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Oscar update: Hollywood, where rape is forgivable but antiwar comments are “inappropriate”

by Jennifer L. Pozner

Published in WIMNOnline.org, March 2003

In the weeks and days leading up to the 75th Annual Academy Awards, media teemed with stories about angsty starlets swapping flamboyant gowns and gems for less ostentatious finery. The war created a fashion fiasco for celebrities "petrified of being un-PC," style watcher Steven Cojocaru told TV Guide. Fearing viewers might not have the stomach for a self-congratulatory spectacle while American soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying, the Academy pledged to create an awards show that would be "appropriate" for a nation at war.

But reactions to two Oscar winners — outspoken antiwar documentarian Michael Moore and fugitive rapist and director Roman Polanski — prove that image-is-everything Hollywood holds a frightening definition of "appropriate": If you rape a child before going on to make a powerful film about genocide, you’ll be forgiven — but if you criticize a president during wartime, all anyone will talk about is how you’ve ruined your career.

In his Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, Moore explored what he sees as connections between school shootings, militarism, and corporate corruption. So it was hardly shocking when the filmmaker used his 45 seconds at the podium to denounce the war. Nevertheless, Moore's "Shame on you, Mr. Bush" was a little too much for Oscar producers, who withdrew his microphone and had the orchestra drown out his last statement ("Anytime that you have the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up"). Stagehands standing near the mikes booed loudly, and some celebs in the audience joined in, giving entertainment reporters the impression than the majority of celebrity attendees jeered (judging from the broadcast’s audience-reaction shots, some cheered, some booed, and most listened in silence as Moore spoke).

Regardless of the reaction the daring documentarian received on Oscar night, he was a pariah by the morning. Headlines such as "Moore's Academy Award Speech Seen as Inappropriate" were common, and questions like "Michael Moore — patriot or scoundrel?" peppered outlets from The Bulletin’s Frontrunner (a Washington beltway publication) to the San Jose Mercury News to MSNBC’s Hardball and MTV. Variety editor Peter Bart, one of the most influential men in Hollywood, blasted Moore for being politically "inappropriate," KGO-AM radio host Ron Owens dismissed him a “blowhard and a jerk,” while MSNBC’s Michael Savage branded the filmmaker "an ugly fat man without an American bone in his body."

Compare this level of vitriol to the enthusiastic standing ovation given by the Academy’s A-list audience to Best Director winner Roman Polanski — a convicted pedophile, rapist, and 26-year fugitive from U.S. justice. In 1977, on the pretense of a photo shoot for Vogue Homme, Polanski brought a 13-year-old girl to Jack Nicholson’s house, fed her alcohol and a quaalude, then forced her to have sex with him against her will. The victim pressed charges, and the director was indicted on six felony counts, including rape; he spent 42 days in jail before pleading down to one felony count of unlawful sex with a minor. To evade sentencing, Polanski fled to France, where extradition laws don't apply. He is still wanted in Los Angeles because, as that city’s district attorney recently said, "You don't get a pass for longevity."

Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose mother was killed in a Nazi concentration camp, won for directing The Pianist, a brutal and critically acclaimed Holocaust film. "It is a very good sign that Hollywood appreciated this movie and this director, after all the negative propaganda," director Krzysztof Zanussi told Reuters after Polanski's victory. That sentiment came through loud and clear in the stars' boisterous cheers when Polanski’s name was announced.

Polanski's victory was preceded by quite the debate in the media and in Hollywood about whether his "personal morality" (a too-tactful way of referencing sexual assault) would — or should — hurt his chances for Oscar gold. "Polanski has been repeatedly cursed by people’s inability to distinguish between his art and his life," is how Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein put it. On top of that obfuscationist framing, news and commentary on the issue often misrepresented Polanski's crime. Though some outlets correctly described the incident as rape, many reports downplayed it. In-passing, out-of-context references to statutory rape, the felony he pled guilty to, are technically accurate but misleading. The modifier "statutory" is heard by many as meaning "willing sex between an older man and a young woman whose parents brought charges." (What Polanski did meets the definition of rape no matter what the age of the victim.) Other more problematic references threw accuracy to the winds: In February, the Los Angeles Times described Polanski fleeing the country after he "became swept up in a sex scandal” under “cloudy circumstances." One critic, showing an amazing lack of ability to differentiate between criminal behavior and reputation-damaging "personal transgressions," told Entertainment Weekly that Polanski’s fugitive status shouldn’t be a factor, because "If you excluded all of the guys who have mistresses and fathered babies out of wedlock or who were kinky and dishonest, you wouldn't ever have five nominees." To various degrees, these characterizations all imply consensual sex, conjuring up images of Lolita and Lewinski rather than a drugged, overpowered child two years younger than kidnapped teen Elizabeth Smart.

Worse, Polanski himself was often presented as the victim: first of the Nazis as a boy, then of an unfair judge in his rape case, and finally of what movie producer Thom Mount calls "demonization … in the public imagination." Asked by Times staffer Rachel Abramowitz to respond to Polanski's "controversial personal history," The Pianist’s Adrien Brody protested "this unpleasant thing of constantly bringing back some horrific moment in [his] life. That's not fair." Instead of harping on the past, Brody said, media "should honor the man for creating something special. For having the courage to do that. For being such a survivor. Let the rest lie."

Forget the past — an ironic request from Brody, who spoke eloquently at the Oscars about war's dehumanizing effects. If "never forget" applies to The Pianist's subject matter, why shouldn't the phrase also apply to the crimes of its director? As the grandchild of Polish and Russian Jews devastated by the Nazis, no one wants wrenching denunciations of the Holocaust produced more than I do. What Hollywood refuses to admit is that The Pianist should never have been made, regardless of its inherent value. Why? Because its director belongs in prison, not in Paris. You don't get to do creative, fulfilling work when you skip bail… you get to hide in obscurity hoping not to get caught. (Or, should we start giving Get Out Of Jail Free cards to every convicted sexual offender who might potentially write the next Great American Novel?) Apologists who use Polanski’s status as a Holocaust survivor to trump — and pardon — his status as a fugitive rapist have employed a disgusting red herring. The sexual assault was not a "horrific moment" in his life — it was a crime he chose to commit, and after which he chose to use his influence and financial privilege to evade accountability. People are still talking about this decades-old rape not as "negative propaganda" from some sort of smear campaign, but because there’s still a warrant out for his arrest.

One opinion, echoed by his now-grown victim in a commentary headlined "Judge the Movie, Not the Man," is that Polanski's exile from America is "punishment enough." This is ludicrous. For one thing, As his agent told the Los Angeles Times, "[Polanski]'s been able to make what he's wanted. He's enjoyed creative freedom and final cut. He has a diverse career." (He's also had a slate of underaged lovers in France, including actress Nastassja Kinski at 15.) For another, his so-called exile is self-imposed and illegal. Every day Polanski is free to direct he flaunts his fugitive status — and his rape — to the world. That Hollywood rewards him for it only illustrates how willing our culture is to betray women and girls.

Polanski should be on America’s Most Wanted, not America's most-watched awards show. But rather than condemning him, Hollywood has served as de facto enabler of his continued evasion of the U.S. courts — as when the Directors Guild of America allowed him to participate in their recent conference via live satellite, thereby avoiding arrest for entering the country.

It is interesting to note that Variety’s Peter Bart, who lambasted Michael Moore for being 'inappropriate," has pressured the Los Angeles district attorney to let the director return to America sans prison sentence. People like Bart have supported Polanski because, according to columnist Patrick Goldstein, "as time passes, the personal transgressions fade into the background; the artist's brilliance is what we cherish and remember." Moore , on the other hand, committed the gravest of sins: he dared to disrupt the carefully-constructed, much-vaunted "tone" of the evening with a statement against what he sees as an immoral war.

The divergent responses to Polanski and Moore prove that nothing is inexcusable in Tinseltown except making pampered celebrities momentarily uncomfortable. I wish this were merely embarrassing. No — Jennifer Garner sharing the podium with an annoyingly animated Mickey Mouse is embarrassing. The ubiquitous clip reel of awful Oscar musical numbers is embarrassing. Hollywood ’s sycophantic support for a fugitive rapist, no matter how talented, is appalling.

Explaining the importance of the awards show, CBS reporter Jess Cagle said that, "The Oscars are a reflection of American life, of who we are at any given moment." If that’s true, then we have once again learned that Hollywood is all too willing to forgive and forget violence against women as long as the celeb condoning or committing the abuse has some demonstrable — or bankable — talent. (Certainly that message will be unmistakable whenever the phrase "Oscar winner Eminem" is used to endorse a musician who raps about raping his mother, terrorizing his ex-wife, and enlisting his daughter to help kill her mom and dispose of her body.)

In prison, inmates treat child molesters as the lowest of the low. In Hollywood, they have different standards. If you're a master of cinematography or an evocative storyteller you get a free pass, top honors, and a standing ovation from your peers. Meanwhile, girls across the country get a message: If you come forward after a powerful man sexually assaults you, it is your rapist — not you — who will receive protection.

Jennifer L. Pozner, Executive Director of Women In Media & News (WIMN), lectures on representations of women in the media. She can be reached at director@wimnonline.org

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