Judge 'The Pianist,' not Roman Polanski

Ah, the sweet smell of Oscar season in full bloom! Samantha Geimer, the woman who was sexually violated by "The Pianist" director Roman Polanski when she was a 13-year-old Valley Girl way, way back in 1977, recently popped up on ABC's "Good Morning America" and CNN's "Larry King Live," forgiving the director for his sins. She also penned an op-ed piece in this newspaper, gracefully saying, "No one needs to worry about me.... Mr. Polanski and his film should be honored according to the quality of the work. I think that the academy members should vote for the movies they feel deserve it. Not for people they feel are popular."

That was the last we saw of anything resembling goodwill. The reaction in hard-boiled Hollywood speaks volumes about why the Oscars have devolved from a classy night at the opera into a seamy murder mystery.

The question on everyone's lips: Who was behind Geimer's TV appearances? Was the leading suspect "Pianist" distributor Focus Films, betting that Geimer's forgiveness would cast Polanski in a more sympathetic light? Or was it Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, the dark prince of past Oscar campaigns, who somehow engineered the "Good Morning America" interview (after all, conspiracy theorists say, aren't ABC and Miramax both owned by Disney?) figuring the rehashing of Polanski's sordid escapade would nudge voters toward Miramax candidates "Chicago" and "Gangs of New York"?

Focus Films Co-President James Schamus says his company "unequivocally had no knowledge of her appearances" while Miramax spokeswoman Amanda Lundberg says her company had nothing to do "in any way" with any Geimer appearances. There seems to be no evidence driving the rumors except the cynical view that this is a contest no different from any hardball political campaign.

Now in her late 30s, Geimer comes off as a wholesome-looking suburban soccer mom. Asked why she hasn't seen "The Pianist," she explained: "I don't go for dramas. I'm more of an action-adventure or comedy [moviegoer]." She kept her poise, even when King walked her through her encounter with Polanski like a homicide detective, leeringly asking, "It was just straight sex -- nothing else? Did he ask you to do other things?" The most poignant moment came when Geimer tried to explain why her mother had allowed a 13-year-old girl to go alone for a photo session with the rakish film director. "We trusted him," she said. "We had no reason not to. He was a celebrity."

That's not to say that Geimer isn't media savvy. When King speculated that Polanski probably wouldn't even recognize her today, Geimer glanced around the TV studio and wryly replied, "He probably would now."

With "The Pianist" having emerged as a formidable best picture contender, especially after winning both film and director statuettes at the recent British and French awards ceremonies, Polanski's tangled life story has taken center stage again. But what has also taken center stage is an age-old debate over whether an artist's accomplishments should be judged against his misdeeds, a debate that has divided Hollywood many times over its history.

Always a fugitive

"The Pianist," which features Adrien Brody as noted Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, chronicles the lethal Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto, something Polanski experienced first-hand as a child.

In many ways, he has always been a fugitive. During the war he escaped through a gap in the wall of the Krakow ghetto not long before his pregnant mother was sent to the gas chambers. In 1969, after Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Charles Manson family, nasty insinuations by the media sent him fleeing back to Europe.

Even bastions of propriety like Time and Newsweek took relish in printing the grisly details of his wife's bloody demise, gossiping about her "shaky" marriage and describing the murders' similarity to nightmarish scenes in Polanski movies "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby." After being viewed more with suspicion than sympathy in that dark hour, when Polanski got word that the judge in the Geimer case planned to throw the book at him, he opted for fugitive status again.

For anyone who's seen 1974's "Chinatown," Polanski and Robert Towne's masterful portrait of corruption in pre-war Los Angeles, revolving around an oily paterfamilias who rapes his daughter and lusts after his granddaughter, the back-room events surrounding the 1977 sex scandal have an eerie resonance. For that matter, if Polanski's case had gone to trial, the resulting media circus might've had many of the outlandish shenanigans that dominate "Chicago."

According to Geimer's lawyer, Lawrence Silver, all parties agreed to a plea bargain allowing Polanski, who spent 42 days in jail undergoing psychological evaluation, to plead guilty to one count of having sex with a minor. "What the judge did was outrageous," Silver recently explained. "He approved the plea but [then] he called us into his chambers and said he was going to sentence Polanski, rather than for time served, to 50 years."

When I had lunch with the late producer Howard W. Koch several years ago, he told of being in the shower room at the Hillcrest Country Club when he overheard the judge boast that he was going to put Polanski away for the rest of his life. Koch phoned Polanski to warn him and, before anyone knew it, the director had fled to Paris, abandoning his Mercedes at LAX. The Superior Court judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, staunchly denied any bias against the director but ultimately removed himself from the case.

As for Polanski, once a fugitive, always a fugitive. Ever since he fled, he has lived in exile and semi-infamy, his career in decline until being resurrected by "The Pianist" and its moving portrait of a man saved by his art.

'Profligate dwarf'

Can Polanski be resurrected by his art? I realized I'd been watching Geimer's interviews -- and rereading her piece in The Times -- because I was wrestling with a nagging moral dilemma that I suspect has troubled many academy voters as well: How do we weigh someone's accomplishments against his personal misdeeds?

A tormented man who said in his autobiography, "I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf," Polanski has been repeatedly cursed by people's inability to distinguish between his art and his life. With "The Pianist" up for a best picture, can we judge the movie, not the man?

It's a question the academy has repeatedly confronted. When it comes to a disquieting penchant for underage women, no one can top Charlie Chaplin. His first two wives were 16 when they married him; he was 44 when he married the 19-year-old Paulette Godard, 54 when he married the 18-year-old Oona O'Neill. Before his final marriage, he was accused of violating the Mann Act after fathering a child with the young actress Joan Barry. After being labeled a Communist and threatened with deportation, he left the country in 1952, not to return until 1972, when the academy gave him an honorary Oscar.

Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar in 1999, despite having informed on his friends during a 1952 congressional hearing at the height of the same McCarthy-era Red Scare that sent Chaplin packing.

Want a more timely moral quandary? The No. 1 pop album in the country this week is R. Kelly's "Chocolate Factory." Should you buy a copy for your kid, even though the R&B; crooner is awaiting trial on child pornography charges in two states after allegedly appearing in a home video that shows him in a sexual liaison with a young girl?

For Polanski's admirers, it's the movie that matters. Warren Beatty, a longtime Polanski friend, calls "The Pianist" "an absolute masterwork. Neither a personal mistake nor the personal misfortunes of its creator are relevant to that."

In recent years, the Oscars have too often become a personality parade, influenced by a tidal wave of glossy advertisements and personal campaign appearances. But if you really take the Academy Awards seriously, you'd have to argue they matter too much to be treated as a popularity contest.

Weinstein and Scott Rudin often behave like schoolyard bullies, but they make great movies, and if you believe "Chicago" or "The Hours" is the year's best film, give those pictures your vote. Likewise for best supporting actress candidate Catherine Zeta-Jones. So what if she sold her wedding photos to a cheesy British fanzine and is now suing another rag for printing them first? Being tacky has nothing to do with being talented.

Artists are often unhappy, dissolute, disreputable people -- read a biography of Picasso, Ernest Hemingway or Jackson Pollock and see if you'd have wanted them living next door.

The truth is that we always forgive them their transgressions because, in the end, the inspiration we find in their art outweighs our disapproval of their brutish behavior.

No one loathed Kazan more than blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, but as he once told me, "I try not to confuse my moral hatreds with my aesthetic dislikes."

As time passes, the personal transgressions fade into the background; the artist's brilliance is what we cherish and remember.

Perhaps it's too soon for Polanski to receive absolution. But after seeing "The Pianist," I think it's time to put aside our qualms about his behavior and cast our vote for the best movie, even if it wasn't made by the best man.

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"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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