Updated on May 4, 2018
In March of 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles for charges emerging from a sexual encounter he had had with Samantha Gailey, then 13 years old: The 43-year-old Polanski, she said, had given her champagne and a quaalude, and then had raped her. Polanski, in response to the charges, eventually struck a deal: He pled guilty to a blanket count of unlawful sex with a minor. In exchange, he had hoped, he would move on with his life in Hollywood.
Polanski, since then, has existed in a kind of limbo: of social status, of legality, of celebrity, of morality. And also of geography: Just after he struck the bargain that would allow him to retain his freedom, Polanski learned that the judge in the case had had a change of heart and would reject the deal. To avoid direct punishment for the crime Gailey had accused him of, Polanski fled to Paris, and has lived in Europe ever since. All the while, however—because Hollywood is a place that is also a dream—he has continued to make movies. He has continued to win awards. He has continued to be, even in awkward absentia, a member of Hollywood’s woozy elite.
In 1981, Polanski was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, for Tess.
In 1984, he published his autobiography, Roman. In it, he teasingly referred to girls as being “sexy, pert, and thoroughly human” and to appreciating Gstaad, Switzerland, on the grounds that the city is populated with “hundreds of fresh-faced, nubile young girls of all nationalities.”
In 2003, he won the Best Director Oscar, this time for The Pianist.
Polanski, through all this, has retained the most basic avatar of breezy impunity: his position as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has been one of the people charged with determining the films that constitute the best of what American cinema—as a business and as an artistic pursuit and as, the Academy is fond of suggesting, a matter of humanism itself—has to offer. Which is also to say that, more practically, he has been one of the people who shape what American popular culture chooses to see and to celebrate in its entertainments. For years, there Polanski remained: a reminder of who loses when celebrity is pitted against decency, and a testament to Hollywood’s great capacity to say one thing about itself and mean, in the end, quite another.
Until, that is, this year. On Thursday, the Academy announced that it had expelled Polanski, along with Bill Cosby—making the two men only the third and fourth people to have been ousted from the organization over its long history. The first was Carmine Caridi, of The Godfather movies, who broke AMPAS rules by sharing a copyrighted movie screener with a friend. (The friend proceeded to share the screener with everyone else, via an upload to the internet.) The second was Harvey Weinstein, expelled in October after an emergency meeting of the Academy’s Board of Governors. Weinstein was cast out, the organization said in a statement, “not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues, but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”
The elephant in the screening room in all this, of course, was Roman Polanski. The Academy may have spoken of the evils of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior; there, though, all the while, was Polanski. There, all the while, were the other women—a second, and then a third, and then a fourth—who would follow Samantha Gailey in accusing Polanski of assaulting them as teenagers. And yet, at the same time: There were the award nominations. There were the glittering trophies. There was the crowd in the Kodak Theater in 2003, erupting into cheers when Harrison Ford announced that Polanski—unwilling to reenter the United States, on account of the rape charges—had won the Best Director Oscar.
Thursday’s announcement is the most basic—the most tragically minimal—gesture the Academy could make. There are no congratulations to be had here, only the scant satisfactions of an extremely belated decision. And Polanski, tellingly, will be appealing the ruling; the director’s lawyer told Vanity Fair on Thursday evening, “We want due process.” (He added, without a note of irony, “That’s not asking too much of the Academy, is it?”)
The news means that Polanski, who has long been a symbol—of hypocrisy, of complacency, of the friction-filled path to even the smallest realizations of justice—is now a symbol in another kind of way. His shamefully belated ouster suggests that, perhaps, the Academy’s actions might be edging ever closer to the Academy’s words: The era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. Cosby’s expulsion, after all, came when it did because of a news event: A week ago, on April 26, the actor and comedian was found guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand. The Academy, in other words, had a specific incitement to remove him—if also belatedly—from its ranks.
Polanski, however, represented a murkier proposition. His criminality had long been known; it had simply been overlooked. The man who pled guilty to the rape of a 13-year-old has been defended by the likes of Martin Scorsese (“Polanski’s films have influenced me as an artist all these years and his terrible political situation has been something we have all had to suffer through”), and Debra Winger (when someone like Polanski is arrested, she argued, “the whole art world suffers”), and Quentin Tarantino, and also—most passionately, most vociferously, most ironically—Harvey Weinstein. Polanski was “a great artist” and “a humanist,” Weinstein insisted. And “whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time.”
Today, though, an Academy that has become notably more diverse in recent years has decided that, perhaps, there are better ways to punish rapists than by showering them with awards. That, perhaps, Roman Polanski has not really served his time. That, perhaps, Hollywood’s definition of humanist might be in need of amendment. So Polanski is a symbol yet again: of progress, and of its opposite. Of justice, and of the resistance to it that can take the shape of human stubbornness. Polanski is punished, minimally; Polanski is appealing that tiniest measure of accountability. (That’s not asking too much of the Academy, is it?) And while he may have been expelled from the Academy, he retains that more obvious icon of gilded Hollywood status: Polanski, the Academy also announced on Thursday, will be keeping his Oscar.