Everyone’s Favourite Feminist Icon
Yesterday I was on Twitter and as I was reading through my newsfeed, I noticed a tweet written by a prominent feminist journalist discussing director Roman Polanski and some recent controversial comments he made about birth control (that it “masculinized” women). What caused me to pause and consider the tweet wasn’t her mention of Polanski’s comments, but the way she described him as “Rapist Roman Polanski” in her citation of what he said and the accompanying article that discussed his views on the subject.
For those of you not familiar with Polanski’s legal troubles, I encourage you to watch Marina Zenovich’s brilliant documentary on the subject, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, but essentially what this journalist is referring to is Polanski’s infamous sex abuse trial where he was charged with counts of statutory rape and sodomy, and in order to escape the wrath of the judge (who Polanski feared would go back on his word to keep him out of jail), fled to his native Europe after pleading guilty to having sex with a minor (the 13 year old Samantha Geimer) in the US.
Obviously this is highly problematic for a number of reasons that I shouldn’t even have to mention. Polanski as an older male and tremendously successful filmmaker had access to privileges we commoners could only dream of and never have taken for ourselves: women, drugs, a set a cultural rules that allowed him to act as he pleased, etc. However, all of this occurred in 1977 and it’s now 2013.
Since the time of his trial and trip overseas, Polanski has gone on to win numerous Academy Awards (that he has not been allowed to receive in person as he could not return to the US for the ceremonies) and continued to create brilliant films, all while the shadow of his legal drama continued to loom overhead as generations of film-goers were taught by their parents and older relatives that Polanski was a sex offender and criminal who just happened to create art, likening his productions to advanced versions of prison drawings. (Editor’s Note: Some pretty fucking impressive prison drawings.)
The man who crafted some of the most brilliant films of the twentieth century is not remembered as the innovator behind Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown, but as someone who belongs on Law and Order: SVU, thus creating a complex knot of public relations problems, Hollywood secrets, and the art vs. personal life separation. Hollywood executives were said to have sided with Polanski and his plight, and unsurprisingly, a lot of feminists do not agree with this strategy. They argue Polanski was an entitled male director who took what wasn’t his. Hollywood execs focused on the swingin’ 70s aspect of the French Vogue set where the incident occurred and said Polanski had been properly punished enough. Polanski was no longer an artist, he was a rapist, and given the tweet I just saw, apparently he still is a rapist.
Like the music of As I Lay Dying may never be the same for some due to Tim Lambesis’ current legal problems, watching movies like Rosemary’s Baby was never the same for those of us who knew what happened to Polanski in the 70s. I cannot watch that film without calling to mind the legal ordeals that came after for its director. Good or bad, my experience of what I consider to be one of the most terrifying and incredible examples of filmmaking is forever altered. I suppose the dilemma I am positing is the question: “Can an artist’s personal life ever become divorced from his or her art?” In other words, will our mouths ever stop uttering “rapist” immediately after one says “Polanski?” Polanski did, in fact, serve jail time for having sex with Geimer (who has said that the media has caused her more harm than Polanski ever did), a fact many are quick to forget.
He has also repeatedly apologized and stated that he will regret the incident for the rest of his life (obviously never a good enough penance for the gravity of his crime, but he does show remorse, which I suppose is a step along the right track). Polanski’s family was also victim to one of the most heinous crimes of the time when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family, an experience that has undeniably resounded throughout his work since (example: Faye Dunaway’s shooting at the end of Chinatown), as most of his endings are bleak and his tone always melancholy.
Clearly, the issue is complex and not simply black or white. At what point does calling Polanski a rapist become slander and unnecessary? Polanski does not deny he had sex with an underage girl, but 36 years later, are journalists still allowed in good taste to classify him in this way? The law says that he is a rapist because he, as a man in his 40′s had sex with a girl in her teens, an act that obviously is not morally sound or laudable at all and now would land him on the sex offender list for the remainder of his life.
However, at what point can we just talk about his art and not about him as a man? We know Ernest Hemingway (one of my literary idols) was a raging alcoholic and womanizer, yet we read him in American high schools year after year. We know William S. Burroughs was high out of his fucking mind while he was writing most of his early work, but he’s still considered one of our literary giants. Same goes for Elia Kazan, whose unorthodox directorial methodology some argue singlehandedly destroyed Natalie Wood psychologically by encouraging Warren Beatty to seduce the then unhappily married Wood while on the set of Splendor in the Grass to make the torrid onscreen romance of the characters seem more believable to the audience. Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain were all addicts too, but we consider them fallen geniuses. Michelangelo, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman were gay but they don’t teach you that in high school English either, we just read Leaves of Grass, look at pictures of the David, and learn about the Harlem Renaissance.
For those interested in watching some of Polanski’s films, I would recommend:
Rosemary’s Baby (1968, my favorite of all his films)
Death and the Maiden (1994, a brilliant adaptation of the play of the same name, read it first!)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
The Pianist (2002)
Has Polanski committed such a crime that we cannot attain this type of cultural amnesia when considering his work? We know Hollywood (as well as the Academy) has always been on his side, but will the public ever get there? Should they get there? What will it take to separate the man and his films? When will it be appropriate to study Polanski’s films without an asterisk after his name? I’m not saying we need to wipe his record or forget what he did, but I’m asking, what value comes from a constant rehashing of past offences when considering the material production of a (flawed) creator?
What do you guys think? Can you think of any other examples? Sound off in the comments!