Roman Polanski is 81 years old and shows no signs of retiring. He is currently in Paris directing a gothic musical version of his 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers. Earlier this year, his film Venus in Fur won him a César award for Best Director. He is now working on a film about the 19th-century French political crisis, the Dreyfus affair, which he hopes to shoot in Poland next year.
The shoot is significant for the director on a personal as well as a professional level; he was born to Polish parents in Paris and brought up in Krakow. Now, he said on Polish television this week, he wants to “show Poland, which they barely know, to my growing children”.
Who would begrudge an octogenarian Oscar-winner a touch of indulgence at this late stage in his career? To keep trucking on, to create and craft until your last breath, is generally considered a virtue in an artist.
Many a genius dies young, but those who are fortunate enough to be able to keep making work past pension age are afforded a special kind of admiration. The creative impulse is strong. It doesn’t wither and wrinkle at the same rate that the flesh does. But what if an artist keeps going when they really shouldn’t? And what if, like Roman Polanski, they should never have been allowed to reach a comfortable creative dotage at all?
There is a reason Polanski’s growing children barely know Poland. Their father, though his aged veins course with Polish blood, risks jail if he sets foot on Polish land. Poland has an extradition arrangement with America and Polanski has been wanted by the US police since 1978 when he fled the country after pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
He was 43 then. Following a photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s house, Polanski plied Samantha Gailey with champagne and half a Quaalude before sodomising her. He later drove her home to her parents’ where he smoked a joint and showed them the results of her topless shoot. Hardly the actions of a man who thinks he has done wrong.
That girl is now 51 years old; last year Samantha Geimer, as she is now called, published a book called The Girl: A Life Lived in the Shadow of Roman Polanski. Polanski, on the other hand, could not be said to have lived a life in the shadow of Samantha Gailey. In an interview with The Independent earlier this year, he said, “I would rather be known by my work than my notoriety.” To its discredit, the film industry has largely allowed that to happen.
Unlike his victim who has resigned herself to being known forever as “the girl”, Polanski is allowed multiple identities today, 37 years on from his crime. He is considered one of the world’s greatest directors thanks to films like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. He is also considered one of cinema’s great survivors: he lived through the Krakow ghetto, lost his mother at Auschwitz and saw his second wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn child, brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family.
His crime has brought with it inconveniences. Like the fact that Polanski can no longer live and work in Hollywood, or that when he won an Oscar for The Pianist in 2003, he had to accept it in absentia. (The Hollywood elite, sympathetic to a fugitive paedophile’s cause gave him a standing ovation anyway.)
In 2009, due to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, he was arrested and held for two months before living under house arrest for a further nine. Whoopi Goldberg and Robert Harris were among the artists to call his treatment disgusting; Harris is now collaborating with Polanski for a third time on the Dreyfus film.
This week in Krakow, Polanski’s “notoriety” caused him further problems. America issued another arrest warrant, but it was dismissed by the Poles. It now looks very likely that Polanski will be allowed to make his €35m movie, “a large-scale project, comparable with The Pianist”, according to its producer, in peace. Polanski told a Polish news channel that he hoped the question of extradition was now settled “once and for all”. He is, apparently, unstoppable but then as Geimer said of her ordeal, Hollywood folk tend to “get used to no one saying no”.
Perhaps, though, it is time to say no. The sleazy refrain of “they were different times” to justify unlawful sex does not wash, if it ever really did, in this new, grimly enlightened era. And as the case of footballer Ched Evans has highlighted, there are no degrees of rape. Whether an attacker is a famous film director, a footballer, or a mere fan matters little to his victim.
That Polanski made some of the great films of the last century is in no doubt. That he committed a crime, for which he served only 42 days before fleeing the US, is also in no doubt. That he is still permitted to work, and is frequently feted by, a billion-dollar film industry is a baffling disgrace.
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