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Polanski without the polemic

Writing about the lacrosse case has meant mucking around in the warped, self-serving reasoning of the culture-war polemic. Writing a polemical analysis means leading your readers by the nose to the chosen answer, and it means never having to say you’re sorry for failing to live up to any of the standards that you self-righteously hold your opponents to. The result is an unrelieved insult to the intelligence that many readers nonetheless take as flattery. I find the stuff morbidly fascinating but it sure gets depressing.

I should have made it a point to spend more time with higher quality work. This upcoming batch of posts won’t do much to correct the balance, but I want to at least give a nod to a couple of really fine crime articles I came across during my unplanned hiatus, both in my current periodical of choice, the New Yorker. One, written by David Grann and published back in September, is about a man executed by the state of Texas in 2004 who was almost surely innocent. The other one is a bit more recent, from December — Jeffrey Toobin’s article about Roman Polanski (“The Celebrity Defense,” but all that’s online is an abstract).

In fact I don’t have a whole lot to say about the articles themselves. A good analyst tends to disappear offstage so he can busy himself shining light on the subject. Polemical analysis is a much more selfish project. The writer has to constantly impose himself on the material to turn it into something that’s useful for his polemic, so his greasy fingerprints are all over the final product and they’re easy to single out and criticize. Toobin’s piece on Polanski is a fine piece of work but I’m finding that nothing I have to say about it as a piece of critical journalism is remotely as interesting as the subject matter. So, here’s my gloss — opinionated but hopefully not polemical.

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It’s a journalistic cliché, I know, but Roman Polanski has had a truly remarkable life. What he’s seen and done ranges from the very best to the very worst that life has to offer. His preteen years were spent in the Krakow ghetto during the Holocaust. Both of his parents were sent to Auschwitz. His father survived but his mother was gassed. He’s had tremendous artistic success and some commercial success, as well. He’s worked and played with the rich and the fabulous, in bed and out of it. When his wife Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with their child, she was murdered by the Manson family. They stabbed her 19 times and used her blood to write “PIG” on the front door.

In 1977, 8 years after Tate was murdered, he was hired to do a feature for Vogue — photos of “young girls seen through his eyes and possibly an interview,” is what Samantha Gailey’s mother remembered him saying when they met to discuss whether her daughter might be one of them. In retrospect, it’s obvious that she shouldn’t have sent her daughter off alone with him, and in fact she asked if she could tag along on the first shoot. He said no. Sometime in the middle of the session, Polanski told Gailey to take off her top. She did and he kept shooting.

A few weeks later he picked her up for another session. Their second stop was Jack Nicholson’s house, where he plied her with champagne and part of a quaalude tablet (Nicholson wasn’t home). He suggested that she pose in the jacuzzi. She stripped to her underwear and as she was about to step in he told her to take those off, too. He took a few pictures, then took off his own clothes and joined her. When he moved in, she faked an asthma attack and asked to be taken home, where she said she’d left her medication (she didn’t have asthma). He talked her into getting into the pool instead, but she got out after a few minutes and went to the bathroom.

At this point her account and his diverge. According to her, he had her lie down and started kissing her and then performing oral sex. She asked him to stop, but she was also “kind of dizzy” from the alcohol and drugs. He found out she wasn’t on the pill and couldn’t say when her last period was so he penetrated her anally, though again she asked him not to.

In his account, “…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 her experience and lack of inhibition. She spread herself and I entered her. She wasn’t unresponsive.” She was talkative on the drive home, and he “tried not to wince when she started spouting Shakespeare in a strong Valley accent.”

He was “incredulous” when he was arrested. “[He] couldn’t equate what had happened that day with rape in any form.” And it does seem that he honestly believed she was his for the taking and so, almost by definition, she couldn’t really object. He was 44 and she was 13.

I thought the petitions on Polanski’s behalf were ridiculous even before I read Toobin’s article, but now I’m thoroughly disgusted by them. Writing all this out is my own little protest, I guess (a late one, as usual). Woody Allen is a shameless lech and we already knew that. Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera, though? What the hell were they thinking? No amount of hardship or brilliance makes it tolerable to drug a child and then treat her like a pretty piece of meat.

The punishment for something like this usually strikes me as too little and too much at the same time, which is to say it doesn’t seem to fit the crime. A year or so in a chastity belt, chauffeuring Shakespeare-reciting valley girls who were victims of sexual assault might have been about right, with large, humorless attendants riding along to smack him if he tried anything. And perhaps, since he’s a master storyteller, he should have had to make a film about the real repercussions, for a child, of being casually used by an egomaniac and then thrown into a tabloid maelstrom.

Anyway, it seems to me that Polanski was lucky he was allowed to plead guilty to statutory rape and would have served little if any time if he hadn’t fled the country. But the crime is one thing and the justice system is another. The judge was “an eccentric figure on the Los Angeles legal scene,” “a querulous, domineering presence on the bench,” and “a peripheral Hollywood player.” He liked publicity, liked to put on a show, and didn’t mind throwing his weight around. With a different judge the case would probably have concluded with some approximation of justice and finality.

One thing about good critics is that they tend to be more friendly to ambiguity than the bad ones. Toobin, in this case, is able not only to acknowledge both sides of the story but to do justice to both of them. What he concludes is that “celebrity warps the criminal process, and not always in a predictable direction. In Polanski’s case, the effect of his celebrity was doubly, and inconsistently, pernicious; it obscured both how badly Polanski treated his young victim and how badly the legal system treated him.”