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Roman Polanski: Kicking him out of the Academy is too little, too late (© Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Long after the time when speaking out might have made a difference, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has expelled Roman Polanski. It had awarded him a best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003 and nominated him in 1981 for Tess, even though he had been on the run from the US since 1977 for the statutory rape of a child. Inspired by the Me Too movement, Hollywood had a pang of  conscience last month. Enough was enough: as a moral institution, filled with expensive liberals it could no longer tolerate a sexual predator on its membership rolls.

The natural reaction was to burst out laughing. Hollywood had spent decades lauding Polanski. Only a few years ago, no less an authority that Whoopi Goldberg had decided that his abuse of the 13-year-old Samantha Gailey that caused him to flee the US before a judge could sentence him was not “rape-rape” and therefore did not really count. When The Pianist won an Oscar, Martin Scorsese led the audience as it rose to give Polanski a standing ovation.

You could say in their defence that the life has nothing to do with the work; that an artist’s personal conduct is irrelevant. Wholesome and kind men and women can make terrible art and the most shameful specimens of humanity can make great art. Arguing against the “therapeutic fallacy” that art makes people better, Robert Hughes told the salutary story of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. The Lord of Rimini was one of the most discerning connoisseurs of the Renaissance. His patronage of Leon Battista Alberti, Agostino di Duccio and Piero della Francesca did not stop Pope Pius II making him after his death the only man to be officially condemned to reside in Hell — a distinction he earned by trussing up a papal emissary, the 15-year-old bishop of Fano, and sodomising him before his cheering troops in Rimini’s main square.

You could turn the “it’s the art not the man” argument upside down and defend Polanski by saying the man is the art, and it is daydreaming to believe otherwise. Kevin Spacey portrayed calculating villains far better than actors whose private lives were models of gentleness exactly because he was a scheming predator.

Polanski, however, tried a tactic he had used before: a tactic that goes to the heart of the difficulties the Me Too movement faces: he threatened to sue.

The justice system is at the centre of any attempt to improve the treatment of women. Rapes aren’t reported because the alleged victims think the police won’t listen to them, and 13 out of 14 reported rapes do not end in a conviction because prosecutors and the courts don’t believe there’s enough evidence to convict a defendant. Contrary to the excuse trotted out by every ageing celebrity marched off by the gendarmerie that “everything was different in the 1970s”, the police took Samantha Gailey’s accusations seriously in 1977. The testimony they presented to a Californian grand jury can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
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Gonout Backson
June 4th, 2018
8:06 AM
A painful moment. It's the first time I read Nick Cohen (someone I have learned to respect profoundly) commenting on an affair of which he obviously knows nothing, guided only by his "moral compass". "Nick Cohen as Hadley Freeman". Depressing.

May 31st, 2018
11:05 AM
Terrific as always by Nick. Separating the art from the artist is a tricky thing but that doesn't mean just because the Pianist is a good movie we have to admire the man who made it

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