Roman Polanski and the grossness of ’70s Hollywood

Kate Harding has a terrific post in Salon pushing back against the dominant framing of the Roman Polanski arrest. Rather than first thinking of Polanski as a brilliant, persecuted director, she says, we should start here: “Roman Polanski raped a child.” Then he pleaded guilty, and fled the country before sentencing.

(Other good reading in this vein: Harding’s follow-up in Jezebel recounting the depressingly long list of Hollywood types who support Polanski. And Bill Wyman’s pushback against obseqious coverage of a 2008 documentary about the Polanski case.)

But something else in the Polanski tale keeps catching my eye. From the CNN report on Polanski’s arrest:

Polanski was accused of plying a 13-year-old girl with champagne and a sliver of a quaalude tablet and performing various sex acts, including intercourse, with her during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson’s house. He was 43 at the time.

Nicholson was not at home, but his girlfriend at the time, actress Anjelica Huston, was.

According to a probation report contained in the filing, Huston described the victim as “sullen.”

“She appeared to be one of those kind of little chicks between — could be any age up to 25. She did not look like a 13-year-old scared little thing,” Huston said.

She added that Polanski did not strike her as the type of man who would force himself on a young girl.

“I don’t think he’s a bad man,” she said in the report. “I think he’s an unhappy man.”

Leave aside that “plying a 13-year-old girl with champagne and a sliver of a quaalude tablet and performing various sex acts” actually means “drugging and then vaginally and anally raping a 13-year-old girl.” (This elision of the facts is exactly the kind of whitewashing Wyman cites in the posts linked above. See, Polanski didn’t give the 13-year-old a full quaalude tablet — it was just a sliver!)

This is what keeps jumping out at me:

during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson’s house. …

Nicholson was not at home, but his girlfriend at the time, actress Anjelica Huston, was.

Huston’s blase comments in the police report are gross, but she’s had to live with herself for that. What’s grosser is the picture of ’70s Hollywood the whole awful scene presents.

Apparently it was no big deal for Polanski to bring a 13-year-old girl to Nicholson’s pad for a “photo shoot.” In fact, Polanski and Nicholson were such good buds that when Polanski and the girl arrived at the house that night, Huston told the director “she was fixing up a room for the next time he came to stay for a while,” according to the girl’s grand jury testimony. That’s just the way they rolled.

We’ve heard a lot about Nicholson’s exploits with the ladies, and the tales of Robert Evans, Warren Beatty, and their ilk. And while I’m sure (or at least hope) that Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston didn’t approve of raping 13-year-olds, the atmosphere of that night at Nicholson’s house seems in line with many other stories we’ve heard about the general anything-went, sex-and-drugs bacchanal that was ’70s Hollywood.

The ’70s are generally viewed as the last golden age of Hollywood — a time when directors and audiences alike could treat movies as art, before the industry turned toward the licensing-and-blockbusters dark side for good. There’s certainly some truth to that, though the past 15 years of cinema aren’t too shabby.

Regardless of the quality of that era’s movies, the culture that went along with them seems pretty grotesque: a rank mixture of post-60s, pre-AIDS, drug-fueled sexual “liberation”; the industry’s traditionally sexist power dynamics; and too much body hair.

I have no illusions that today’s entertainment industry is fully enlightened. There’s undoubtedly still much sexism and sexual coercion, if not outright sexual abuse and assault.

But at least the culture has generally evolved beyond the Nicholsonian ’70s. People like Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Steve Carell, Chris Martin, Eddie Vedder, and Jay-Z seem to have no interest in that sort of thing. More importantly, the biggest stars shun such ugliness. You get the sense that Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise (for all his issues) would never make their house available for a friend who wants to rape a 13-year-old girl. Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, and Reese Witherspoon would never stand by and let something like that happen. And Bono and Brad Pitt are too busy saving the world.

Sure, there are still people like Dov Charney, Anand Jon, and R. Kelly. But an encouraging number of famous people have realized that Charney’s, Jon’s, and Kelly’s behavior (or alleged behavior, to be fair) is not only similar to what Polanski did — it’s on the same continuum as the behavior that created the atmosphere that enabled Polanski’s crime (and later made excuses for it). It makes a big difference when Hollywood’s leading heartthrobs no longer celebrate that culture.

So maybe today’s movies aren’t as ambitious as the ’70s classics. Maybe our auteurs don’t compare. Maybe movies have gotten coarser overall.

Those are big maybes. But even if all those statements were true, I’d still prefer today’s Hollywood. A little more schlock on the big screen is a small price to pay for a lot less grossness behind the scenes.

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