The past plays on

Times Staff Writer

If there’s a moral dilemma in this year’s Oscar nomination race, it’s the question of whether a quarter-century-old statutory-rape case should weigh against director Roman Polanski’s semiautobiographical Holocaust drama “The Pianist.”

The unsparing film has already won the best picture award at Cannes, was nominated for a Golden Globe and is one of five best picture nominees in the Directors Guild of America and British film academy competitions. Based on the autobiography of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, “The Pianist” also depicts poignant details of Polanski’s life. As a 7-year-old Jewish boy, he escaped the Krakow ghetto by crawling through a hole in a barbed-wire fence.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 5, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 548 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar winner -- An article in Sunday’s Calendar on director Roman Polanski incorrectly stated that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” won the best picture Oscar in 1967. The winner that year was “In the Heat of the Night.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 09, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 111 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar winner -- An article last Sunday on director Roman Polanski incorrectly stated that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” won the best picture Oscar for 1967. The winner that year was “In the Heat of the Night.”

The film’s artistry has so far largely overshadowed a less sympathetic bit of personal history: Polanski’s decision in 1978 to flee the U.S. for France hours before he was to be sentenced for having sex with a 13-year-old San Fernando Valley girl 30 years his junior. The director, a French citizen, lives in Paris, unable to return without fear of arrest.


The Oscars have a way of forcing unpleasant confrontations between art and politics. The most recent example occurred four years ago, when the majority of the award show audience refused to give a standing ovation to director Elia Kazan, the recipient of an honorary Oscar. At the height of Hollywood’s Red scare in the early 1950s, Kazan, once a member of the Communist Party, informed on eight of his old friends -- an act that many Hollywood liberals were unable to forgive.

The 1970s saw speculation over whether Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave would lose Oscar support because of their activism on behalf of North Vietnamese and Palestinian causes. But Polanski’s case is unique for its emphasis on personal morality and the fact that, after so much time in a marginalized existence, the exile has a film that demands the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ attention.

Polanski is merely one of countless Hollywood figures who have had run-ins with the law and continued receiving acclaim -- from Charlie Chaplin (an underage sex charge) to the adorable Hugh Grant (paying a prostitute). Not to mention the rich history of celebrated outlaw artists, from Rimbaud (stabbing his lover) to author Norman Mailer, who stabbed his wife with a penknife and is now the white-haired eminence of American letters.

Some Oscar prognosticators suggest that a number of academy voters who admire the film will still oppose Polanski on moral grounds, while others might vote against him to save the academy from the embarrassment of an Oscar winner who cannot personally accept his statuette. They say it’s more likely this prejudice will play a role in voting for the Oscar best picture and best director winners than in the nominating process -- much the way citizens sometimes sign a petition to qualify a ballot initiative but ultimately cast their vote against it.

“A lot of voters are concerned about the kind of message that is sent to the world about the feature film industry,” said Rick Jewell, associate dean of USC’s School of Cinema-Television. “There’s so much attention focused on the thing he’s accused of. It would be really surprising for me if people could set that aside.”

Two competing sentiments may decide Polanski’s Oscar fate, observers say.

The first, which holds in the director’s favor, is the academy’s historic tendency to pay more attention to “important” films than purely entertaining ones when it comes to best picture. (For example: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” over “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, “Gandhi” over “E.T.” in 1982, and “Dances With Wolves” over “GoodFellas” in 1990.) Holocaust-themed movies in particular have dominated the documentary categories in recent years.


The opposing force is the heightened public revulsion of child abuse, fueled by a series of high-profile kidnap-murders, the rise of Internet child pornography and the more recent revelations of child molestation and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church.

For some Oscar voters, “What we may be dealing with is: Can the Holocaust trump child molestation?” said show business historian Neal Gabler, author of “Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity.”

“The Pianist,” a Focus film, opened in the U.S. in late December to generally excellent reviews. Its straightforward portrait of Szpilman’s unheroic exploits clearly struck a chord in Hollywood, where it is now considered a likely best picture nominee but is felt to be trailing “Chicago” and “The Hours,” the Oscar favorites. Nomination voting ended Wednesday; the results will be announced Feb. 11.

Speculation about Polanski’s chances runs in many conflicting directions. Four sample viewpoints: (1) Hollywood is a forgiving community, comfortable with the notion that people rise and fall and are redeemed. (2) Actors -- who are by far the largest branch of the academy, with 23% of its members -- are more sensitive to moral outrage and more likely to withhold support than, say, the directors branch. (3) The passage of so much time and the cloudy circumstances surrounding the case work in Polanski’s favor. (4) The fact that Polanski pleaded guilty before fleeing the U.S. works against him.

Even though Polanski’s most acclaimed work, “Chinatown,” was released before many of today’s movie stars were out of grammar school, the 69-year-old director still enjoys avid support in Hollywood as a model of the uncompromising, risk-taking artist who wishes to be judged only by his work. His refusal to do press interviews in support of the movie is hailed by Focus execs as a measure of his integrity, rather than a blow to the company’s Oscar strategy. “It’s not a strategy,” said Focus co-president James Schamus. “He has really wanted to let the film speak for itself....I have enough faith in the academy to think that when it comes to these kinds of decisions, they’re going to pay more attention to the movie than anything I as a marketer could do.”

Adds academy member Lili Fini Zanuck, whose producing credits include “Driving Miss Daisy”: “The day we start to make decisions on motion pictures based on the personal problems of the artist, that’s a very sad thing; that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”


A survivor of two tragedies

Polanski’s admirers judge him as a survivor of two tragedies -- the Holocaust, in which his mother died in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, and the murder of his pregnant wife, 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate, by members of Charles Manson’s gang in 1969. Tate was among seven people killed by Manson followers during two bloody nights. The spree came the same year Polanski had been nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of “Rosemary’s Baby.” He moved to France, then came back to Hollywood to earn his first best director Oscar nomination for “Chinatown” in 1974.

It was three years later, at 43, that the director met an occasional actress living in Woodland Hills who allowed him to take photos of her 13-year-old daughter -- ostensibly for a layout Polanski was shooting for French Vogue. After a tryout session, Polanski drove the girl to Jack Nicholson’s mansion when Nicholson was not there. According to the girl, Polanski gave her champagne and a quaalude and eventually had sex with her in a bedroom. Her mother went to the police, who soon arrested Polanski. Polanski did not deny having sex with the girl but said it was consensual.

The girl in the case is now a married 39-year-old woman with three sons, ages 9 to 20, who lives in Hawaii and works as a personal assistant to a businessman. In an interview last week, she said Polanski “made me have sex with him.” She said that while the act was technically a rape, “that’s not the word I usually use ... it conjures up images of [violent] things that weren’t what really happened.... Far worse [sexual attacks] happen to women all the time.” (The Times has a practice of not printing the names of sex-crime victims.)

The woman said she long ago forgave Polanski and hoped he would be allowed to return to the U.S. without having to serve additional jail time. She noted that he was confined for 42 days of psychological evaluation before his sentencing date and had paid a price by living in exile for so long. His return “would also be good for me” because it would remove her from the periodic media spotlight that accompanies stories about the director, she said.

Two weeks after Polanski was arrested, he was indicted by a grand jury on six counts, including rape, but reached a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to a lone count of having sex with a minor, punishable by six months to 50 years in prison. But fearing deportation or prison, Polanski fled to France, which does not extradite its citizens under any circumstances. He continued to make movies but never approached the critical success of “Chinatown,” although he did receive a best director Oscar nomination in 1980 for the romantic epic “Tess.” (By 2000, when he made the lukewarmly received occult thriller “The Ninth Gate,” starring Johnny Depp, he was reduced to explaining: “I needed work. I had to do something.”)

In the 1980s, Polanski’s victim filed a civil suit against him, and the two sides eventually negotiated a settlement. In 1997, there was a series of closed meetings in Los Angeles Superior Court between the director’s lawyer, prosecutors and a judge. That produced speculation that a deal was going to be cut to allow Polanski to return. One New York tabloid flatly proclaimed Polanski was moving back to the U.S. But nothing happened, and nothing is in the works.


“I answer a lot of these questions every year around Oscar time,” said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, adding sardonically: “When the daffodils come up in the spring, so does Mr. Polanski.”

Thom Mount, who produced three of Polanski’s movies (“Pirates,” “Frantic” and “Death and the Maiden,” the latter two of which were shot in Paris), said authorities and Polanski’s attorney were never able to compromise on an appropriate sentence that would have allowed him to return. Mount said the compromise became harder as Polanski grew older, married French actress Emmanuel Seigner and started a family.

“The current facts of Roman’s life, which are good news for him, and the current political environment -- a major move to the right, huge public scrutiny of every judicial or district attorney’s decision and consequences that exceed the act -- suggest that a compromise is less likely,” Mount said. “I don’t think there is any expectation on his part that this could or would happen.”

Prosecutor spokeswoman Gibbons said the district attorney is in no position to cut a deal with Polanski because he is a fugitive from the court, not part of an ongoing trial. “The court [still] has to sentence him” in some manner, she said, explaining that a judge would have to decide whether more jail time was warranted.

Three years ago, in an interview about his plans to make “The Pianist,” Polanski said he could never return to America because “the media has taken over the judicial system of the United States.... I think it would be hell, not from the system itself but from the media. I don’t want people hanging outside my door and antenna dishes in front of my window.”

He has also been unable to travel to Canada or England because of fear those countries would extradite him to the U.S.


In exile, but not marginalized

Mount says the director “remains cheerful and upbeat and very much a fan of many things American.... We might be talking on the phone and he says, ‘It’s 12:30, so you’re heading for Nate ‘n Al’s -- get a brisket sandwich for me.’ ”

It pains Mount that “the demonization of Roman Polanski in the public imagination has been successful. All I can say is, it’s a shame. We lose -- we, the filmmaking community, and we, the people of the country who are interested in the work of great artists.”

Polanski’s agent for two decades, Jeff Berg, rejects the notion that his client’s career has been marginalized by exile: “He’s been able to make what he’s wanted. He’s enjoyed creative freedom and final cut. He has a diverse career.” Berg says the success of “The Pianist” “has reawakened a lot of interest” in Polanski, but says it is premature to speculate on what a nomination, let alone an Oscar, might mean.

“It would be bittersweet” for Polanski to win in absentia, Berg says, “but I think Roman thinks he’s won already based on what’s happened so far, and anything beyond that would be a plus.”