If a truly great artist engages in a truly awful crime, should our feelings about the art mitigate our feelings about the crime?
That is just one of the gut-churning questions being asked across the Web, as people consider the predicament of Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, sitting now in a Swiss jail and facing possible extradition to the United States for forcing sex on a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s.
And to many people, the answer is clear: Brilliant filmmaker or not, the man violated a young girl and needs to face justice for it.
“I wish to God he hadn’t done it,” said Frances Willington, a longtime Polanski fan and one of many who vented her frustrations online.
“I think he’s the greatest film director of my generation,” said Willington, who is British, in a follow-up interview from her home in southern France. But she was incensed by the immediate embrace of Polanski by some French cultural leaders, including the culture minister, who expressed outrage that Polanski was being “thrown to the lions.”
“They’re calling on people to sign a petition when this man is escaping the law!” said Willington, who works in marketing. “I don’t care if he’s made great films. I don’t believe that cultural and artistic ability exempts you from being morally correct.”
Though it was impossible to measure the balance of sentiment, on most sites there seemed to be many more postings calling for Polanski to face justice — particularly from people in the United States, but also from other countries. Many mentioned the sordid details of the case, which have grown foggy over time but have now resurfaced for all to see.
“All you fans need to read the court transcripts on thesmokinggun.com,” wrote one poster, Paul Cooper, on a Facebook page devoted to Polanski. “Roman is a pig. Read and learn.”
Polanski was accused of plying the 13-year-old girl, Samantha Geimer, with champagne and Quaaludes during a modeling shoot in 1977 and raping her. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy.
He agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse. In exchange, the judge agreed to drop the remaining charges and commute the sentence to the 42 days already served. But Polanski fled the country Feb. 1, 1978, the day he was scheduled to be sentenced, after hearing that the judge planned to add more prison time to the sentence.
Geimer long ago identified herself, and she has joined in Polanski’s bid for dismissal. She testified at the time that Polanski forced himself on her — which he acknowledged in his guilty plea — but has said she forgives him and wants the ordeal to be over.
‘Philistine collusion’ or justice?
Meanwhile, the director of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “The Pianist,” which won him a best director Oscar, is in jail, arrested just as he arrived in Zurich to be honored at a film festival — a development that stunned his colleagues.
A petition was immediately organized calling for his release, signed by prominent fellow directors including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, Ethan Coen and David Lynch, as well as actresses Penelope Cruz and Tilda Swinton.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the American figures on the list speak for all Hollywood, said Richard Walter, a longtime industry observer and a screenwriting professor at UCLA.
“Because they’re celebrities, their voices are heard much more than others,” Walter said. “But there’s not a shred of evidence that the majority of people in the entertainment business are sympathetic with Polanski’s position.”
To another observer, the support from Hollywood elite is a case of colleagues closing ranks. “This is people attempting to protect their own,” said Todd Boyd, professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California.
‘Let him enjoy the rest of his life now’
In online postings, some people noted that Polanski’s difficult past must be taken into account. He escaped the Krakow ghetto during the Holocaust, lost his mother at Auschwitz, and later in life endured the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by followers of Charles Manson.
Other defenders said they understood why Polanski had fled the country, and noted that the victim had already forgiven Polanski.
“In a way, I don’t blame Roman for fleeing,” wrote Donna Mummery, 52, of Shreveport, La., on Facebook. “Let him enjoy the rest of his life now. “He’s done a lot of good since that hard time in his life.”
Miami filmmaker Rodrigo Diaz-McVeigh agreed, adding that Polanski has shown over the years that he is not a danger to anyone.
“He’s not a threat to any child,” said Diaz-McVeigh, 22. “He’s gone through so much in his life. And then he went to Switzerland to do good deeds.” Diaz-McVeigh called himself a Polanski fan. “I just love his films,” he said.
But most people seemed to think this was the moment to separate Polanski the man from Polanski the artist — just as many did in June, when Michael Jackson died, leaving memories both of his professional greatness and his darker personal side.
“I still dance to Michael Jackson’s songs,” wrote commentator Susan Jane Gilman on npr.org. “Just as I buy Rolling Stones albums, watch Woody Allen films and adore Hemingway’s novels. The fact that many of these artists have treated women abominably and some have been accused of molesting minors does nothing to diminish their art in my eyes.”
“Great achievements should not be judged on the basis of personal conduct,” she wrote from Geneva. “But nor should a person’s conduct be excused by their achievements, either. At the end of the day, would we be OK with our 13-year-old daughter being drugged and raped by a 44-year-old?”