Thursday, May 29, 2008

Our national sin: Roman not Paris

Remember back before the hype and noise of the 2008 presidential campaign. The media, not yet consumed with "bittergate" or "Bosniagate," was gnashing its teeth about our society's seeming reckless and unreasoned adoration for celebrity, above all else. The unholy poster girl of our addled minds was supposed to be Paris Hilton. What shallow and dull-witted society would worship a pantyless, dull-eyed heiress with no discernible talent? With Paris, Britney and Lindsay on the loose, there was much tsk, tsking. But it occurs to me, after reading "Hollywood's Most Beloved Fugitive," a film review in this week's Newsweek, that the sin of our celebrity obsession has little to do with celebrity twinkies--male or female. The sin of our celebrity obsession is that we moralizing Americans somehow find a way to absolve people with fame and fortune of truly monstrous behavior. And that is never more true than in the case of crimes against women and girls.

In recent years, O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector--though evidence and reason seemed to be stacked against them--were all acquitted of murdering women with whom they had relationships. (Correction: Spector received a hung jury last year and further legal proceedings will likely take place.) But the Newsweek article reviews a documentary about an older incident: In 1977, acclaimed director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, Tess) took topless photos of a 13-year-old girl, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, and had sex with her. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to "unlawful intercourse," but fled the country before sentencing. He has never returned, but he has continued to work. In 2002, he won a directing Oscar for The Pianist. At the Oscar ceremony, the absent director was given a standing ovation.

The Newsweek article, written by Cathleen McGuigan, claims that a new documentary about Polanski, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, "paints a far more complex picture of what happened than most of us know." I am unclear what complexity makes it less than horrendous to take naked photos of a child, give the child liquor and drugs, and have sex with the child. Perhaps it is, as the article offers, that though Polanski's victim told police their encounter was not consensual, the girl admitted "...she'd been drunk before. And that she'd had sex before," as if any of that matters.

The review, though it does not shy from the details of the rape case (Curiously, the article never uses the word "rape" to refer to the then-44-year-old man's sexual encounter with a likely seventh-grader.), reads as sympathetic to Polanski. If the writer is indeed sympatheic to the director, she is not alone. I mentioned that Polanski drew wild applause from Hollywood's brightest stars on the occasion of his Academy Award win. (The same stars booed another director: Michael Moore, who at the same ceremony spoke out against President George Bush and militarism. Read Jennifer Pozner's take on the evening.)

It seems that in the eyes of some, Roman Polanski is as much a victim as his victim. He initially fled the States fearing that a fame-hungry judge would give him more than the probation (Yes--probation.) that was recommended. Now, some feel the director has been exiled too long. In the interview below, documentary director Marina Zenovich says that in America we don't make people pay forever for their crimes. Except Roman Polanski has never paid for his crime. His "punishment," if you can call living in France some sort of punishment, was self-imposed. Criminals don't get to choose how they are punished.

(I removed the video because it plays automatically every time you open the blog...annoying. You can watch it here:

The Newsweek article reports that the Polanski documentary explores whether you can separate an artist's personal life from his art. Apparently we, the American public, cannot. Polanski isn't the only vaunted abuser of girls on the loose. This month, after a six-year delay, the trial of R&B singer R. Kelly got underway in Chicago. Kelly faces seven counts of videotaping a sexual act with a minor, and seven counts of producing child pornography. The charges stem from a video that appears to show Kelly and a 14-year-old girl. At one point in the video, the man who appears to be Kelly, urinates on the female subject. A bootleg copy of the video is widely available on the Internet and the black market. Allegations of relationships with underage girls have long swirled around Kelly, who also faced similar legal charges in Florida, though they were dropped.

Despite what is, at best, reckless and unethical behavior toward young girls, R. Kelly stills enjoys airplay on urban radio, accolades like an Image Award from the NAACP, and the support of a host of fans, including female ones, like the 53-year-old woman who posted this message to the artist's page on

Hi my name is Maxine,I love R,kelley and even thou he had that mishap he is still my baby and we all make mistakesso i will continue to buy hi music and support him no matter what..Keep your head up R .and God will fight your battle and he is the only judge so don,t worry you will come out with the victory.
What makes it okay for rich and successful men to sexually abuse children? That is undoubtably what happened in Polanski's case, and if evidence and reason are any indication, R. Kelly shares Polanski's predilections. I wonder if Maxine (above) found video that appeared to show her neighbor, Joe Regular, urinating on a child, would he "still be her baby." Are we only mad at the men who lead the Texas polygamist group now in the news because they don't make music or movies? It seems we're only disgusted by everyday abusers, not the famous kind. (Actually, in the case of black girls, America is not even that concerned about everyday abuse. Just read What About Our Daughters on the regular, if you don't believe me.)

But especially, it seems that a man who is skilled with a movie camera, or who can write a catchy R&B tune, or run a football, or invent a "wall of sound" that makes pop songs into classics, or star in a 70s cop show, has license to treat women any way he wishes.

That's how much the citizens of this country love fame. THAT is the sin of our celebrity obsession.

UPDATE: (Hat tip to Ferocious Kitty) Expert says Kelly video is authentic here.


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