Sunday, October 04, 2009

Roman Polanski, Hollywood & Morality

The curious case of film director Roman Polanski has been drawing quite a bit of attention recently as a result of his arrest in Switzerland on charges stemming from something that happened over thirty years ago. In case you're not aware, Polanski, who is an Oscar winner and a highly regarded filmmaker in Hollywood circles, was arrested in 1977 for having sex with a thirteen year old girl after providing drugs and alcohol for her.

After entering into a plea agreement at the time, Polanski spent six weeks in jail for evaluation and was released. Upon learning that he might be sent to jail, he left the United States and has never returned. Polanski has avoided any country that has an extradition treaty with the U.S. and, therefore, has never been fully prosecuted for his crime.

His case has stirred up a lot of controversy as many in the Hollywood establishment have come to his defense and called for his release. But the general public doesn't view Polanski primarily as an Oscar winner. What most of us see is someone that raped a barely teenage girl and has escaped judgment. Paul Harris frames it well:
"The Polanski backlash has spread far and wide. He was never popular at all on the right wing of America's culture, but now middle America is firmly in favour of seeing him in a Californian courtroom. Talk show hosts, radio commentators and newspaper editorials from coast to coast have all insisted that the arrest was long overdue and that Polanski needs to be brought to the US.

"Hollywood people really don't see the world in the same way as average people... that is why there is a backlash," said Mike Levine, a Hollywood PR expert.

But it is perhaps no surprise that the gap between Hollywood and the rest of America has grown so large on this particular case. Because of his long and illustrious career, Polanski is a friend and colleague of nearly all the main players in the film world. They are his confidantes and his peers. His movies have made them stars and helped them to earn millions. They live in the same rarefied world of global fame. "Elite Hollywood culture is protecting one of its own," said Alexander Riley, a professor of sociology at Bucknell University.

It is also speaks to a certain type of Hollywood culture which appears to insist that its top stars are in some ways elevated above the law and should be treated differently to ordinary members of the public.

If Polanski was just an ordinary man instead of a world-famous film director, the bare facts of his case would be likely to elicit little sympathy – especially from the world famous. Hollywood stars seem to be arguing, in some ways, that Polanski's talent should allow him some sort of free pass for his past behaviour. "Hollywood... looks at the Polanski case and says, 'You have to make allowances for genius'," said Gallagher.

Hollywood's elite also functions as a kind of club and Polanski, seen by the elite as a great European auteur director, is a firm member. That requires a certain degree of success but also a great deal of ideological conformity. It is a cliche that Hollywood is uniformly liberal in its politics, but one with more than a dash of truth in it. It is certainly interesting to see the reaction to Polanski's case and compare it with the reaction to Mel Gibson, when he was caught mouthing drunken anti-Semitic abuse.

Gibson, a rare conservative in Hollywood, was brutally condemned by his fellow stars and sent into virtual career exile. Polanski, whose crime is far more serious, has seen a vast outpouring of sympathy. Being a member of the Hollywood club certainly seems to have its privileges.

"The difference between the reaction to Gibson and the reaction to Polanski has been just huge. Huge!" said celebrity interviewer Gayl Murphy. "That says a lot about what Hollywood thinks is important to them."
In some respects, Polanski is a sympathetic figure. A diminutive man who survived the Holocaust and had his second wife, actress Sharon Tate, killed by the Charles Manson gang in 1969, he has certainly gone through his fair share of suffering in life. But his suffering does not give him a free pass to perform criminal acts on young girls. Perhaps those in Hollywood will eventually see this.

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