Polanski & the Art of Celebrity Scandal

polanski300There’s been a barrage of news stories about director Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland and the flood of support he’s received from major figures in the entertainment industry, including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton, David Lynch, Harvey Weinstein, Julian Schnable and Michael Mann. Of course their support is quite incendiary because of the charges against Polanski: that he forced a 13 year-old girl to have sex with him.

Others have voiced outrage that Polanski’s receiving preferential treatment because he’s a member of the media elite. Talk shows, news columns, and social networks are abuzz – this is another salacious celebrity-driven story, after all.

The reason this sex scandal is on the front page of international newspapers is because it’s Polanski – a vaguely notorious figure (he claims that some people think he’s an evil elf) – with an incredibly dramatic personal story. If he had only been a survivor of the Holocaust (he subsisted as a Jewish child alone in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation) who became an internationally acclaimed director, that would be one thing. But add the fact that his stunningly beautiful wife and unborn child were murdered by Charles Manson and his ghastly crew, and you have a recipe for a true media frenzy.

It’s hard to imagine how much more fuel could have been added to the fire when Polanski, a popular party-guy in drug-addled Hollywood, was charged with child molestation in 1977. When he fled the country before sentencing (he heard that the judge wasn’t going to honor his plea bargain), he became a fugitive from justice and he single-handedly raised the bar for celebrity scandal. Add to all that an Oscar for best director for The Pianist, and you have one of the most compelling (and implausible) celebrity narratives of the century.

The key, of course, was that Polanski wasn’t just a bad boy, he was also a well-respected auteur. Undoubtedly, Polanski’s films reflect the gruesome plot-points of his own life. Repulsion is one of the more frightening examples of a femme fatale (this time, an icy Catherine Deneuve) in murderous action. The fulcrum of Chinatown – a grim piece of LA noir, laced with black humor – turns on child molestation, and The Pianist depicts with a clear eye, not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but an artist’s apparent inability to see it himself. And did I mention Rosemary’s Baby?

People who work within the dream factory – even those behind the scenes – become a part of the fantasy, and there’s a thousand reasons why Polanski’s particular trajectory, both in his private and professional life, continues to compel us. There’s just too much outrage, tragedy and decadence there for anyone to ignore.

The moral rift between the Hollywood elites and the masses that they entertain is age-old, and eruptions like this are an occupational hazard, especially for on-screen talent. Celebrities have found that it’s risky to speak up about political issues and when they do it’s usually against the wishes of their publicists. That’s why we included in our ‘Entertainment and Politics‘ survey some questions about what people think about the political savvy of celebrities. Generally, they didn’t think much of it, but it was clear that they paid attention and that, of course, is the reason why advertisers – including those that represent political candidates – engage celebrities in the marketing mix. It’s also the reason that some Hollywood talent – including Kirstie Alley, Sherri Shepard, and Alison Arngrim (remember Nellie on Little House?) – are coming out of the wood-work to denounce Polanski: while they hope to save themselves from the wrath of middle America, they probably realize they’re adding fuel to the media fire.

One thing that’s often left out of this wall-to-wall media coverage is that it was a documentary film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that triggered his recent arrest and the cavalcade of support and condemnation. Polanski’s lawyers felt that the documentary uncovered some facts about his trial that could result in a dismissal of the charges – especially a prosecutor’s insistence that he goaded the judge into giving Polanski a prison sentence. Their pursuit re-invigorated L.A. prosecutors and Polanski ended up in a Swiss jail. (In a bizarre art-meets-life twist typical of celebrity scandals, the ex-prosecutor now insists he was lying in the documentary in order to ‘liven it up a little.’) While people may sense that documentary films set out to have an effect on their audience – usually to educate them about a particular topic – we don’t necessarily think that a movie can trigger the imprisonment of a man and an international debate about sexuality, child molestation, and the stature of the artist in society. But it just did

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