Entertainment Celebrity Character vs art: When bad people make great movies

Character vs art: When bad people make great movies

Roman Polanski
Director Roman Polanksi was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but that hasn't stopped his An Officer and a Spy lining up to win an award. Photo: Getty
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News that Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy topped the nominations for France’s Cesar Awards brought with it the uncomfortable memory that one of the greatest living directors is a confessed child rapist.

Against the sordid backdrop of Harvey Weinstein’s trial, the power imbalance in Hollywood between male controllers of the means of production and the vulnerable, mostly female, ‘working class’ has again been thrown into high-definition.

Unflattering memories coming back to bite male celebrities isn’t limited to the film industry. As the world reeled from the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to an article outlining Bryant’s 2003 rape charge. Sonmez was promptly suspended only to be just as promptly reinstated after union intervention.

To some, Sonmez’s tweet desecrated a fallen hero. There’s no question Bryant’s post-basketball life has largely involved good works. But, not that I’m the first to ask, do good deeds atone for an awful deed?

I don’t know whether Bryant was a rapist, although an objective reading of the facts of the case ain’t pretty for him. (He at first denied the claim, then settled out of court with the woman saying he understood “how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter”.)

But the reaction to Sonmez’s tweet, a sexual assault survivor herself, underlined the free run sporting heroes get for their sins. Any passionate supporter of any football club (which includes me) knows the mental gymnastics one is capable of to exonerate a diabolically behaved star forward.

The same applies to singers. Like sporting teams, people form emotional bonds with musicians and become protective of them when they are ‘attacked’. No reasonable person can watch Netflix’s Leaving Neverland without concluding that Michael Jackson assaulted boys at his weird, gothic estate.

But the King of Pop’s loyal legions will have none of that, flooding courthouses and online forums to insist Jackson’s accusers are lying.

Film directors do not, as a rule, elicit the same passion as centre-half-forwards and teen pop idols. Engaging with their work is different.

Generally, there isn’t denial of their crimes but an insistence the art has to be separated from the man. In Polanski’s case, perhaps there are mitigating circumstances that need to be accounted for in tracing the artist’s journey.

There are very few celebrities I could name who have lost their family to the third Reich and the Manson family.

But Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl and has dodged justice for over 40 years. Search for reasons why that might not be such a bad thing and you will instead find yourself in hell.

Polanski’s best work seemed to coincide with his worst behaviour (several other women have accused him of assaulting them in the 1970s). His Macbeth (1971) has never been bettered on screen, The Exorcist would not have been possible without 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown (1974), whether it’s Robert Towne’s ‘perfect’ script, the compelling performances of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston or Polanski’s direction, is exquisite film noir.

academy awards roman polanski
Roman Polanski: Now … and as he appeared in court when charged with the 13-year-old’s rape.

Cesar nominations aside, Polanski’s best work is behind him. It’s therefore a relatively simple intellectual exercise to consume his art and put the artist himself into a sterilised compartment.

People will be queuing up at Canberra’s National Gallery this weekend for the Matisse & Picasso exhibition, admiring the work of the great Spaniard who was also a domestic abuser.

Sometimes maintaining our rage is easy. There’s particular schadenfreude in watching Harvey Weinstein shuffle into court to have grotesque allegations read out to him. If the cost is not watching The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love again, c’est la vie.

But this year’s Best Picture Oscar is tipped to go to a director who is the most spectacular beneficiary of Weinstein’s aggressive stewardship. What’s more, Quentin Tarantino admits he knew of Weinstein’s behaviour around Miramax actresses.

Should that compromise our appreciation of his films? Not in my view, and nor have I, unlike many, let Martin Scorsese’s dismissal of Marvel movies affect my enjoyment of The Irishman.

Social media won’t let us avoid knowing that art which affects us profoundly is often produced by creeps. Just try tweeting how much you enjoyed watching Annie Hall again and see where that gets you.

There are no rules about how one engages with the art of deeply flawed people, just vague guidelines. Unless the future has in store a string of films starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, we’re just going to have to work our way through it.

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