Since fleeing the U.S. in 1978 before his sentencing for the rape and sodomy of a 13 year old girl, filmmaker Roman Polanski, 76, has lived an otherwise seemingly normal life in Paris with actress wife Emanuelle Seigner and their two children. Despite being wanted in the U.S. and banned from visiting this country, the director of such classic films as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown has worked steadily and in 2002 won an Academy Award in absentia for The Pianist. But now his recent arrest, where Swiss officials detained him when he arrived to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich Film Festival, may finally force him to answer for his crime.
Polanski isn’t the first filmmaker or artist who has had a brush with the law, but the charges against him are the most serious. Mel Gibson’s infamous DUI arrest in Malibu in the summer of 2006 created major controversy in the industry. The DUI, a quite common arrest among the acting community young and old, wasn’t really that big of a deal, although his mug shot was featured in the tabloids along with headlines such as Mad Mel. Instead many Hollywood insiders used the incident and his slurs against Jews to criticize him and the portrayal of Jews in his The Passion of the Christ.
Both Polanski and Gibson (at least at the time of his arrest) are represented by Jeff Berg, head of International Creative Management, ICM, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that Polanski was close to finishing the editing of his latest film, The Ghost, which is based on the novel by Robert Harris about a ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) hired to help a fictional former British leader (Pierce Brosnan), write his memoirs. Whether or not his arrest will prevent him from finishing the project, which still requires music scoring, sound mixing and other post production work, remains to be seen but no doubt will be on hold for now or for many months to come. The film had distribution deals in France and Germany, where the film was shot earlier this year, but not in the U.S.
The Hollywood community is usually much more forgiving than the public at large at separating the art from the artist. Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Woody Allen have all signed a petition calling for Polanski to be freed. Allen of course was the center of a major scandal in 1992 after it was revealed he was having a sexual relationship with Soon Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen’s long-time domestic partner Mia Farrow. At the time Soon-Yi was 21 years old, 35 years Allen’s junior, so no legal charges could be filed but many were disgusted by his acts and some definitely stopped going to his films. But now, the 74 year old filmmaker and Soon-Yi, his third wife, have two children and actors still clamor to work with the Academy Award winning writer/director who's made more than 35 films, including Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters in a career that has spanned more than 45 years.
While Gibson’s outburst threatened to overshadow his professional career for a while, he made many apologies to various organizations and did his obligatory stint in rehab and by the time Apocalypto was released later that year on December 8, his career was redeemed. Financed through his company Icon Productions, the film, which he produced and directed, was hailed by critics and received many awards. Gibson was given the Trustee Award by the First Americans in the Arts organization and he was also honored with the Latino Business Association's Chairman's Visionary Award.
Many other actors have been arrested for DUIs or punching out a photographer, a la Sean Penn, or a public dalliance with a prostitute—remember Hugh Grant’s apology on Jay Leno? But they keep on working. Robert Downey, Jr. overcame a well publicized battle of drug abuse and bizarre behavior to make a major comeback and draw big box office in the hit Iron Man. People may not forgive, but they do forget.
Perhaps it was the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that dredged everything up again. Filmmaker Marina Zenovich seemed to sympathize with Polanski and was damning of the original presiding but now deceased judge, Laurence Rittenband.
Sure, Polanski has a tragic past—his mother died in the gas chamber during the Nazi occupation of Krakow and his wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn child were murdered by Charles Mansion’s family. But what Polanski did is a major crime and even though the victim, Samantha Geimer, forgave him and settled a civil suit with him many years ago, the justice system obviously hasn't.