I never met Roman Polanski, although I certainly knew many of his friends, including the studio executive Thom Mount, who was “close to Roman” when the director escaped the US, and later went on to produce several of his films that were made abroad. Mount had been the executive in charge of Bustin’ Loose, a film I wrote for Richard Pryor, and produced my directorial debut, My Man Adam, a film about which the less said the better. (Mount is allegedly the inspiration for the novel and film The Player.)
Later, I wrote another movie – Enemies, A Love Story – that starred Angelica Huston, who was living with Jack Nicholson when Polanski got himself into trouble with the thirteen-year old Samantha Gailey at Nicholson’s house. Angelica was there that night, but Jack was not. By the time I worked with Angelica (1989), it was twenty years after the Tate-LaBianca Murders and twelve since Roman fled the country, but still you were aware that she had seen things few of us ever would.
So, although I never met Polanski personally, it was six degrees of separation. But there is nothing surprising in this. Few of us who have spent the last forty years in the twisted heart of “The Entertainment Capital of the World” were more than those six degrees from the charismatic Pole, even when he was on the other side of the globe. From the Holocaust to Manson, this man carried history on his shoulder in the most lurid sense.
Reading the news of his arrest in Switzerland has been surprisingly upsetting, but not because I have a strong opinion about whether justice should be served at this late date, thirty-two years after the fact. I don’t, although I am sure that the excuses that were made for Polanski at the time – that he didn’t realize the girl was thirteen, etc. – were utter baloney. (He had been receiving permissions from her mother to do a photo shoot, fer crissakes.)
No, it’s a deeper manipulation that disturbs me – something akin to the feeling I had watching The Pianist, Polanski’s 2002 film about a young Polish Jewish musician struggling to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto of World War II. It won Oscars for actor Adrien Brody, writer Ronald Harwood and for Polanski. The fans at the Internet Movie Data Base love it 8.5 out 10 and rank it #59 in the top 250 of all movies.
Not me. Lurking behind the stylish images and high art of The Pianist, I heard Roman Polanski talking to me. I heard him imploring me and saying – see what I have suffered, it was horrible beyond comprehension, you must excuse me anything I have done. I felt exploited and I didn’t like it.
Now maybe I don’t have a right to say this. I was born at the end of 1943 and the closest I ever came to the Holocaust were the numbers tattooed on the arm of one of the nurses in my father’s medical office. I didn’t suffer like Roman, hiding out during WWII like the hero of The Painted Bird. But perhaps this comparison is apt, because Kosinki’s novel has been accused of inauthenticity. Suffering from the Holocaust is not an excuse for bad behavior – or perhaps even, as is more accurate in Polanski’s case – allowing your personal demons to be an excuse for that behavior.
So I’m feeling exploited again, angry at U. S. authorities for bringing this up after all this time and angry at Roman for not facing the reality of his actions. None of this, as my grandmother used to say, is “good for the Jews,” especially at a time they have far bigger fish to fry. It is also worth noting, although cruel, that Polanski has admitted to being unfaithful to Sharon Tate during their very brief two-year marriage, an admission made only under oath many years after carrying the torch for Tate as if she were his own personal second Holocaust.
Look, Polanski is weak like the rest of us. But in the end, there is something about him that is a metaphor for Hollywood – despite that he has been exiled from here these many years. A tremendously talented man, he is the emblem of special pleading.
UPDATE: I see from the comments that a few readers think I condone Polanski’s actions. Not in the slightest. I called him the “emblem of special pleading” and tried to take it beyond what I assumed we all thought obvious – you don’t fool around with thirteen year old girls.