Celebrity, Law and Sensationalism: The Arrest of Roman Polanski

Few directors are more fascinating than Roman Polanski. His life and films have an inexplicable relationship between life and death that is wonderfully complex yet absolutely horrifying. This filmmaker, who teeters on the edge of genius and disturbing, has been one of the most polarizing figures of the last decades because of the horrific nature of his personal life and decisions. This fact has become glaringly apparent following Polanski’s Sept. 26 arrest in Switzerland. Yet what makes Polanski’s case intriguing is not whether or not he is guilty for having sex with a minor—that is a proven and accepted fact. It is how, since 1977, this case has blurred the lines between celebrity status, media sensationalism and just legal action.

Polanski was born in 1933 to Polish immigrants in Paris; his family returned to Krakow in 1936 and were forced into the Krakow ghetto in 1939. While Polanski escaped the ghetto in 1943 at the age of 10, his mother was killed in Auschwitz. Beginning in the 1960s, Polanski established himself as a great filmaker in Poland and France with such films as Knife in the Water (1962). His Hollywood breakthrough came in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby It was the year after his initial Hollywood success when Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered when she was 8 1/2 months pregant by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. Before Tate’s murderers were discovered, the media—at its unbiased best—accused Polanski for the murder, thus establishing Polanski’s tense relationship with the media.

Of course no other incident has affected Polanski’s life and career than his 1977 arrest and guilty plea for unlawful sex with an underage minor. Judge Laurence Rittenband resided over the case and the trial quickly became more about the media frenzy than actual justice. In the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Rittenband is described as a conflicted and sometimes corrupt judge obsessed with maintaining a certain media image. Rittenband would often hold press conferance in his chambers to discuss the trials proceedings and kept a scrapbook of his previous celebrity trials. This action only increased the media hype surrounding the Polanski trial, which because of the directors heritage also attracted attention in France and Poland. Soon the trial was not only affecting Polanski’s life but the victims, Samantha Geimer as well. Her name was leaked to the press and her family was scrutinized by the media. Geimer has since said: “The judge was enjoying the publicity. He didn’t care about me, he didn’t care about Polanski. He was orchestrating some little show that I didn’t want to be in.” When it was ­decided that Polanski would serve prison time in 1978—in spite of the family’s plea that he not be imprisioned and court documents proving that Polanski was not a threat to society—the director left the country and has never returned. Both Roger Gumson, the prosecuting attorney, and Doug Dalton, the defense attorney, admitted that Polanski was treated unfairly by the court and are not surprised he left the country.

Polanski and Geimer settled a civil suit in 1997 and she publically forgave him. That same year, an attempt to settle the case failed, reportedly because the court requested to televise the precedings; Polanski refused to participate although the charges would have been dropped. Since then Geimer has stated that Polanski has suffered enough and appealed to have the charges against him dropped. At the time of his arrest, Polanski had also appealed the case on the grounds of misconduct the prosecution.
Here lies the problem: Polanski evaded capture by US authorities for 31 years while maintaining a practically infalible image in Europe and in Hollywood. Rather than be made an example of, as Judge Rittenband often declared he wanted to do, Polanski has had continued success. The standing ovation Polanski received when he won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Director verifies that this is not a man who is loathed for his transgressions but is respected by his peers. This is further realized by the fact that more than 200 film industry professionals including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, have signed their names to a petition demanding Polanski’s release.

The Polanski case began before the current time of media oversaturaton, before 24 hour news stations, before the OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson trials and before celebrities were endlessly exploited by the tabloids. This case has become apart of that craze in the worst possible way. It is not that US authorities are wrong to arrest Polanski; what is wrong is how the media continues to feed off a 30 year old story that none of the affected parties wish to be reminded of.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 8, 2009

Reprinted with permission

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