He pled guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl more than 30 years ago and then spent three decades as a fugitive, but director Roman Polanski is still able to make a film and actually have people go see it.
Considering all the intense media scrutiny of Polanski’s September arrest in Switzerland for a 1978 statutory rape charge — and the ongoing debate surrounding whether or not the director should still face sentencing — it would seem almost impossible for him to continue making art. But Polanski did just that last weekend with the release of his latest film The Ghost Writer.
Although the film was only released in two U.S. cities — New York and Los Angeles — The Ghost Writer has still enjoyed substantial box office sales. According to Daily Variety, Polanski’s film grossed almost $222,000 since it opened Feb. 19.
That might not sound like all that much money when compared to the numbers that came in for Shutter Island, which came out the same day and has made almost $50 million in its first week. But unlike the Martin Scorsese picture, which was released in about 3,000 theaters nationwide, Polanski’s film was only released in four theaters. All things considered, $222,000 is a fair amount of revenue.
And this proves people are actually going out of their way to see this film knowing that the man who directed it has been arrested under charges of unlawful sex with a minor. This says a great deal about the separation between an artist and his work, especially when that artist’s troubles have been so greatly publicized.
If an artist produces a truly great piece of work, should that work be shunned simply because he has behaved inappropriately?
Polanski’s time as a fugitive has never slowed him down. His legal troubles are well known by everyone in Hollywood and Europe, but he still won an Academy Award for best birector for his 2002 film The Pianist. And as box office numbers have illustrated with The Ghost Writer, audiences are still willing to give Polanski the benefit of the doubt.
Hollywood celebrities have always been involved in sticky situations, and not all of them have been as lucky as Polanski to emerge from scandals with their popularity intact. There are a notable few whose careers were almost ruined because of legal troubles.
A similar statutory rape case spawned the catch phrase “In like Flynn” in the early 1940s when popular screen actor Errol Flynn was accused of having sex with two underage girls. With an already established reputation as a womanizer, Flynn’s trial started in 1943, and many believed the actor’s career hung in the balance.
Conversely, Flynn’s trial did nothing but help his career. After being cleared of the charges, the ordeal only further solidified his reputation and immense popularity. He was able to survive all of the accusations and turmoil, and as a result Errol Flynn is still regarded as one of the superstars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Though his physical relationships never instigated legal action, Charlie Chaplin’s love affairs also involved scandalous and, what many would consider, inappropriate behavior. Chaplin, one of Hollywood’s first stars to have several underage lovers, is nevertheless still highly regarded . It is his filmography and his incredibly unique on-screen character that are remembered, not his potentially suspect love affairs.
But what will come of Polanski?
He still has the talent, and audiences can still recognize it, but, with his legal troubles far from being over, the director’s future is still uncertain.
Audience members must now look to his art as the only accurate example of what Polanski can still offer us. The Ghost Writer will eventually see a wider distribution, and more people will be able to see it, but it is still not clear how many will actually want to watch a film by Polanski, considering the identity of the man behind the art.
Christopher Byars is a senior majoring in English (creative writing). His column, “Cinerama,” runs Fridays.