It’s 40 years this week since the director and convicted sex offender went on the run. What does his continued success reveal about the film world’s true attitude towards sexual assault?
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.
By the beginning of this century, while the general American public remained firmly set against Polanski, the mood in Hollywood was openly in his favour. There was that applause from Hollywood luminaries when he won the 2003 Oscar (Polanski, of course, did not attend the ceremony, as he was still officially on the lam). In 2008, film-maker Marina Zenovich caught the mood and pushed it further with her documentary, the queasily titled Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which argued that Polanski was the victim of gross judicial misconduct during his case. (In one of those ironies we can only appreciate in retrospect, this documentary, which presents an energetic case for the defence of a sex offender, was produced by the Weinstein Company.)
Zenovich’s movie focuses on how Polanski had the misfortune to come up in front of Judge Lawrence Rittenband, who was obsessed with self-publicity and determined to make an example of Polanski. Rittenband was thought to be considering sentencing him to 50 years in prison, which was when Polanski fled. Much emphasis is made in the movie about how Polanski’s celebrity hurt him during the trial, which is true. But Zenovich does not mention how it also helped him. Polanski was originally indicted on six counts of criminal behaviour, to which he pleaded not guilty. But Gailey became so frightened by the attention the case attracted, because of Polanski’s fame, she tried to withdraw from it entirely. As a result, her attorney arranged the plea bargain, in which five of the charges were dropped and Polanski pleaded guilty to statutory rape, which was the least serious charge against him.
Like all arguments in Polanski’s defence, the documentary stresses the previous tragedies in his life: his mother, four months’ pregnant, was killed in the Holocaust; his wife, eight months’ pregnant, was brutally murdered by the Manson family. But one can have enormous sympathy for those losses, and also feel that offering up dead women as mitigating factors for raping a girl doesn’t really wash.
I wrote about the documentary for this paper when it came out, as it struck me as astonishingly exculpatory. After all, no matter how badly the legal system failed Polanski, this didn’t cancel out the fact that he raped a child. But I was, it turned out, grossly out of step with the times. Readers, acquaintances and even friends couldn’t tell me enough how wrong I’d got it. By now, celebrities were falling over themselves to defend Polanski. He hadn’t committed “rape-rape,” Whoopi Goldberg said on TV. “Very clearly, and he’s proven this, Roman Polanski is not a predator,” Johnny Depp said, apparently unaware of the child-rape issue. When Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in 2009, where he was jailed for two months and then put under house arrest (the house, in this case, being a chalet in the Alps), Debra Winger claimed “the whole art world suffers”. A petition demanding his release was signed by more than 100 actors and film-makers, including Emma Thompson (who later asked to have her name removed), Yasmina Reza and Tilda Swinton. Harvey Weinstein wrote an open letter in his support, in which he claimed: “Whatever you think of his so-called crime, Polanski has served his time.” Supporting Polanski became like owning a Prius: something any fashionable, well-heeled liberal should do.
Well, eight years is a long time in sexual mores. Weinstein is now firmly banished and actors are apologising for appearing in Woody Allen movies. And yet Polanski’s name is mentioned only sporadically, even though he is the only one with an actual conviction. Moreover, more allegations have been made against him: in 2010, British actor Charlotte Lewis said Polanski abused her in 1983 when she was 16. Last year, four more allegations emerged: former US actor Mallory Millett said Polanski tried to rape her in 1970; German actor Renate Langer said the director raped her in Gstaad in 1972 when she was 15; a woman identified as Robin M said Polanski assaulted her in 1973 when she was 15; and a third, Marianne Barnard, accused him of assaulting her in 1975 when she was 10. Polanski denies the claims.
In recent months, Polanski’s supporters in Britain and the US, who were once so vocal in his defence, have been notable by their silence. So I decided to ask them how they felt about Polanski now. I start by emailing Zenovich to ask if she feels attitudes towards Polanski have changed since she made her movie and its follow-up, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, about the Zurich arrest. But she is too busy preparing for Sundance to engage. I then contact 25 actors who have worked with Polanski since his arrest, including Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, Kim Cattrall, Pierce Brosnan and Jodie Foster. Some don’t reply at all, despite repeated approaches. A few will only talk off the record. The rest say they are too busy. Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for The Pianist, was “unable to participate due to schedule”. Kingsley, who has worked with Polanski multiple times, would “need to pass”.
I then contact the film-makers who signed the 2009 petition demanding Polanski’s release, including David Lynch, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. Again, some ignore me, a couple will talk off the record, some are too busy to talk at all. Alexander Payne is currently “focused on his new baby”. Tilda Swinton “would like to graciously pass on being interviewed”. Only one person who signed the petition agrees to speak on the record: the actor Asia Argento, who has since accused Weinstein of abusing her.
I ask why she signed the petition in the first place. “I was asked by friends from the Cannes film festival to sign it. I foolishly went along. That’s no excuse, and it’s a decision I regretted almost immediately and have regretted ever since,” she says. “The more I’ve learned about the original case and subsequent events, the more horrified I have become.”
Since Argento went public with her allegations against Weinstein in October, a lot has been written about how the film industry will no longer cover up abuse. But I ask her how it feels to see Polanski, a convicted sex offender, still held up as a celebrated director, and what it says about the industry’s true feelings about women and girls. “It speaks terribly of the industry,” she replies. “It’s shocking that people like Polanski are still revered, celebrated by actors and fellow film-makers and cinematheques around the world who continue to not only promote their work, but also to work with them. I hope the tide is finally turning.”
While researching this article I had a couple of off-the-record discussions with actors and film-makers about their true feelings about Polanski. One admitted they regretted their previous support, given the new allegations, but couldn’t bring themselves to say so publicly. But mainly I heard people insist their friend is not a rapist. They trotted out the familiar defences: the Holocaust and Sharon Tate, of course. “It was a long time ago” was another one, as was: “He’s served his time.” (Legal experts say if he were tried for that crime today he would likely get three years in jail.) Two said to me that it was a “special situation” because “the girl had been up for it” (this was a common theory at the time. The probation report described Gailey as “physically mature” and “willing”). “Samantha has said that the trauma she has experienced in the past few decades has had a greater impact on her than the original crime,” one said to me, which is doubtless true. But Gailey wouldn’t have had to endure any attention if Polanski hadn’t raped her.
It’s remarkable how much energy Polanski’s supporters have expended defending him, given that the director himself has always been extremely clear about why he did what he did: he is sexually attracted to ‘young girls’, and he has never seen this as a problem. After all, when he was told he was being arrested for rape he was genuinely shocked: “I was incredulous; I couldn’t equate what had happened the day before with rape in any form,” he writes in his autobiography.
The year after he fled the US he gave an interview to Martin Amis, in which he declared: “Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls – everyone wants to fuck young girls!” (Amis, clearly shocked, wrote: “Even Humbert Humbert realised that young girls don’t really know whether they are willing or not. The active paedophile is stealing childhoods. Polanski, you sense, has never even tried to understand this.”) After Tate was murdered in 1969, when Polanski was 36, he spent time in Gstaad, where he slept with schoolgirls aged 16 to 19, who were, he writes, “more beautiful, in a natural, coltish way, than they ever would be again”. In 1976, he met Nastassja Kinski and, according to his autobiography, slept with her. When he then learned she was only 15, he continued to sleep with her for several months, he wrote. In 1986, he met the woman who would be his next wife, the actress Emanuelle Seigner. He was 51. She was 18.
Polanski’s autobiography was written seven years after his arrest, and his account of the crime does not smack of a man overly burdened with feelings of guilt. He describes grooming Gailey on the drive to the photoshoot: “I asked when she’d first started having sex,” he writes, as if that’s a normal thing for a 43-year-old man to ask a 13-year-old girl. At Jack Nicholson’s house, she tells him she’s thirsty, so he gives her alcohol. “We weren’t saying much now,” Polanski writes. “But I could sense a certain erotic tension between us.”
Gailey sensed something different. According to her grand jury testimony, she repeatedly asked him to take her home and she was “afraid of him”. When he started kissing her she told him: “No – keep away.” When he performed oral sex on her she was “ready to cry” and asked him to stop.
Polanski recounts what he describes as “making love” so sexily you can practically hear his heavy breathing. “There was no doubt about her experience and lack of inhibition. She spread herself and I entered her. She was not unresponsive,” he writes.
This is how Gailey recalled the crime: “He placed his penis in my vagina. I was mostly just on and off saying: ‘No, stop.’ But I wasn’t fighting really because there was no one else there and I had no place to go. He didn’t answer me when I said no … Then he lifted up my legs farther and he went in through my anus.”
Afterwards, in Polanski’s car, Gailey cried. But he doesn’t mention that in his book. Instead, he describes trying to arrange a date with her.
Polanski will turn 85 this year, and he has lived almost half his life under the shadow of what Weinstein described as “his so-called crime”. Polanski’s own attitude has remained bullish; in October last year he gave an interview in which he focused his ire on the judges who let him down. “I know what I am, what I have and haven’t done, how things really were and are,” he writes at the end of his autobiography. Thanks to the candour of Polanski, the rest of us have always known, too – including everyone in the film industry who has worked with him since.
- This article was amended on 30 January 2018. An earlier version said that three more allegations emerged against Polanski last year. In fact the number was four.