Whitewashing Roman Polanski

More than 30 years after he raped a 13-year-old girl, the fugitive director hoped a skewed documentary would reopen his case. Thankfully, a judge said no dice.

Published February 19, 2009 11:36AM (EST)

Bad art is supposed to be harmless, but the 2008 film "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," about the notorious child-sex case against the fugitive director, has become an absolute menace. For months, lawyers for the filmmaker have been maneuvering to get the Los Angeles courts to dismiss Polanski's 1978 conviction, based on supposed judicial misconduct uncovered in the documentary. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza ruled that if Polanski, who fled on the eve of his sentencing, in March 1978, wanted to challenge his conviction, he could -- by coming back and turning himself in.

Espinoza was stating the obvious: Fugitives don't get to dictate the terms of their case. Polanski, who had pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, was welcome to return to America, surrender, and then petition the court as he wished. Indeed, the judge even gave Polanski more than he deserved, saying that he might actually have a case. "There was substantial, it seems to me, misconduct during the pendency of this case," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Other than that, he just needs to submit to the jurisdiction of the court."

Polanski deserves to have any potential legal folderol investigated, of course. But the fact that Espinoza had to state the obvious is testimony to the ways in which the documentary, and much of the media coverage the director has received in recent months, are bizarrely skewed. The film, which has inexplicably gotten all sorts of praise, whitewashes what Polanski did in blatant and subtle fashion -- and recent coverage of the case, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and elsewhere, has in turn accepted the film's contentions at face value.

For now, the Los Angeles judge has injected a dose of reality into the debate. But "Wanted and Desired" seems to have inserted into the public consciousness the idea that Polanski, an irrepressible European, had been naughty during a colorful time, and that he has been toyed with by a monstrous legal system. Creepy and disturbing, the film does show us a few of the director's moral warts. But it leaves the strong impression that Polanski was a wronged man, jerked around by a cartoony, publicity-hungry judge to the point where fleeing was his only viable option.

"Wanted and Desired" is directed by Marina Zenovich. Previously she had made well-received documentaries about the Sundance Film Festival and France's charismatic Bernard Tapie, who owned a chain of health stores and sponsored a famous cycling team, which included Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. Tapie later got into trouble with the law for fixing soccer games, and after spending time in prison, became an actor.

In "Wanted and Desired," Zenovich casts Polanski, whose face repeatedly fills the screen with a Byronic luminosity, as a tragic figure, a child survivor of the Holocaust haunted by the murder of his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson family. His friends are uniformly supportive: "This is somebody who could not be a rapist!" one exclaims.

As for the judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, why, he's a risible self-promoter. If Polanski is Byron, the judge is an Oliver Hardy or a Billy Gilbert, all but twiddling his tie in a series of ever-more-comical photographs. He actually kept a scrapbook about the celebrities who came through his Santa Monica courtroom. He had two girlfriends.

Now, that's one way to portray those two men -- and one that Polanski's current lawyers would prefer. But there's another way, too: You could show one as a child-sex predator who drugged a 13-year-old girl with quaaludes and champagne; lured her to pose for naked photographs; ignoring her protests, had sex with her; and then anally raped her.

The other could be cast as a canny jurist -- possibly a brilliant one, smart enough to have gone from high school directly to Harvard Law and graduated so young he wasn't allowed to take the bar exam -- who may have gone too far in his intent to block off the legal escape hatches celebrity wrongdoers use.

The truth is somewhere in between, but it's probably a lot closer to the second version. Yet that initial stark contrast -- the tragic hero, the goofy jurist -- permeates the film. Documentarians should have a wide leeway to argue their case the way they want, but there's a point at which ethical lines are crossed. Zenovich, like many other chroniclers to the stars, seems to have been blinded by her contact with Polanski.

Here's an example: The word "sodomy" is briefly referenced in Zenovich's documentary, but it's a somewhat ambiguous term, and it's never explained. Zenovich has fun flashing bits of the victim's grand jury testimony on the screen, but she never gets around to using this exchange from that testimony, which was made public in 2003 and published by the Smoking Gun:

"Then he lifted up my legs and went in through my anus."

"What do you mean by that?

"He put his penis in my butt."

In the girl's grand jury testimony, which is slightly sickening to read, she also said that she had repeatedly told Polanski no, but that she was too afraid of him to resist.

It's a drag to include a scene of anal rape of a 13-year-old in your moody documentary about such a Byronic figure, but it's also fairly relevant.

At the same time, Zenovich doesn't have time to tell us about the exceptional back story of Rittenband. In other words, she withholds the most damaging bit of information about Polanski from her viewers, and the most favorable bit of information about the judge.

Zenovich seems to have a tin ear when it comes to sexual politics, too. The film spends a lot of time telling us that Rittenband apparently had two girlfriends, using some goofy graphics to underscore the point. Zenovich doesn't say the judge was married, so it's not clear exactly why this information is relevant. But given what Polanski is accused of, the irony seems to be that the judge was a womanizer, too.

But Polanski, of course, wasn't on trial for womanizing. He was on trial for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. The director's ear, here as elsewhere, seems a bit … continental when it comes to such issues.

In "Wanted and Desired," it's weird how detached Zenovich stays from the victim, and how she undermines her in subtle ways. The tone is set early on, when a friend of Polanski's tells of being woken up and informed that the director had been arrested. The moment is actually played for laughs, with interspersed shots of a worried Mia Farrow using the phone in a scene from "Rosemary's Baby."

A filmmaker attuned to the psychological undercurrents of the characters in her drama might have been conscious of the state of a 13-year-old girl, who had just been drugged and raped and had spent the next period of time at a police station reliving the incident; and shaken by the story of "Rosemary's Baby" -- that, too, about a horrifically abused woman.

But the scene isn't used to illustrate the victim's story -- it's about poor Roman. He's the person making the desperate phone call. It's an odd juxtaposition when you think about it. That's when the friend, having just been told Polanski has been arrested, says, "This is somebody who could not be a rapist!" Here again, Zenovich is playing with semantics. It's obvious the friend was saying he couldn't imagine Polanski, say, following a woman down the street and grabbing her in an alley.

If Zenovich wasn't tipping the scales in Polanski's favor, she could have asked the guy, "Well, what about statutory rape, having sex with an underage girl? Could you imagine him doing that?"

We also hear people note, meaningfully, that meeting someone like Polanski could help a potential young actress's career. Such a remark about a grown woman would be slightly offensive; about a 13-year-old it's exceedingly so. The girl told police at the time she had repeatedly told Polanski no; on the screen Zenovich runs a line to that effect from the girl's grand jury testimony, but immediately follows it with a quote from Polanski's: "She was not unresponsive." This creates a subtle he-said-she-said dynamic that, in a case in which consent isn't a issue, represents another bit of moral prestidigitation.

It's strange to see a female filmmaker anchor her documentary's arguments with such atavistic attitudes. It gets worse: In the media circus of the time, some of the European press reported that the victim hadn't been a virgin. We then get to watch as Polanski's attorney, Douglas Dalton, stands in front of a gaggle of media, Polanski nodding by his side, to say, "The facts indicate that before the alleged acts in this case the girl had engaged in sexual activity. We want to know about it, we want to know who was involved, when, we want to know why these other people were not prosecuted. It's something we want to fully develop."

A more feminist-minded director might have used her interviews with Dalton to explore some of the Neanderthal ways he was prepared to wage the case, had the director gone to trial. But, of course, the director didn't go to trial. As the film shows, Polanski accepted a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to the formal felony charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor; he and his lawyer knew he could face prison time. Polanski also stood in front of the judge and admitted what he did and that he'd known what he was doing.

In the wake of that, Rittenband was trying to figure out how to make sure Polanski was punished; he was apparently concerned that the director would act contrite, get a short prison term and then assemble a pack of legal wolves to get him out of trouble. And the film makes a decent case that Rittenband ultimately went off the rails.

But even this isn't exactly a revelation; Rittenband got in trouble for his actions at the time, and was ultimately removed from the case. But by that time the director had already fled, which lost him whatever legal high ground he might have obtained.

Flash forward 30 years, and Polanski has to try to make that very old issue seem new. His lawyers are also basing their case for dismissal on two other, lesser issues. Rittenband, who Polanski has said was playing with him like a mouse, was actually nice enough to the director after the guilty plea to let him go to Europe to make a movie, an option the L.A. courts system, one suspects, affords few other accused child rapists, then or now. While there, he had the misfortune to be photographed carousing at an Oktoberfest in Munich. One of the district attorneys in the documentary says he called the judge's attention to the photo and suggested that Polanski was making a fool out of him.

(This photo, which Zenovich attacks with the zeal of a Kennedy assassination conspiracist examining the Zapruder film, is exhaustively analyzed, with multiple interviewees testifying in all sorts of ways that Polanski really wasn't having fun -- an assertion the victim was never allowed to make unchallenged about her photographic experience with Polanski.)

Polanski's lawyers have tried to paint what the D.A. said as an example of an inappropriate communication, but the D.A. mentions it openly in the documentary (it's not a "revelation") and has said it was no big deal.

Finally, the lawyers are incensed that the L.A. court responded to a press inquiry by saying Polanski had to surrender before anything was going to happen with his case. Polanski's lawyers say this was "ruling publicly" on a matter before the court. It could be that. It could also be called "stating the obvious" -- which is what Judge Espinoza did Tuesday.

The coverage of Polanski's legal maneuverings in the last year took its cues from Zenovich's documentary. The charges against Polanski were often vaguely described; though the charge of sodomy was in the original case, and the Smoking Gun posted the girl's wrenching grand jury testimony in 2003, these issues were almost never mentioned.

The New York Times finally did a detailed story on the charges last month. But the story still concentrated on supposed "troubling" and "uncomfortable" issues raised by the film. Just listen to this portentous passage: "For the elder Mr. Dalton, who urged Mr. Polanski to pursue redress after reviewing the documentary, however, the issue turned from the original crime to questions about the way authorities here handled it."

Dalton was given a lot of time in the documentary to spin wildly for his client, so it's hardly surprising that he managed to convince himself that he was correct after seeing it -- or that, given the fairly incontrovertible facts of the case, that he would like to turn the issue just about anywhere other than "the original crime."

Polanski has had a wrenching life, of course, but it is overplayed in "Wanted and Desired." I think it's true to say that there are many people who survived the Holocaust who don't drug and rape children, for example. More apposite and logical questions, in turn, aren't explored. For example: Polanski was photographing the girl for a photo spread for a European edition of Vogue. Someone could have asked him, or his lawyer -- just for the record -- if he had drugged and raped any other of his photo subjects.

The girl in the case is now in her 40s; she has said the case is behind her and that she has forgiven Polanski. (The documentary waits until the end to note that this came only after she settled a civil case against the director.) But the issue here isn't Polanski being left alone; he's the one trying to get his case dismissed.

The movie tries to drum up sympathy for Polanski by playing up the media firestorm he was at the center of; but that's Polanski's fault, too. (Before they rape children, celebrities should consider how the media attention sure to result will have adverse consequences for their victims, as well as themselves.) Celebrities complain about "the dishonesty of the media," as Polanski does repeatedly in the film, only when the dishonesty doesn't suit them. If the coverage helps you -- a portrayal as devoted husband, say -- then it's fine, true or not. But when it doesn't, they scream.

But that's just the Polanski team's legal strategy: keeping as many balls in the air as possible to make it seem as if the director has something to negotiate with, which he hasn't. Around the time of the documentary's release, they actually cut a deal to settle the case -- but balked at the prospect of cameras in the court. This too was an irony, considering that Roman Polanski got himself into trouble with a camera so many years ago. Thirty years later, the director was still trying to call the shots.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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