After directing "Rosemary's Baby" in 1968, the 35-year-old Polanski was the toast of Hollywood, but his flight curtailed his career. Nonetheless he still directed "Chinatown," a film noir classic, and "The Pianist," for which he won an Academy Award in absentia. He also plays the part of a nasty enforcer in "Chinatown," sticking a knife up Jack Nicholson's left nostril and then slicing it, a gruesome scene.
Despite a U.S. arrest warrant hanging over his head, Polanski lived openly in Paris and travelled freely around Europe, seemingly without fear of being apprehended. Perhaps he should have paid closer attention to American Westerns. Then he would have known that once you get your picture on a Wanted poster, it's for life. "Wanted Dead or Alive," a very popular '60s TV series starring Steve McQueen, imprinted this fact of American justice on my generation.
L'affaire Polanski has led to a trans-Atlantic legal and cultural tug-of-war between America and France, with both societies viewing each other with mutual incomprehension.
The French cultural elite are outraged. They see Polanski as first and foremost a distinguished auteur, whose base behavior of 31 years ago should be forgiven; since in their eyes it pales into insignificance beside his contribution to the art of film making. Therefore, he should be treated differently from common people because he is different - he's a great artist!
Great artist or not, everyone is equal before the law in America, including presidents. Americans are appalled by the French rationale. How can they defend a sexual predator that plied a 13-year-old girl with drug-laced champagne, then raping her? Polanski's lame excuse was: "She was a mature 13-year-old."
But defend him they did. Many prominent members of the French elite - including Frederic Mitterrand, the cultural minister, and Jack Lang, a former cultural minister - spoke with one shrill voice: "Free Roman Polanski!"
Some of the harshest criticism of America came from Mitterrand and Lang. The former spoke of "a scary America that has just shown its face." while the latter said that the "American system of justice had run amok." But Mitterrand's defense of Polanski became untenable when it was disclosed that the minister himself had been a sex-tourist in Thailand, paying to have sex with young men there.
Hollywood is clearly in a dilemma over how to respond to l'affaire Polanski. It doesn't want to lose face with the Cannes film festival elite, nor does it want to be out of step with the rest of America, which considers Hollywood to be morally bankrupt.
Two of America's most famous filmmakers, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, did come to Polanski's defense, along with a few producers, directors and actors. Most of Hollywood are reticent, though, reluctant to contradict American justice and to take sides.
I was curious if Woody Allen was going to comment on l'affaire Polanski, or keep his opinion to himself. After all, he began having sex with Mia Farrow's adopted Korean daughter when she was only 14 years old. Such behavior would have put him in a jail cell with Polanski had it been uncovered at the time. And given that Scorsese portrayed the seamy world of a 13-year-old prostitute in "Taxi Driver," his defense of Polanski is dubious, as well.
Speculation that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would play a decisive role in the legal proceedings, by pardoning Polanski on his return to California, was dashed when the governor publicly and emphatically affirmed that "No one is above the law!"
L'affaire Polanski has become good fodder for "Doonesbury," by Garry Trudeau. The cartoonist loves to lampoon the politically powerful, the politically correct and the rich and famous in his syndicated comic strip. Now Hollywood apologists for Polanski are being ridiculed in the strip; especially Harvey "Sid" Weinstein, the producer, who called the rape of a 13-year-old girl a "so-called crime."
Sex scandals have been a feature of Hollywood since the days of silent films. The most notorious one was that of "Fatty" Arbuckle, who starred as a loveable, childlike fat man in the Max Sennette comedies. In 1921, Fatty was accused of raping a party-girl at a party in his house. Although he was found innocent, straitlaced America was scandalized when details of Fatty's (and Hollywood's) hedonistic lifestyle came out at his trial - he was hardly childlike.
Another sensational Hollywood trial featured Errol Flynn, a swashbuckling matinee idol. Well, Errol liked the young ones, leaving himself open to a blackmail trap set by the mother of an underage girl. At his salacious trial in 1942, the mother was exposed as a blackmailer. Errol then returned to his favorite pastime, picking up girls in his convertible outside of Hollywood High.
France has harbored other convicted criminals evading American justice. Polanski was followed by Ira Einhorn, a '60s radical from Philadelphia who presided over the first Earth Day in 1970. Like many of his ilk, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman come to mind, Einhorn sank into obscurity after the protest era petered out. In 1979, he caused a sensation when he was charged with murdering Holly Maddux, his Texas girlfriend.
The wily Einhorn was released on bail pending his trial. Days before the 1981 trial he jumped bail. He surfaced in France a few years later, living there under the alias of "Eugene Mallon" and becoming a cause celebre during his extradition trial. Einhorn was extradited to Philadelphia in 2001. And he too learned that once you get your face on a Wanted poster, you can run but you can't hide from American justice.
John Sheridan .
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