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Roman Polanski threatens lawsuit against motion picture academy over expulsion

Roman Polanski threatens lawsuit against motion picture academy over expulsion
Director Roman Polanski photographed in 2017 at the Cannes Film Festival. (Valery Hache / AFP/Getty Images)

Just days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to expel Roman Polanski from its ranks, the director's attorney sent a letter to the organization Tuesday morning, arguing the move was unlawful and threatening to take legal action if Polanski is not granted a hearing.

In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Polanski's attorney, Harland Braun, said the academy had failed to follow both its own rules and California law in denying the Oscar-winning director a chance to present his own case. "We are not here contesting the merits of the expulsion decision, but rather your organization's blatant disregard of its own Standards of Conduct in, as well as its violations of the standards required by California Corporations Code," Braun wrote.

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The academy's board of governors, which includes such industry heavyweights as Tom Hanks, Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg, voted last week to expel the Oscar-winning filmmaker, along with disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, in accordance with new standards of conduct adopted by the group in response to the sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the industry since the fall.

Polanski, who has earned five Oscar nominations for his work on such films as "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby," pleaded guilty in 1977 to unlawful sex with a minor, then-13-year-old Samantha Geimer. Since fleeing the country, he has been living in exile in Europe for the past four decades and is considered a fugitive by the U.S. criminal justice system. Cosby was convicted of three counts of sexual assault April 26.

In January, the academy outlined new procedures for how claims of violations of its standards of conduct will be reported, investigated and appealed, even as it stipulated that the board retains the right to take action regarding a member's status "on any matter, whether submitted by the process outlined above or not." In his letter, however, Braun contends that California law requires that "the expulsion of any member must be done in good faith and in a fair manner."

"The only thing we're asking for is a hearing, a chance to present his side," Braun told The Times in an interview Tuesday. "What I would hope is that [the academy's legal counsel] would say, 'Let's avoid an expensive lawsuit. Let's just start over. We'll rescind the expulsion and we'll put him on notice that we're thinking of expelling him and we'll give you the opportunity to present your case.' That's the only rational thing. Otherwise, we've got to go to court and get a judge to rule that the academy has to follow its own rules, which should be a no-brainer."

Polanski, who served 42 days in Chino State Prison in 1977, has long contended that the judge in his case engaged in misconduct by reneging on the terms of his plea deal and that he should be allowed to return to America on time served. For her part, Geimer has publicly forgiven Polanski and joined Braun last year in an unsuccessful effort to convince a judge to free the director from his international warrant. In an interview with Vanity Fair last week, she called the academy's decision to expel Polanski "an ugly and cruel action which serves only appearance."

The academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Polanski's threat of legal action. But for the organization, the pushback from the filmmaker highlights the complications it could face in attempting to enforce its standards of conduct.

Indeed, some within the group have questioned whether the academy should be policing its members' behavior at all. Last month, producer and former studio executive Bill Mechanic resigned from the academy's board with a scathing letter that criticized the group, in part, over its handling of the issue. "The academy has no right to be in people's lives," Mechanic said in an interview with The Times. "It's not its role, and it has no skill in it and it's not set up for it."

In its statement last week expelling Polanski and Cosby, however, the academy reaffirmed its commitment to its standards of conduct, writing, "The board continues to encourage ethical standards that require members to uphold the academy's values of respect for human dignity."

Braun told The Times that Polanski was personally galled that an organization that gave him a standing ovation in 2003 when he won the directing Oscar for "The Pianist" had kicked him out without granting him a hearing.

"He said, 'They're a bunch of hypocrites,' " said Braun, who emailed a clip of that moment to the academy along with his letter. "When that award was given, everyone knew about the offense. It wasn't a secret. And all of the sudden, they turn on him and expel him without a hearing? … I think they thought this was an easy one: An 84-year-old director's not going to fight it, right?"

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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