Lost Innocence: Roman Polanski’s Unfinished Story

“September will be Roman Polanski month,” declares the New York Times. Polanski’s new film God of Carnage, starring Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, gets the prestigious Opening Night slot at the New York Film Festival, and the Museum of Modern Art runs a career retrospective of his work September 7–30. The scandal that keeps Polanski from showing up in person to all but get the key to the city seems not to have affected the appreciation of his work. That’s probably for the best, because the sublime can speak through any of us. But what does it mean when we so love the work of an artist that we feel obliged to sweep the master’s crimes under the carpet, lest they infringe upon our adoration?

“What happened to Roman Polanski was just not fair.” You hear it from any number of people: artists and writers, producers and directors, politicians and intellectuals, the wealthy and well connected. Roman is a great artist, everyone knows that. He has suffered deeply and lost much: his childhood to war, his mother to genocide, and his wife and unborn child to mad, cinematically brutal violence. 1977 was decades ago; now he is 78, with a wife and two children and a brilliant body of work. So much time has passed. So much has changed.

Granted, these three decades of irresolution have precisely one cause: Polanski’s flight at the moment suprême, on the cusp of his sentencing for a crime to which he pled guilty. The facts of the case remain clear: Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year-old child, and fled the country. Say it one more time, out loud if it helps: He drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. He was caught, he confessed, he was convicted, and he ran. He ran because he was scared that, even following a plea bargain, a zealous judge and prosecutor would still hang him out to dry. He abandoned his Mercedes at the airport and hasn’t set foot in the US since.

The girl’s account of her abuse at Polanski’s hands, given in 1977 to a Los Angeles grand jury, make his methodical, calculated approach – and his sense of entitlement – as legible as a theatre marquee. He had cast her in a photo spread for the French edition of Vogue. The scene was artfully directed. “Sit this way. Put on this shirt and don’t smile.” Later: “Here, take off your top now.” Still later, on the way to the jacuzzi after a phone call telling her mother they’d be late: “Take off your underwear.”

Step by step, he gets her where he wants her: intoxicated, isolated, intimidated. He is a mature man of 44, one of the most famous directors in Hollywood. She is a girl of 13, naked, alone, and dizzy with the champagne and Quaalude he gave her. Time after time she tells him “No,” says she wants to go home, heads for the door. Time after time he ignores or deflects her objections – engineering consent, or just inventing it. He penetrates her vaginally, anally. He comes to orgasm. The scene ends with her crying in the car.

No one argues Polanksi’s innocence, not even Polanski himself. What his defenders argue is that the rules should not apply to him – because he has suffered, because he’s a great artist, because he is not like us. To apply the rules to him is to be vulgar and vengeful, and to reflect the petty incomprehension of weak, common minds.

Put another way, there are two sets of rules. Why should Polanski and his victim answer to the same law? As Whoopi Goldberg put it, what happened wasn’t “rape-rape,” any more than Zeus “rape-raped” Europa. A god descended among mortals to take his pleasure. If someone’s daughter got hurt, those are the breaks. Lie back and enjoy your brush with fame. Hollywood is built on such stories.

Sexual abuse is a commodity in Hollywood. The act itself will get you an audition, a part, a deal. The trauma becomes a story, which pays off in talk shows, tabloids, maybe a book someday. Someone victimized you? That’s power. They owe you. Don’t think all those starlets are having sex with geriatric trolls because they love it. Want the golden apple, gotta bite the worm.

So when Whoopi talks “rape-rape,” here’s the translation: This girl was paying the price of fame. Her mother made the Hollywood deal. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the jacuzzi. Never mind the possibility that there was no such bargain made explicitly, and the fact that 13 is a little young to be making a pact with Satan.

Nothing has really changed since 1977; if anything, globalism has made it easier to create an international industry for thousands of young boys and girls to be enjoyed and discarded every day. In tiny villages and great capitals, children are drugged and duped and bullied, sacrificed to the depraved desires of any john who can pay the fare. If you showed Polanski’s defenders a Thai or Indian child sold into a brothel to support his or her family, they would rush to the rescue, and rightly so.

Yet to these same people, the victimhood of that 13-year-old girl in Hollywood is dispensable. Why? Because they have commodified their own experience as well as hers. How can the girl be a victim when she got paid? First it was with the promise of fame; then, years later as an adult, came the settlement money. When it’s a commodity, it’s not a crime. And they can believe that because they’ve shut off a part of themselves. They made the Hollywood deal.

What happens to truth in a world where such judgments prevail? It finds refuge in fiction. And for over 30 years Polanski has been running from the truth of his actions – all while unearthing indelible truths in a series of classic films. His work has earned the month of September honors given to him in New York because he is a gifted storyteller, with a lifetime of stories to prove it. But how does he tell this particular story to his children?

Laura Albert wrote the bestselling novels Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things under the pseudonym J.T. Leroy. As Leroy, Albert also co-produced the Gus Van Sant film Elephant. Albert wrote for the TV series Deadwood.

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