Like many, I’ve always been intrigued by Roman Polanski’s story. Born in France, but raised in Poland, Polanski survived the Holocaust by hiding in a barn in Poland’s countryside. His father survived the Austrian concentration camp he was forced into, but his mother died at Auschwitz. Polanski went on to become a famous and successful director of Polish films. After conquering the Polish film industry, Polanski moved west to France and England. It was in England that he meant and married the American actress Sharon Tate. They married in January 1968, but in August 1969 Tate — along with their unborn child and several others — was brutally murdered in a house in Hollywood by members of the Manson family. Polanski was in London at the time and was, originally, considered a suspect depsite the improbability of it.
So, wow, quite a story, right? Well, then we all know what comes next. In 1977, he rapes a 13-year-old girl he is supposedly photographing for some version of Vogue.
When I was at Sundance in January 2008, the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired was being screened. I dutifully lined up to see it, but was turned away as were many others. It was an incredibly popular film there. The good news, I was told, was that it had already been picked up by a distributor so that meant I would be able to see it at a later date. That date was last night.
The documentary contains interviews with Polanski’s defense attorney, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, the victim, the victim’s attorney, Polanski’s friends (including Mia Farrow), a gossip columnist at the time of the rape case, and even Polanski himself. The film is more than sympathetic to the rapist.
Polanski was charged with several crimes, including rape by the use of drugs and sodomy. The victim, through her lawyer, expressed her desire for a plea agreement. After all, she was 13 years old and folks were figuring out who she was; she was being harrassed and wanted to put the incident behind her. The ADA stated he was not interested in plea bargaining, so the victim’s lawyer went to Polanski’s lawyer who also said he had no interest in it. That was before the girl’s underwear was found and analyzed. After that, Polanski was very open to a plea. The ADA acqueisced in the victim and her family’s wishes, and Polanski pleaded guilty to the least serious of the sex charges: unlawful sex with a minor. Apparently, the sentence he faced for this crime was “indeterminate,” which seems to me that it could range from probation to fifty years’ imprisonment. This is where things go even more awry. I won’t go into too many details, but will say this: the judge may have been a little wacky, a little corrupt, a little unreliable and a little susceptible to public pressures, but Roman Polanski spent 42 days in a state prison for psychiatric evaluation before being sentenced and that is all the time he has ever served. The judge sentenced him to 90 days in the facility, but he was released early, presumably because he was not actually crazy. Apparently, this really pissed the judge off. According to the film, the judge had been prepared to give him the 90 days and then sentence him to probation, but because 90 days turned into 42, all bets were off. Now Polanski may have faced some time in county jail or something more serious. Though the judge still seemed all over the place in what he wanted. Putting aside the oddness of this (90 days is perfect, but 42 is outrageous!), it still seems to me to have been a &^%#$#* great deal for a rapist. Polanski’s lawyer tells him that he can’t trust the judge and that they can appeal whatever sentence he is ultimately given, but that appeals take time and he will have to be in prison during the appeal. Now, I know nothing, really, of California law, but I do know that’s it’s not terribly uncommon for a defendant to be free on bond pending an appeal when the sentence he received was small, like the one Roman would probably have gotten (had he gotten any time at all). I’m also not sure why Polanski’s lawyer waited so long to move for substitution of judge when, by all accounts in the film, the judge was not to be trusted by either party (when the defense attorney finally did move for substitution – after Polanski had fled – the ADA did not dispute the motion). In any event, hearing the news from his lawyer, Polanski gets on a plane to France and has never returned to the States. He can’t. He’s a fugitive and were he to do so, he would be arrested.
So, here we have a man who, at 44, with an incredibly successful film career, chose to rape, drug and sodomize a 13-year-old girl and then flee from the country when it came time for him to face his sentence. Now, all these years later, he is requesting to be forgiven by the American justice system from which he ran. And people are lining up to help him. The victim, it is said, now wants the case to be dropped because she is sick to death of it. I understand this position and I sympathize with it. But I’m fundamentally disgusted by the actions of this pig of a man. He is unapologetic about the rape (having flounted his relationship with a 15-year-old in the years prior to the rape, no one should really be surprised) and frank in his admiration for young women and girls. He was famously unfaithful to Tate and seems to continue to do just as he pleases. His career was certainly not harmed by his criminality (having won a best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2002). All that has happened to him, really, is that he is not allowed into the United States — a country not his own — without risk that he will be rearrested, taken to court and forgiven in front of a camera. Yup, that’s right. The film ends stating that the latest negotiations broke down because — despite California’s readiness to close the case — Polanski wouldn’t agree to appear if there was a camera in the courtroom. Yeah, because this guy is so afraid of publicity.