On September 7, Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, where viewers gave the film a standing ovation. An Officer and a Spy has also resurrected a longstanding conversation about how we are to deal with repugnant people who create great art.
In recent years, we’ve seen a number of high-profile artists accused of horrible behavior, partly because of the advent of the #MeToo movement, and partly because digital news coverage amplifies scandals quickly. Chuck Close, Placido Domingo, Morgan Freeman, Paul Haggis, James Levine, Bryan Singer, and Kevin Spacey are among the notable artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct. These accusations have been unsettling, with some of the most beloved names in entertainment being viewed in a new light.
Roman PoIanski’s case is different. He has been convicted of an actual crime: the rape of a 13-year-old girl. In 1977, Polanski was charged with multiple crimes involving an incident that occurred at the home of actor Jack Nicholson: rape by use of drugs; perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under fourteen; and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. As part of a plea bargain, he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. By then, he was already a celebrated film director whose creations included landmarks such as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Not only did he face the potential ruin of his career, he also was looking at serious jail time. In 1978, he fled the United States. He remains a fugitive.
In subsequent years, he has continued to make movies, including The Pianist, which earned Polanski an Oscar for Best Director, and The Ghostwriter, which won Best Film of the Year from the International Federation of Film Critics. Meanwhile, a number of women have accused him of sexually abusing him when they were underage.
In 2011, he publicly apologized to Samantha Geimer, the victim of his 1977 rape. But his comments about his other accusers have been less charitable, characterizing the accusations “absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.” He has remarked that being persecuted inspired him partly to make An Officer and a Spy, which concerns the historical case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French army who was falsely accused and imprisoned for treason in 1894. In response to his remarks, Jezebel’s Emily Alford sarcastically reacted with the article, “Roman Polanski, Convicted Child Rapist, Has Been Given Yet Another Award.”
She wrote, “Since his conviction, Polanski has been persecuted with an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and the Cannes Palme d’Or, which is exactly like the story he tells in his film except that Alfred Dreyfus didn’t do it, had to go to prison after he was convicted, and wasn’t given a wheelbarrow full of awards by people who never gave a sh — t about the crime he was accused of in the first place.”
I would never want Roman Polanski in my home, and I certainly would not want him anywhere near my family. Even so, when An Officer and a Spy is released, I will judge the film on its own merits. Regardless of what kind of person he is, he is a brilliant creator. I have copies of Chinatown, Frantic, The Ghostwriter, The Pianist, and Rosemary’s Baby in my film library. These are deeply affecting works of art.
The fact is, Roman Polanksi has plenty of company. History is full of people who behave badly and create art that we hold dear. If you like the work of Picasso, you’re admiring the creations of a man who was abusive toward women. Composer Richard Wagner was antisemitic. In more recent years, Al Green admitted to assaulting his wife, and Mel Gibson made antisemitic remarks to officers after being pulled over for drunk driving. Really, the examples are easy to find.
And yet, I will continue to watch Mel Gibson movies, listen to Al Green’s music, admire Picasso, and appreciate the majesty of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” I believe that art separates itself from the creator whenever an audience receives it. I believe that when people release art into the world, they create a malleable artifact that anyone can claim and interpret as their own. The art takes on a life unto itself apart from the creator and, by extension, the creator’s personal attributes, negative and positive.
I realize that paying for tickets to see An Officer and a Spy puts money in the pocket of a fugitive and a rapist. And I have no easy solution to that problem because I believe in paying for art. This is an uncomfortable topic, and I respect those who choose to hold people accountable for their behavior by boycotting their work. But I cannot go through life denying myself the intellectual and creative self-growth that happens when I experience compelling art that speaks to the human condition. I cannot cut myself off from art because of how I view the artist.
So when An Officer and a Spy is released in November, I will separate the art from the artist.