With the state Legislature forced to make dramatic cuts in the prison budget and a three-judge federal panel having recently ordered California lawmakers to release as many as 40,000 inmates in response to the scandalous overcrowding of the California state prison system, it seems like an especially inauspicious time for the L.A. County district attorney’s office to be spending some of our few remaining tax dollars seeing if it can finally, after all these years, put Roman Polanski behind bars.
As you’ve probably heard, the French-born filmmaker, who won a best director Oscar in absentia for the 2002 film “The Pianist,” was arrested by Swiss police late Saturday as he arrived to accept an award at the Zurich Film Festival. At the request of the L.A. County district attorney’s office, Polanski has been placed in custody -- the official terms is “provisional detention for extradition” -- awaiting a U.S. decision to make a formal extradition request.
Polanski has been living in France for the last three decades, directing films and raising a family with his wife, actress Emanuelle Seigner. He has been a fugitive from justice in the U.S. since 1978, when he fled the country on the eve of sentencing in a sex scandal involving a 13-year-old girl. The case has been a cause celebre for years, with charges and counter-charges rocketing back and forth, many involving the controversial efforts of the original presiding judge to put Polanski safely away behind bars. It added another dramatic chapter to a life of tragedy for the filmmaker, who fled the Krakow ghetto during the Nazi occupation not long after his mother was sent to the gas chambers. In 1969, his wife, Sharon Tate, then pregnant with Polanski’s child, was murdered by the Charles Manson family at a hillside home in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer, long ago announced that she had forgiven the filmmaker for his transgressions and supported various efforts to have the case against him dismissed. I don’t think that you’d find many people who would approve of Polanski’s behavior, which was disgusting -- he drugged his victim with Champagne and Quaaludes before raping her during a 1977 photo session at Jack Nicholson’s house.
But at a time when California is shredding the safety net that protects the poor and the unemployed, not to mention the budget of the public school system, you’d hope that L.A. County prosecutors had better things to do than cause an international furor by hounding a film director for a 32-year-old sex crime, especially one that Polanski’s victim wants to put behind her. As Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” ably chronicled, the original prosecution of Polanski was marred by all sorts of embarrassing missteps and strange behavior, largely by Laurence Rittenband, the original presiding judge.
Still, actions have consequences and Polanski’s sins have not been forgotten. He has been barred from returning to the U.S. and prevented from traveling to other countries, including England, because of extradition issues. His career has clearly suffered from his inability to work in Hollywood, where he made such celebrated films as “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” He has been embraced by many -- having won a number of awards over the years, but also shunned by a number of detractors. As he put it in his autobiography: “I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf.”
But he also has his stout defenders, notably French minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand, who said over the weekend that he was “dumbfounded” by Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland, adding that he “strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them.”
In the coming weeks, the Polanski affair will no doubt become a tabloid sensation, with op-ed moralists, excitable bloggers and the Glenn Becks of the world noisily weighing in on the propriety of his possible prosecution. Some will say Polanski is a predator whose punishment is long overdue. Others will argue that it’s the height of folly to be stalking an aging, 76-year-old man who has admitted his guilt and was long ago forgiven by his victim.
We live in an age that is so thoroughly post-modern that you can find an obvious literary antecedent for nearly every seamy media story line. The same goes for the Polanski case, which is full of echoes of “Les Miserables,” the classic Victor Hugo novel about Jean Valjean, an ex-con trying to turn his life around who is being obsessively tracked and hunted down by the Parisian police inspector Javert.
Hugo’s story is a tragedy, as is the life story of Polanski, who was a fugitive as a boy and is now a fugitive as an old man. Whether the L.A. County district attorney’s office has its way or not, it is not a story that can have a happy ending. I think Polanski has already paid a horrible, soul-wrenching price for the infamy surrounding his actions. The real tragedy is that he will always, till his death, be snubbed and stalked and confronted by people who think the price he has already paid isn’t enough.