A cultural divide over Polanski

From Michael Moore's politics to on-screen sex and violence, the movie business is constantly being assailed for not sharing the country's values. Rarely has the morality argument been as rancorous as with the Roman Polanski case.

Hollywood is rallying behind the fugitive filmmaker. Top filmmakers are signing a pro-Polanski petition, Whoopi Goldberg says the director didn't really commit rape, and Debra Winger complains "the whole art world suffers" in such arrests.

The rest of the nation seems to hold a dramatically different perspective on Polanski's weekend capture. Even if decades have passed since he fled Los Angeles before his 1978 sentencing, Polanski must be extradited and serve his time, the thinking goes. There's no excuse for forcing sex on a 13-year-old girl. People who defend him have no principles.

In letters to the editor, comments on Internet blogs and remarks on talk radio and cable news channels, the national sentiment is running overwhelmingly against Polanski -- and the industry's support of the 76-year-old "Pianist" Oscar winner.

How can Hollywood (where it's almost impossible to find anyone publicly condemning Polanski) and almost everyone else see the same story in an opposite light? Is it proof that the movie business is amoral, or just that it believes that Polanski has suffered in his personal and professional life and paid his debt to society? Is Hollywood's position that we're-better-than-you elitist while the rest of the country's is everybody-obeys-the-law populist?

"The split between what the rest of the world thinks about Polanski and what Hollywood thinks about Polanski is quite remarkable," said film historian David Thomson. "It proves what an old-fashioned and provincial club Hollywood is. People look after their own."

When Mel Gibson launched into an anti-Semitic screed following his 2006 arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence, hardly any Hollywood leaders -- agent Ari Emanuel and Sony studio chief Amy Pascal among the few exceptions -- publicly rebuked the actor. The criticism of Hollywood at the time was that in a business contingent on relationships and currying favor with the powerful, no one was willing to denounce such a prominent artist.

Melissa Silverstein, who runs the feminist movie blog Women & Hollywoodanti-Semitic screed and does online marketing for films aimed at women, was angered by the industry's reaction to Polanski's arrest and found the silence of disapproval "deafening."

"I think people are afraid to talk in Hollywood. They are afraid about their next job," she said. "I don't know where the women of Hollywood are. This is an opportunity for them to stand up for their daughters."

Jonathan Kuntz, a visiting professor in UCLA's Cinema and Media Studies school, said the local reaction may be a version of the "there, but for the grace of God, go I." "I think that there are a lot of folks in Hollywood in the late '60s and '70s who may have done a lot of things they weren't really proud of, and may have been participating in very similar things," Kuntz said. "And it touches on a question that's been around for a long time: whether the celebrity is above the law."

Some of the industry's most prominent women said they believe Polanski, who faces a sentence as low as probation and as high as 16 months in prison for pleading guilty to having sex with a minor, should be freed. "My personal thoughts are let the guy go," said Peg Yorkin, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "It's bad a person was raped. But that was so many years ago. The guy has been through so much in his life. It's crazy to arrest him now. Let it go. The government could spend its money on other things."

The victim, Samantha Geimer, who reached a private settlement with Polanski, has said the charges against the director should be dismissed.

Film executives and artists who support Polanski say the director of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" was unfairly targeted twice: first by the since-deceased Superior Court judge who reneged on a sentencing deal, and second by the Los Angeles district attorney's office for arranging his arrest when he arrived for the Zurich Film Festival, where Polanski was to receive a lifetime achievement award.

More than 100 industry leaders and prominent authors -- including directors Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Neil Jordan -- have signed a petition asking that Polanski be released from Swiss custody. "Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision," the petition says.

On the television show "The View," Goldberg said, "I think he's sorry. I think he knows it was wrong. I don't think he's a danger to society."

In an opinion piece in London's the Independent, Weinstein Co. co-founder Harvey Weinstein, who is circulating the pro-Polanski petition, wrote: "Whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time. A deal was made with the judge, and the deal is not being honored. . . . This is the government of the United States not giving its word and recanting on a deal, and it is the government acting irresponsibly and criminally."

In an interview, Weinstein said that people generally misunderstand what happened to Polanski at sentencing. He's not convinced public opinion is running against the filmmaker and dismisses the categorization of Hollywood as amoral. "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion," Weinstein said. "We were the people who did the fundraising telethon for the victims of 9/11. We were there for the victims of Katrina and any world catastrophe."

Producer Bo Zenga ("Scary Movie," "Soul Plane"), is one of the few executives taking a different view. "I don't actually believe that people in Hollywood would put protecting their own above a 13-year-old girl who was raped," he said.

"I think these people have honestly forgotten what this is really about. Everyone needs to go back and read the grand jury testimony to remember how vicious this rape was because right now everyone thinks we're debating whether or not Polanski got a raw deal. It irritates me that people around the world think that all of Hollywood is saying that the rapist is the victim. Because I don't feel that way, and neither do most of the people I talk with."

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