Commentary: Polanski's fame doesn't mean he's above the law

The Miami HeraldOctober 8, 2009 

Somebody please help me with this. Obviously, I'm missing something.

So we've got a 43-year-old man who takes a 13-year-old girl into a hot tub. According to the girl, this is what follows: He gives her part of a Quaalude and some champagne. He gets into the hot tub, naked. She flees to a bedroom. He follows. He puts his mouth to her vagina. He removes her panties. He asks if she is on the pill. She is not, and he asks if she wants him to penetrate her anally instead. She says no. He does anyway. During all this, she's begging him to stop.

In court, he admits to having sex with the child. He admits he knew she was 13. He is indicted on six charges. To spare the child the pain of testifying, the DA agrees to let him plead guilty on a single lesser charge. The man spends 42 days behind bars for pre-sentencing diagnostic tests. In 1978, on the eve of his actual sentencing, he flees the country and returns to his native France. He is finally arrested 31 years later.

And now he is the victim?!

I have no idea how anyone arrives at that conclusion. I could not arrive at that conclusion with a GPS navigator.

Yet the case of director Roman Polanski, now 76 and in a Swiss jail fighting extradition to the United States, has attracted a slew of high-profile defenders. French and Polish officials have condemned his arrest, which came last month at a film festival in Zurich. Filmmakers like Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese have reportedly signed a petition calling for his release. Whoopi Goldberg, splitting legal hairs down to the micron, argues that because he pleaded to a lesser charge, Polanski is not guilty of " 'rape,' rape." Producer Harvey Weinstein refers to Polanski's "so-called crime."

Polanski's defenders would want you to know that he's experienced tragedy in his life. He is a Holocaust survivor. His wife was murdered by the Manson gang.

They'd want you to know he settled a civil suit brought by his victim, who has forgiven him and doesn't wish to see him punished. They'd want you to know the original trial judge is alleged to have improperly discussed the case with a prosecutor who was not involved in it.

All of it's true. None of it matters.

At this point, it might be valuable to try a little brain exercise. Imagine for a moment, we were not talking about Roman Polanski, the celebrated director. Imagine, instead, it was Roman Polanski the bus driver, Roman Polanski the accountant or architect who had -- apologies to Whoopi Goldberg -- raped a child and then fled the country to avoid punishment.

Would we still be having this discussion? Would he even have defenders?

Of course not.

People often speak of Hollywood's values as being out of sync with the nation's. But though it may flatter us to believe that, it's a specious argument. Zombieland made $25 million last weekend. You do not sell $25 million worth of any product in three days at less than $10 a unit, unless you are closely in sync with what your customers want.

No, this episode says less about Hollywood's values than its sense of its own exceptionalism, e.g., the belief that because a person is famous, beautiful, talented, we should expect and overlook such petty eccentricities as occasional rudeness, chronic vanity or -- cover your eyes, Whoopi -- the odd rape of a 13-year-old girl.

That sense of exceptionalism is enabled by fans and media when we use terms like "troubled" and "bad boy actor" to describe behavior that would leave us cursing if the person in question were not someone we "know" because we saw him in a movie.

We treat fame like a free pass from judgment or consequence, so it's no surprise some people are signing petitions on behalf of poor Roman Polanski.

Consider this my counter petition. May he get what's coming to him -- with interest.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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