With news that Roman Polanski has won the best director award at the Berlin Film Festival for The Ghost Writer, a film he did post-production on while "in jail," according to star Pierce Brosnan in an interview with CNN (whom I also interviewed for The Ghost Writer), my own mixed feelings about the director are coming to a head. I've seen The Ghost Writer and I liked the movie very much, especially the more I thought about it. I'd like to see it again. I like Polanski's other movies quite a bit as well, especially as I've gotten older and revisited them.
But as a feminist, I have a hard time reconciling that someone I consider an extremely gifted writer and director also pleaded guilty to "unlawful sex with a minor." (You can read the transcripts of the grand jury testimony on The Smoking Gun, if you have the stomach for it, because it's not a matter of the girl simply being underage, but of him drugging and raping her despite her repeatedly telling him no and asking him to take her home.)
In fact, the real crime he's wanted for is fleeing sentencing. It's entirely possible that what seems like a slap on the wrist for such a crime these days was viewed as overly harsh in the '70s, when no didn't always mean no even when uttered by a drugged minor. And I've seen Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and despite the SNAFU of his sentencing process, I still think, Christ, couldn't he just have done the time? I've read Hollywood Babylon and its follow-up, and I am no naïf. I don't excuse his behavior at all, but I also don't think it's uncommon, obviously. Not in Hollywood, and not among "real" people. I'm not an apologist, not for Polanski nor for others who commit similar crimes. His comment that "Everyone wants to f- young girls!" is disturbing, to say the least.
As Dennis Lim articulated so well in his New York Times article on Polanski, "While Mr. Polanski's films are generally not self-revealing in any literal sense, he invites psychobiographical criticism because he has been, for almost his entire career, that relatively rare entity: a celebrity director. His persona is so much a part of the public imagination that it looms even over a movie as devoid of autobiographical echoes as 'The Ghost Writer,' which had its premiere Friday at the Berlin International Film Festival and opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday."
So here is the age-old question of art versus artist - can we celebrate the art and ignore the artist and his/her life, actions, or beliefs? Can we ignore Wagner's anti-Semitism and still enjoy the Ring Cycle? Or do those beliefs inevitably filter into their creations? It's impossible to ignore the parallels between Polanski's real-life experiences and his movies, not only because I believe they are reflected in his work but because they are so much larger than life, it's hard to believe they wouldn't worm their way into anyone's brain and color whatever comes out of it. Making Macbeth after the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate? Tess starring his rumored 15-year-old lover Nastassja Kinski?
So I can't help but think that whatever part of his psychology that led to his actions formed the art of his that so many revere. Does that make us, in turn, complicit when we enjoy his films? Or, for that matter, the people who work with a man that is hailed as a cinematic genius?