The Roman Polanski Case That Won't Go Away

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Roman Polanski, center, leaving the Santa Monica Courthouse in 1977

What Polanski did was terrible. But what the law did was also inexcusable.

In March 1977, Roman Polanski committed the most abominable of acts: He raped a 13-year-old girl.

There’s no way around it. No matter how much his friends and supporters might have created excuses to mitigate his dark deed — spreading reports that the girl was already sexually experienced and casting aspersions on the mother who’d left her alone with the director — the facts were incontrovertible. According to the director himself, he was guilty.

Let’s start with his version, not even factoring in the victim’s somewhat different account.

Polanski, then 43 years and famed as the helmer of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, had arranged to do a photo shoot for Vogue Hommes, with himself as photographer. A friend introduced him to a San Fernando Valley woman whose daughter seemed like a promising model.

After speaking on the phone with the mother (for whom Polanski uses a pseudonym in his 1984 memoir Roman by Polanski), “The next day, a Sunday, I drove out to Jane’s home at the far end of the Valley — a longer drive than I’d expected,” he writes. “The house was small and nondescript, a typically suburban, middle-income California house with an ill-kept lawn, a pool, and a two-car garage. Jane kissed me in the overly demonstrative way so many American women have [and then] showed me into the living room. A man was lounging in front of the TV set without really watching it. Over by the window stood a girl. ‘This is Sandra,’ Jane said. She told her to get a load of my aftershave. ‘Isn’t it great?’ The girl said, ‘Hi.’ She sniffed my cheek. ‘It’s all right.’ ”

The girl sniffing Polanski’s cheek was hardly sensational, he says, admitting he was disappointed. Still, he returned a few days later for the shoot. Venturing into some nearby hills, he says, “She removed her blouse and picked up another. She wasn’t wearing a bra but seemed entirely at ease — not in the least bit embarrassed. She had nice breasts. I took pictures of her changing and topless.”

At this point, one might start to question his judgment. But it’s when he and the girl meet for a third time, and a second photo shoot takes place, that bad judgment crosses over into criminal behavior.

After picking up “Sandra” (her real name was Samantha Gailey, as has been widely reported), Polanski took her to actress Jacqueline Bisset’s house. Deciding the light was wrong, he then drove her to Jack Nicholson’s home in the Hollywood Hills. The actor was away, but Polanski was a familiar presence there, and felt enough at ease to crack open a bottle of Crystal champagne, which he gave to the teenager, before proceeding to take pictures of her, topless, in Nicholson’s extra-hot Jacuzzi.

Here’s where his account and the teenager’s differ. She says he gave her a Quaalude, which he denies; he says she was a willing participant, while she says the opposite. “It was not consensual sex by any means,” she said later, even though she has since very publicly forgiven him and argued he should not serve more time. “It was very scary and, looking back, very creepy.”

That would seem to be backed by Polanski’s own admission that the girl feigned having an asthma attack; later, he learned she did not have asthma at all. “She said she didn’t feel good,” he writes. “ ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. She said her asthma was playing her up.… She was wheezing quite audibly by now. She picked up my towel and said, ‘I’d better rest awhile; otherwise I might pass out.’ ”

Moving into a ground-floor bedroom, “We dried ourselves and each other. She said she was feeling better. Then, very gently, I began to kiss and caress her. After this had gone on for some time, I led her over to the couch. There was no doubt about Sandra’s experience and lack of inhibition. She spread herself and I entered her.”

***

It’s been 40 years since that incident, and almost as long since police detectives apprehended Polanski at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, telling him he was under arrest for rape.

Here’s how the Daily Mail describes what happened next: “The director was initially charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. These charges were dismissed under the terms of a plea bargain, and he admitted a lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. An L.A. court ordered Polanski to report to a state prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. He eventually reported to Chino State Prison for the evaluation period, and was released after 42 days. There was a widely held expectation that Polanski would get probation at the subsequent sentencing hearing, but…the judge [allegedly] suggested to Polanski’s attorneys that he would send the director to prison and order him deported.’ With the threat of imprisonment hanging over him, Polanski fled.”

Like the surreal legal case that winds through Dickens’ Bleak House, this one never seems to reach an end. And every time it resurfaces, it sucks us in — or at least those of us who feel compelled to choose between justice and compassion.

The matter returned with a bullet this January following the announcement that Polanski (who fled to Paris in February 1978 and has been living there ever since) would preside over France’s most recent Cesar Awards; the outcry led him to step down soon afterward. And the case was back in the news yet again last week when a Los Angeles judge heard arguments about whether the director should be sentenced in absentia.

“In court,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “[his attorney Harland] Braun asked that prosecutors say what kind of sentence they would seek for Polanski if he returns to the U.S. He also asked the judge to sentence Polanski in absentia.… The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office objected to Braun’s request, saying it fell into a pattern of Polanski asking for special treatment. Deputy Dist. Atty. Michele Hanisee scoffed at Braun’s arguments to vacate a warrant for Polanski’s arrest or allow him to be sentenced before he returned to the country.”

Should Polanski be given that break? The question strikes deep at what is legally right and also ethically appropriate —and, as with everything concerning the director, I must admit to conflicted feelings.

Part of me wants to forgive Polanski, not because I’m an admirer of his work, and certainly not because he’s a celebrity, but because I can’t put aside the impact of his past: the nightmare of living through the Holocaust, and then the horror of losing his wife Sharon Tate, killed by Charles Manson and his murderous band. It’s more than any human being should have to bear.

Over the years,I’ve searched for a way to excuse his behavior, with his history being the main factor. And yet search as I might, I can’t get away from what he did. That a man who was so abused should himself become an abuser is not an excuse, given that he was old enough and wise enough to know better.

He hasn’t helped himself by repeatedly refusing to show penitence. Only once in his memoir (a one-time best-seller that now can only be found on the reference shelves of the L.A. library system) does he hint that his victim may have suffered, and, apparently, more because of the publicity than anything he did.

Asked to explain himself, he showed a glaring lack of remorse when he told novelist Martin Amis: “Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!”

***

That statement alone makes it impossible to forgive Polanski’s crime.

But the issue here is different. It’s not just a question of what he did, but how he should be treated by the courts. The legal system must be fair and seen to be fair, and yet it’s been anything but.

This weekend, watching the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, I was stunned by the behavior of the presiding judge in the original case, Laurence Rittenband. Not only did he consult his friends (and even a journalist covering the story) about the punishment he should dispense, but he also broke his promises to both the prosecution and defense. He may even have violated the law in sending Polanski to Chino for psychiatric evaluation, while admitting his real goal was to have him serve time.

To my surprise, I discovered that Polanski could have fled the country earlier, but didn’t, even while he was abroad for work. I was more surprised still that the prosecution, as well as the defense, agreed that the judge was prejudiced and should be disqualified. (He was eventually removed, though he never admitted wrongdoing.)

More than anything, I was struck with the words of Roger Gunson, the upright prosecutor. When asked in the documentary what he thinks of Polanski’s flight, he says: “I’m not surprised that he left under those circumstances.”

“Really?” says the interviewer.

“Yeah,” he replies.

It’s long been argued that nobody is above the law, and that Polanski should return to face his sentence. But nobody is beneath it, either, and yet Polanski’s treatment in the courts defies the imagination.

When the justice system proves seriously flawed, its flaws must seriously be rectified. Sentence Polanski in absentia. Justifying his absence does not justify his crime.

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