Film director receives award after fleeing country for crime

Exiled film director Roman Polanski finally received his 2003 Best Director Oscar last week, nearly six months after his peers first recognized his critically acclaimed Holocaust drama “The Pianist”. Polanski, who lives in Paris, could not attend the March ceremony to collect his award. He faces immediate arrest and sentencing in America on a 1977 conviction for having sex with a minor, and law enforcement officials have promised to be waiting with handcuffs if he returns to the States.

The fugitive director served some time in prison and had reached a plea agreement with the victim, her family and the prosecuting attorney to avoid further incarceration. Polanski fled the country days before the trial. A rogue judge threatened to nullify the pact and sentence the director to 50 years in jail. The judge later admitted his decision was made in an attempt to force Polanski out of the country.

However, the author’s sordid history did not stop the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from awarding him one of the group’s highest honors. The Oscar voters chose the “Chinatown” director over a Hollywood icon and 3-time Oscar loser Martin Scorsese and gave a long standing ovation when Polanski’s name was announced.

This support for Polanski raises an interesting and critical question: should audiences be expected to separate the art from the artist and evaluate a work solely on its artistic merits? Or should the artist’s personal life also be considered when evaluating his accomplishments? Are a director’s private affairs a matter of public concern? There are interesting arguments on both sides. This columnist, however, is unconcerned about the artists misdeeds beyond what can be seen or heard in the art.

By all accounts, Polanski committed a very serious crime. He took advantage of a young girl, a despicable and indefensible act. He should return to the United States and accept a prison sentence, or negotiate a new agreement with California officials. But his sentencing and his film are two separate issues.

“The Pianist” was widely hailed as a film of great power. Lisa Schwarzbaum, a film critic at Entertainment Weekly, termed it “a movie of riveting power and sadness,” while Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez said the film “approaches near transcendence.” The movie appeared on more than 35 top-10 lists nationwide last year. Clearly, the picture’s merits as an artistic accomplishment are well-established.

Ignoring a work of art because of the morally corrupt actions of the artist is unnecessary and unreasonable. Contrary to what some Polanski opponents say, watching “The Pianist” is not akin to aiding a fugitive or supporting a criminal. Enjoying a great film made by a deeply flawed man is not a moral shortcoming, no matter how passionately those intolerant of ambiguity will argue. Rock star Jerry Lee Lewis married and divorced his 13-year-old cousin. That is a disgusting act, but that doesn’t make “Great Balls of Fire” any less influential. World War Two-era film star Errol Flynn faced statutory rape charges in 1942, but audiences still flocked to his Robin Hood movies. In both cases, the audience managed the separate the art from the artist.

Even Polanski’s victim encourages viewers to judge “The Pianist” as an entity separate from her personal tragedy. “I believe that Mr. Polanski and his film should be honored according to the quality of the work,” she wrote in a March letter to the Los Angeles Times. “What he does for a living and how good he is at it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me.”

Polanski should face justice like any other criminal. But ignoring his impressive achievements in his chosen medium is not part of that justice.