Forty years ago this week, Roman Polanski went from being one of the most celebrated film-makers in the world to becoming the United States’ most notorious fugitive from justice.
On 1 February 1978, after 42 days in jail, Polanski fled the US while awaiting final sentencing, having pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. On these facts, everyone agrees. There are no hazy conspiracy theories – we know exactly what happened because Polanski admitted to it and later wrote about it in astonishing detail in his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, published six years after he left the US and went to France, where he still lives. There are some quibbles about who said what, but the generally agreed facts are as follows: in March 1977 Polanski, who was then 43, took a child, Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), who he knew was 13 years old, to Jack Nicholson’s house to take photos of her for a magazine. There, he gave her champagne and, according to her, quaaludes. He then had sex with her, drove her home and, the next day, was arrested.
The facts have never altered. What has changed is how this case is discussed in the public sphere. For a long time, the simple – and somewhat simplistic – divide was that while people in mainland Europe viewed Polanski as a tragic artist undone by US prurience and corruption, Americans saw him, as he put it in his autobiography, as “an evil, profligate dwarf”. But, in truth, for many British and US actors, working with Polanski never lost its cachet, and arguably had even more once he became excluded from the US mainstream. Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet and many more have appeared in Polanski movies in the decades since his conviction, and questions about why they were working with a convicted child rapist were seen as tacky, proof of a rigid mind more focused on gossip than art. When Winslet was asked last September whether she had any qualms about working with Woody Allen, another director accused (but, unlike Polanski, never arrested and never charged) of a sex crime against a minor, she replied: “Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.”
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke last October, the reaction among the movie industry was wide-eyed shock that someone so many of them knew and worked with could be a rapist. “I didn’t know. I don’t tacitly approve of rape,” said Meryl Streep. And yet only a decade and a half earlier, Streep had stood and applauded when Polanski won best director at the 2003 Oscars, not so much tacitly approving rape as explicitly celebrating a convicted child rapist. If only anyone had known about Weinstein they would never – never! – have worked with him, movie insiders say. And yet, for the past 40 years, many of them have been falling over themselves to work with a self-confessed child rapist, even defending him by pointing to his artistic credentials. Debra Winger described Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland in 2009 as a “philistine collusion”. Reactions to Weinstein come soundtracked with the distinct sound of bandwagon-jumping; thanks to the #MeToo campaign, the public mood is firmly on the side of listening to victims, and Hollywood has keenly followed suit. On Sunday night, at the London Critics Circle awards, only months after defending Polanski and Allen, Winslet spoke tearfully about “bitter regrets I have at poor decisions to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not. Sexual abuse is a crime, it lies with all of us to listen to the smallest of voices.” Yes, if only there had been some way Winslet could have known about these decades-old cases before signing on to work with two directors accused of sex crimes! This kind of hypocrisy about Polanski makes you wonder how serious the industry really is about dealing with this problem, as it claims to be.