The crime is more than three decades old, but the battle has just begun. The rekindled legal case of film director Roman Polanski has set off a noisy culture war, pitting Hollywood values against traditional American decency, feminists, international officials and the proverbial long arm of law.
“He’s a criminal. He is a convicted criminal pedophile,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
“I’m not in the middle here. How dare Roman Polanski think he could get away with this? I believe he has banked on men - powerful decision makers - who are more intent on protecting rapists than children. This is the world Polanski is exploiting. It’s outrageous.”
The controversy has even reached the White House.
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Asked by a reporter Wednesday whether President Obama was considering a pardon for the longtime fugitive, press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I don’t know of any pending pardon request.”
He quickly added, “The president believes pedophiles should be prosecuted.”
But many in the international creative community have raced to defend one of their own.
An army of prominent film artists, European apologists and liberal heavyweights has mustered to defend the Oscar-winning filmmaker, indicted in 1977 in the drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl and finally arrested in Switzerland on Saturday. Now 76 and a French citizen, Polanski sits in a Swiss jail awaiting extradition to the U.S. as sympathizers cast him in the role of martyr.
“We have learned the astonishing news of Roman Polanski’s arrest by the Swiss police on September 26th, upon arrival in Zurich, while on his way to a film festival where he was due to receive an award for his career in filmmaking,” stated a public petition signed by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, John Landis, Debra Winger and 140 other artistic luminaries.
“The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country, where he assumed he could travel without hindrance, … opens the way for actions of which no one can know the effects,” the petition said.
Outspoken celebrities have been caught up in their own skirmishes as the Polanski case has escalated. Comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg - who remarked on ABC’s “The View” that the incident was not ” ‘rape’ rape” - now has her own critics.
“Just for the record, rape is rape. This is one Hollywood star who does not celebrate or defend Roman Polanski. His art did not rape her,” countered actress Kirstie Alley in a Twitter message to her fans.
A second pro-Polanski petition - this one signed by novelist Salman Rushdie and director Mike Nichols, among many others - demands: “We ask the Swiss courts to free Polanski immediately and not to turn this ingenious filmmaker into a martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States.”
“We should have been celebrating the arrest of Osama bin Laden and not the arrest of Polanski,” actor Peter Fonda said Wednesday. “He is not responsible for killing anyone.”
Like many of his fellow thespian supporters, Mr. Fonda noted that Polanski’s young victim, Samantha Geimer, - now 43 and a mother of three - has asked that the case be dismissed and even attended the recent premiere of a sympathetic documentary about Polanski, posing in a black formal gown for photographers on the red-carpeted walkway. Many of the Hollywood set also point out that Polanski is the “doting father” of two minor children.
The French government, which initially expressed outrage over the arrest, has since adopted a more neutral line.
“Roman Polanski is neither above nor beneath the law,” government spokesman Luc Chatel said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“We have a judicial procedure under way, for a serious affair, the rape of a minor, on which the American and Swiss legal systems are doing their job. One can understand the emotion that this belated arrest, more than 30 years after the incident, and the method of the arrest, have caused,” Mr. Chatel said.
After the 1977 crime, Polanski was charged with giving a controlled substance to a minor, committing a lewd or lascivious act upon a child under 14, unlawful sexual intercourse, rape, perversion and sodomy. He pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse and spent 42 days in jail.
Reportedly fearing that the California judge would not honor a plea-bargain deal he had struck with prosecutors over the length of his jail term, Polanski jumped bail, fled the country and settled in Europe before he could be sentenced. The case has remained in judicial limbo ever since.
A growing number of critics do not appear ready to forgive Polanski.
Carol Jenkins, president of the Womens Media Center, an activist group originally founded by Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda, called on the media “to focus their coverage of Roman Polanskis recent arrest where it belongs: on the crime he committed, the rape of a child.”
“Too often, the media is complicit in misrepresenting or silencing the victims of sexual assault,” she said.
“The rape of a child is at the heart of the case,” Ms. Jenkins added. “That is not disputed, and should not be represented as subjective.”