Directed by: Marina Zenovich.
One of the strangest reactions from this year’s Academy Awards ceremony were the people who criticized a joke made by Mark Wahlberg (while talking to the Seth Macfarlane voiced Ted) by saying the after-Oscar orgy was taking place at Jack Nicholson’s house. Macfarlane drew a lot ire for the whole telecast being sexist, and while I understood (though did not agree) with much of the criticism, this one confused me. It seems people were upset because it was, of course, at Jack Nicholson’s house where Roman Polanski drugged, raped and sodomized a 13 year old girl – which he confessed to, served a three month “evaluation” period at San Quentin prison, and then fled the country when it looked like the judge may sentence him to more time. The reason the outrage over the joke confused me was simple – Roman Polanski doesn’t seem to be demonized for what he did, so why does Macfarlane’s joke – not about the rape at all, but about Nicholson’s notorious womanizing – draw so much ire? Why was there no outrage directed at movie stars like Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Sigourny Weaver, Johnny Depp, Adrien Brody, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet or Jodie Foster who have all worked with Polanski? Why when Polanski was arrested by the Swiss in 2009, did the Hollywood community seemingly unanimously unite behind Polanski, and sign petition urging the Swiss to let him go, and the L.A. District Office’s to drop the charges? Why does it seem like in this whole sordid mess, that Seth Macfarlane has been criticized more than Roman Polanski?
Roman Polanski is a difficult situation for a film buff like myself. That he is a genius – one of the best directors in history – in pretty much unquestionable. Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are all legitimate masterworks. His other films include Macbeth, The Tenant, Tess, Death and the Maiden, The Pianist and The Ghost Writer which are nearly as good as his masterpieces. And as a Polish Jew, Polanski survived the Holocaust and brutal Communism in his youth, became a star director, and seemingly had it all when the Manson family murdered his beautiful wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child. He somehow managed to get his life together, and continued to work. And then in 1977, he was arrested for drugging, raping and sodomizing a 13 year old girl who was working with him on a photo shoot. That Polanski is guilty is not under dispute. Polanski’s own confession to the crime is fairly brutal. Perhaps because he was famous, the Prosecutor and the Judge agreed to a deal – Polanski would spend three months of evaluation at San Quentin prison – at which point, if they felt he was not a danger, that would be the end of his punishment. Polanski did the time, but in the days leading up to his court appearance, where everyone thought Judge Rittenbaum was going to release Polanski, it became clear that Rittenbaum had other ideas – namely, sentencing Polanski to years in prison. With this hanging over his head, Polanski fled to France, and has never returned to America. He has been a fugitive ever since.
This part of the case was covered in Marina Zenovich’s excellent 2008 documentary – Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. That film did an excellent job of balancing the horrific nature of Polanski’s crimes and all the complicated legal proceedings that came after – proceedings in which it is now fairly clear that both the D.A.’s office and the Judge engaged in inappropriate behavior – namely, conversing about the case without Polanski’s lawyer present. What Polanski did was horrific – but he deserved fair treatment by the justice system, which he felt he wasn’t going to receive so he fled.
Zenovich’s new documentary – Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, is about his arrest at the airport in Switzerland in 2009, where he was going to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. Oddly, Polanski had been in Switzerland countless times since fleeing America, and the Swiss never arrested him, and the Americans never asked them to, even though they do have an extradition treaty. Perhaps stranger still, the Swiss were the ones who contacted the America about Polanski’s impending visit – and asked them if they wanted them to arrest Polanski, which they did. This kicked off a long, 10 month extradition process – where Polanski had lawyers in American arguing his case, against the L.A. D.A.’s office – whose argument was that as a fugitive, Polanski had no standing to file anything – and in Switzerland, where he spent a few months in jail, before being let go to stay in his chalet in the Swiss mountains until the Swiss decided what to do with him.
If Wanted and Desired did an excellent job at balancing the two sides of Polanski’s case – his horrific crime and the flawed legal proceedings around them, Odd Man Out doesn’t do the same thing. This film is much more sympathetic to Polanski than the previous film – in part I think, because as Zenovich has mentioned, her documentary contributed to Polanski getting arrested in the first place by digging up the past. Zenovich does have interviews with the victim and her family, who basically says she has gotten over it and moved on with her life, and is damn tired of talking about it. Good for her. But the argument about how if the victim can get over it, so should everyone else have never made much sense to me. We do not let the victim decide the punishment for the crime for a reason – and that reason cuts both ways. If she said that we should castrate Polanski for what he did to her, you wouldn’t find too many people agreeing with her then, would you?
Odd Man Out is less successful than Wanted and Desire for many reasons – the biggest being the extradition case isn’t nearly as interesting as what happened in the 1970s. While there are conspiracy theories about the Swiss arresting Polanski to get on the America’s good side as the two countries were fighting about UBS (Swiss Banks) and their secrecy at the time, that is really all they are – theories. Good theories, but theories nonetheless. Another reason is because there is precious little interviews with Polanski himself – which made up quite a bit of time in Wanted and Desired (these were archival interviews, not ones by Zenovich herself, but were fascinating just the same). And as mentioned I think Odd Man Out is far too sympathetic towards Polanski himself. You can argue all you want that he was treated unfairly in America, and he was treated unfairly by the Swiss – some of which is undeniably true. But when you get right down to it, Roman Polanski has now spent a grand total of approximately 13 months in custody – several of which were under house arrest in a Swiss chalet – for drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. He is guilty of that. He is also guilty of fleeing the country unlawfully. His defense attorneys can argue all they want about how this is a conflict between the people who value the rules and people who value the context in which those rules were broken. But they have to argue that – because they cannot argue that Polanski didn’t break the rules. They certainly cannot argue that Polanski is innocent. And they certainly cannot argue that a three month stretch in San Quentin for rape of a 13 year old is a harsh enough punishment. Not many would agree with that one.
Yet while I do not think Odd Man Out is as good as Wanted and Desired, it is still a fine film – and a fascinating one. I do wish that some of the “anti-Polanski” people were given more of a voice, or that Zenovich had pushed his supporters more on what they think about what he did- they seem to gloss over that in their minds, as they never bring it up. But this is still a fascinating documentary about this ever evolving case, always strange case. It appears like the victim has gotten over it and moved on with her life. Good for her. And it appears that Polanski is now a changed man, and is a happy husband and father. Good for him as well. But no matter how much he may have changed, or how bent the justice system is, it doesn’t excuse what he did – just like the fact that Ray Lewis found God and changed his life doesn’t excuse the fact that he was involved in a double murder – no matter how much Baltimore Ravens fans want to believe that. Roman Polanski is a convicted child rapist who spent a few short months in jail for a crime that most others would have served years for. No matter what the legal system has done to him, it doesn’t change those facts. And doesn’t mean you should feel any sympathy for the man in regards to this case. I certainly don’t.