Immediately after Polanski's arrest, sympathetic narratives were easy to find—as were flat-out pleas for his release. "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," Patrick Goldstein sniffed, in an exemplary Los Angeles Times article. He also spared a few unkind words for anyone who felt differently: "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."
As it so happened, however, the price that Polanski paid was in fact not enough, at least not by the standards of the U.S. court system. And, thanks in large part due to a push back from feminists (notably Kate Harding, whose piece "Reminder: Roman Polanski Raped a Child" summed up most of the relevant issues right in the headline) it's not hard nowadays to find mainstream sources willing to call Polanski a rapist, and to demand that he be held accountable.
The people who stayed by Polanski, to increasing public denunciation, were artists—primarily people in film. A petition demanding his release framed the whole issue as a violation of artistic freedom: "It seems inadmissible to [us] that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him," it read. Signatories included Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, along with a mind-numbingly long list of other directors and actors. (When Wes Anderson released his first children's film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, in November, its delicate whimsy was somewhat marred by the suspicion that the director would have pardoned someone for molesting a member of its target audience, should that molester have the right resume.)
Writer Bernard Henri-Levy issued a steady stream of pro-Polanski statements, and another petition, this time with signatures by Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie. Debra Winger accused the Swiss government of "philistine collusion," said that "whenever this happens"—"this," you would think, being pretty rare—"the whole art world suffers," and expressed her anticipation for Polanski's "next masterpiece."
Conservative commentators, eager to spin another story about clueless Hollywood liberal elites, picked up the story and ran with it, and soon it was the ruling narrative: Slobs vs. snobs, aesthetes vs. philistines, the elite vs. the common folk, people who liked movies vs. people who thought convicted criminals ought to go to jail. Of course, there's no inherent opposition between those last two groups: Plenty of people who enjoyed Roman Polanski's work were also in favor of his arrest. But there was a disturbing tone in the responses of Polanski sympathizers, an ugly assumption beneath the talk: That being an artist, a great artist, confers certain privileges, and that one of those privileges is the ability to hurt people and get away with it.