He was a 43-year-old world famous film director who was guest editing French Vogue. He’d shot some of the most celebrated films of the 1970s – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown – and had taken her to the mansion of the star of one of those films. As she pointed out in her testimony, he had the car and was her only way of getting back home. He had plied her with alcohol and Quaaludes. (She was drinking champagne during the photo shoot.) She was 13 years old. The gap in this power relationship was an unbridgeable chasm.
In court, where he was charged with rape, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of statutory rape in order to save himself jail time. When it seemed that the judge might not honour the deal, he decided not to come home from Europe, thus becoming a fugitive from justice and a citizen of France, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand has called Polanski’s arrest “absolutely horrifying” and calls the case “an old story which doesn’t really make any sense”. British writer Robert Harris, who is collaborating with Polanski on a film version of his thriller The Ghost, says “I'm amazed this should happen now, and I cannot begin to fathom what reason lies behind it.”
Well, the answer may partly lie in fresh appeals by Polanski’s lawyers to have his original case overturned, based on evidence from the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired that the original judge improperly colluded with prosecutors. In May, a Los Angeles judge refused his bid to have the charges dismissed, after he failed to appear in court. Hmmm ... perhaps he might have prompted the renewed focus on his long-outstanding arrest himself?
Reviewing the documentary for Salon.com in February this year, Bill Wyman made an excellent point: “The issue here isn't Polanski being left alone; he's the one trying to get his case dismissed. The movie tries to drum up sympathy for Polanski by playing up the media firestorm he was at the center of; but that's Polanski's fault, too. (Before they rape children, celebrities should consider how the media attention sure to result will have adverse consequences for their victims, as well as themselves.)”
Which brings us back to the victim and her much-trumpeted wish for Polanski’s case to be dismissed – for the judicial system to forgive him as she has. I understand her wish, which is about her desire to avoid the publicity that has long followed her (and destroyed the dream of being an actress that had led her to the disastrous photo shoot in the first place). In a written statement to the court this January, she said: “Every time this case is brought to the attention of the Court, great focus is made of me, my family, my mother and others. That attention is not pleasant to experience and is not worth maintaining over some irrelevant legal nicety, the continuation of the case.” In other words, her main reason for wanting the case dismissed is so that she can move on with her life – not, as some media reports seem to suggest, because it wasn’t such a big deal, or he didn’t do the wrong thing.
Geimer told CNN’s Larry King in 2003 that ‘I tried to take a girlfriend along because I was feeling uncomfortable. But he kind of at the last minute asked her not to go. So actually when I left, my mom didn't realize I was going alone.’ After the rape, she went straight to the car, and was crying by the time he joined her there. She says, ‘So he asked that, you know, you shouldn't tell your mom. We should keep this secret.’ A week before the King appearance, she authored an LA Times opinion piece in response to all the journalists calling asking her if she thought Polanski should get an Oscar (her answer: judge it on his film, not on what he did to me). She summed up the experience: ‘It was not consensual sex by any means. I said no, repeatedly, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. I was alone and I didn't know what to do. It was scary and, looking back, very creepy.’
Her attorney explained the decision-making process behind his plea-bargaining, allowing Polanski to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor and commute the more serious charge of rape, to Larry King. ‘This was - this courthouse, with cross examination about these sort of delicate events was not the place for a recovering young girl ... My job, I thought, was to try to keep her out of the courtroom, try to keep her to getting back to her life.’
Much has been made of Polanski’s tragic past – his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson. This is juxtaposed with the achievements of his career as a director – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, his Oscar for The Pianist – to paint a portrait of a tragic, tortured genius. ‘This is somebody who could not be a rapist!’ exclaimed one or his friends and supports in the 2008 documentary. He sure sounds like one. And neither his tragic past nor his artistic achievements excuse his behaviour.
Whether Polanski should be brought to trial when the victim would prefer the case dismissed is a valid – and thorny – issue for debate. Why should she be made to suffer more than she already has? But to suggest he deserves a presidential pardon from Barack Obama, as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski plans to request, ‘for his services to Polish culture’, is not just ridiculous, but deeply insulting – to the victim, to all victims of rape, and to the basic tenets of our culture. Have we gone so far as to suggest that celebrity and high achievement are more important than the most basic laws of behaviour that govern our society? And let’s not fool ourselves that we’re debating the issue of sex with a minor – it’s plainly obvious from the victim’s testimony that we’re dealing with rape.
In the final analysis, I can’t help but think that the legal process should be followed – that Polanski should return to the US to face trial. It’s very likely that his sentence will be commuted to time served (he was in jail for 45 days for psychiatric assessment back in 1977), or serve an extra term to bring it to 90 days, as was negotiated in his initial plea bargain. (A plea that the judge – who is now dead - had threatened to overturn, causing his flight.) Not that that’s the point.
I think he should be tried as would anyone facing such a charge because a clear message needs to be sent that power and privilege are not a force field that allows those who possess it to behave with impunity. Powerful men need to know that it’s not okay for them to sexually abuse or intimidate women – particularly underage girls, who are even more vulnerable to abuse – because of their positions. Letting Polanski go or ignoring the international warrant for his arrest sends the opposite message – that there’s one rule for ordinary people, and another for the elite. And that’s a dangerous message.