Why does Hollywood exonerate Roman Polanski?

To quote a blog post written by Salon.com’s Kate Harding:  “Roman Polanski raped a child.”  But Hollywood doesn’t believe it—or perhaps doesn’t care.

In the general public and among journalists, there’s no shortage of debate over the definition of rape, issues of parental complacency and age of consent—despite the fact that Polanski himself plead guilty to statutory rape over 32 years ago.  In this case we see the usual arguments about “when no doesn’t mean no” and delineations between “rape” versus “rape-rape.”  After centuries of condemning evidence, we still return to the usual justifications and excuses when a man in a position of power takes sexual advantage of a woman.

And, as usual, the arguments are heated, strongly divided and constructive answers remain hidden in the fray.  One thing remains clear, however: many celebrities believe Polanski should be exonerated for the crime.

Which begs the question: why?

Let’s take a swing at this, baseball-style:

  • It can’t simply be his membership in the celebrity club—O.J. Simpson and many others can attest that famous folk easily turn against one another.  Strike one.
  • It’s not his status as an artist—among the three or four exceptional films directed by Polanski, there’s also an expansive collection of mediocre vampire films and B-rate noir films.  An artiste he may be, but it’s still debatable whether or not he’s truly a good one.  Strike two.
  • While I marvel at conspiracy theories involving a Jack Nicholson coverup (the rape took place at Jack’s home), I don’t believe anyone in Hollywood is naive enough to suggest that Polanski is entirely innocent.   Strike three.  I’m out.
(Photo courtesy of YesorNoDC)

Roman Polanski and wife Sharon Tate (Photo courtesy of YesorNoDC)

Alright, let’s try again. Next let’s bring some pity to the plate:

  • Rosemary’s Baby was Polanski’s first hit in the United States after a long string of unsuccessful films.  He’s a man who struggled across literal and figurative oceans to reach his position. Low grounder; first base.
  • Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and his unborn child were murdered by the Manson Family in 1969.  Fair ball to deep left field; third and first base.
  • Polanski is a survivor of the Holocaust. It’s out of the park! Home Run!

Suddenly, Hollywood’s exoneration of Roman Polanski makes sense. American cinema has long held the tradition of building empathy for victims of tragedy; it longs to find the motive behind the mistake, a forgivable explanation.  Its greatest actors have created endearing characters out of despicable ones.  And sometimes, just sometimes, American cinema breaks the fourth wall and brings its ideals into the audience.

No one can argue that Roman Polanski has endured a lion’s share of heartache and tragedy in his lifetime—and I cherish Hollywood’s desire to forgive and forget.  But I wonder: would we still adore our tragic film heroes if they turned to evil while the credits rolled?  And for Polanski, does a lifetime of tragedy excuse a moment of villainy?