Second acts are not easy things to accomplish. Show biz is littered with singers, actors and comedians who were hot for a moment, and then public tastes changed, and they faded off into one-hit wonder status.
It’s a lot harder to claim a second act, though, when confronted with scandal rather than a fickle audience. Of course, one person’s scandal is another man’s juicy, titillating sideshow, and movie stars reap big rewards for well-publicized bad behavior — if, say, they are caught using drugs, or committing adultery. In some cases, scandal sells movie tickets. Not all audiences want wholesome or G-rated.
But not always. Sometimes the nature of the offense cuts into a deeper, gut-level sense of shock, anger, and disgust among the American public, a sense that this is not naughty behavior by overindulgent stars behaving badly, but something that truly could be considered criminal conduct. At that point, a second act seems like wishful thinking on the part of the star’s public relations team.
Consider the case of Roman Polanski, the film director who became embroiled in scandal in 1977 when he was arrested and charged with rape by use of drugs of a 13-year-old girl. Polanski would plead guilty to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, spend 42 days in California’s Chino State Prison, and, under the threat of an even lengthier sentence, flee the United States in February 1978.
In the decades since, there’s no question that public attitudes about adult men having sexual relations with minors has, if anything, hardened and become considerably less tolerant. There are fewer people among us who take a cavalier view of older men eying a minor, particularly in the Internet age when it seems tragically easy for pedophiles to target fresh-faced young girls and boys. Entire Cybercrime units that didn’t exist in 1978 now do nothing but search for online predators to apprehend. Well-publicized Internet stings and arrests of those marketing or buying child porn have left a jaded public all too aware of what sex offenders want from little ones. Today the urge is to circle the wagons and protect those vulnerable to exploitation. There isn’t much debate on whether these attitudes are a sign of an excessively prudish outlook; millions of Americans are united in one clear sentiment: if somebody did that to my son or daughter, I’d kill them.
But if the legal system or the Main Street public seemed unwilling to forgive, Hollywood was ready to acknowledge Polanski’s talent behind the camera. He continued to make movies in Europe, and just two years after he fled this county, Polanski’s movie “Tess” won three Academy Awards, and was also nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director. Polanski would actually win the Best Director Oscar in 2003 for his Holocaust movie “The Pianist.” Big stars like Walter Matthau (“Pirates”), Harrison Ford (“Frantic”), Sigourney Weaver (“Death and the Maiden”) and Johnny Depp (“The Ninth Gate”) have been willing to work with him. It all seemed like a classic second act in progress.
And then … Sept. 26, 2009. Arriving at the Zurich Airport for a film festival, Polanski is detained by Swiss police while trying to enter Switzerland. The arrest follows a request by the United States that Switzerland apprehend Polanski for extradition.
The Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police put Polanski in detention, and it appeared he was about to be transported back to the United States, for the first time in 30 years, to be prosecuted as a fugitive from justice. At the then-age of 76, it seemed likely he could spend his final years in a California prison, his film career over.
As this was going on, Hollywood and the general public again seemed to be moving in opposite directions.
While Polanski was under house arrest in Switzerland, more than 100 people in the film industry signed a petition calling for his release, including fellow directors Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. At the same time, The Los Angeles Times reported that its letters to the editor and comments on Internet blogs showed most readers thought Polanski belonged in prison.
He never got there, though. On July 12 2010, the Swiss court rejected the U.S. extradition request and released Polanski from custody, sending him back home to Paris. He quickly resumed his film career, directing the black comedy “Carnage” in 2011 with Academy Award-winning stars Jodi Foster and Kate Winslet.
And today? Polanski is on tap to direct “Venus in Furs,” a big screen version of the hit Broadway play by David Ives, and then “D,” a historic epic about the French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongfully convicted — Hmmm …. coincidence, or …. — of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island.
Polanski’s 1968 classic “Rosemary’s Baby” was released on Oct. 31 on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection classics series, to rave reviews as a horror masterpiece that hasn’t aged much at all in 44 years. Has art triumphed over scandal?
Another interesting hint of that is two books released this year about Polanski – and neither one concerned with his legal woes.
Davide Caputo’s “Polanski and Perception: The Psychology of Seeing and the Cinema of Roman Polanski,” is a dense, scholarly and academic look at how the director’s films brilliantly exploit the viewer’s nature of perception. Little of Polanski’s personal life interests Caputo much in his look at Polanski’s directorial talent.
David Ehrenstein’s “Master’s of Cinema: Roman Polanski” is a more universal and user-friendly celebration of Polanski’s overall body of work, from classics like “Chinatown” to lesser known works like “The Tenant” and “Bitter Moon.” And while Ehrenstein does open the book by noting that Polanski’s name is “synonymous with cinema and scandal,” it’s the cinema, not the scandal, that interests him.
There are moments in both books when the authors are practically gushing in their praise of Polanski’s best-known works.
What both of these very different books reflect is an appreciation within the world of film for Polanski’s lasting contributions to cinema – and a lessening interest in the question of whether justice was, or ever will be, applied to his fugitive from justice case.
Since it also seems likely that the United States will never get another shot at extraditing Polanski – who turned 79 in August – that case seems destined to quickly fade from the headlines, rarely resurfacing for an encore. What will be left is Polanski’s new films, which are certain to be readily available in U.S. movie theaters and on DVD, and his older movies, which may get rediscovered by younger audiences in coming years, for new debates among tomorrow’s film scholars.
It’s a sign of Polanski’s cinematic diversity that the Criterion release of “Rosemary’s Baby” has set off a dialogue exclusively among horror movie fans about Polanski’s contributions to that genre, which also include “Repulsion,” “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” “The Tenant” and “The Ninth Gate” — each one with legions of devotees, ready to passionately argue for hours on end why their personal favorite is his absolute best scare flick — period!
Fans of historic costume dramas (“Macbeth,” “Chinatown,” “Tess,” “The Pianist,” “Oliver Twist”) or dark edgy film noir political thrillers (“Chinatown,” “Death and the Maiden,” “The Ghost Writer”) could right now be having similar debates on college campuses or nearby coffee shops, or at film schools. Polanski’s work provides great fodder for these discussions.
Has it all been a miscarriage of justice? Let the legal experts debate that. The 2008 documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” by director Marina Zenovich suggested the California judge who originally handled Polanski’s case in the 1970s reneged on a plea deal for publicity’s sake, and Polanski’s victim has long since forgiven him publicly, urged Hollywood to honor his work, and moved on with her life.
What that leaves, then, is a continuing dialogue by film scholars, cinema fans and critics, who seem far more united in their view of the director – with very high praise for his overall body of work.
And as Caputo and Ehrenstein’s books demonstrate, Polanski’s dark cinematic films continue to fascinate, entertain and haunt viewers. Those who disagree will not participate in this debate, or even watch his films. And they will probably become lonelier voices, drowned out by those who rave about the sheer talent that Polanski continues to bring to the large screen.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..