Roman Polanski, Amanda Knox, And The Problem Of Celebrity Criminals

This week's New Yorker offers a look at the ways Roman Polanski's celebrity has both helped and hurt him — and his case shows striking parallels to that of the other high-profile defendant du jour, Amanda Knox.

In one of the most in-depth examinations yet of the ins and outs of the Polanski case, The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin explores not just Polanski's crime and its aftermath, but Polanski himself. Polanski the man has, in the words of his agent Jeff Berg, "a very existential approach to life." This existentialism allows him to live without "bitterness," again according to Berg, about the death of his mother at Auschwitz and the murder of his wife Sharon Tate. It also produces some rather upsetting statements. In his autobiography, he wrote that during his time in Gstaad after his wife's death,

Kathy, Madeleine, Sylvia and others whose names I forget played a fleeting but therapeutic role in my life. They were all between sixteen and nineteen years old ... They took to visiting my chalet, not necessarily to make love — though some of them did — but to listen to rock music and sit around the fire and talk.

And two years after his rape of Samantha Gailey, he told Martin Amis,

I realize, if I have killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But ... fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls — everyone wants to fuck young girls!

This last reveals a solipsism (everyone wants exactly what I want!) that may have deserted Polanski in the long years of his rather comfortable exile, many of which he has spent married to actress Emmanuelle Seigner. While Polanski's claim that everyone was so worked up about his rape because of their desire to have sex with thirteen-year-old themselves is idiotic, it's true that others' feelings about the way he conducts his life — whether informed by jealousy, disapproval, or admiration — have influenced the progress of his case.

Toobin notes the now-famous probation officer's report, which creepily praised Polanski for being "solicitous regarding the possibility of pregnancy" (this solicitousness took the form of anal sex). He mentions an "equally smitten" psychiatrist, who reported that prison time "would impose an unusual degree of stress and hardship because of [Polanski's] highly sensitive personality and devotion to his work." Both men were, in Toobin's words, "starstruck" by the famous director. Toobin also notes that part of the reason Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) was unwilling to testify was because of the high-profile nature of celebrity trial. This unwillingness enabled Polanski to plead down to statutory rape, a bargain that not only shortened Polanski's potential sentence but also allowed many people to forget how severe his crime really was.

On the other hand, all the public attention on Polanski's trial may have made Judge Laurence Rittenband harsher. Polanski's prison sentence was stayed (again, a bit of leniency likely influenced by his fame) so that he could finish a film — while in Munich, apparently working on a distribution deal, he was photographed sitting with women and smoking a cigar. The photograph would never have been made public, and probably never taken, had Polanski not been world-famous. But along with public reaction to the case, it made Rittenband consider a longer sentence for Polanski, and possible deportation. It was at this point that Polanski fled.

In the end, Polanski's fame may have done him more good than ill — he'll never have to stand trial for rape, only for unlawful sex with a minor, and he can't serve more than two years. At the same time, Judge Rittenband was under all the pressure of public scrutiny in sentencing, and this may have influenced the result. Amanda Knox's case is obviously much different from Polanski's — for one, the details of her crime are far less clear. But she too may have suffered from a judicial system that wanted to make an example of a high-profile defendant. And on the flip side, she too has benefited from that high profile.

Just a few days after Knox's conviction, a senator from her home state is already advocating on her behalf. The Secretary of State may get involved. While many Americans — and Italians — revile her, many others leap to her defense without ever having met her. Knox isn't a famous director, but she's pretty and young and white, and her story makes better human-interest news than, say, those of the over a million people arrested for drugs in America this year.

Knox and Polanski became cause celebres to different people, for different reasons, but both now enjoy the benefit of supporters far beyond their own families and defense teams. Sadly, many people indicted in America and worldwide don't even have that much support. In the upcoming weeks, we'll be hearing a lot about both Knox and Polanski. We won't be hearing about the countless men, women, and teens represented by overworked public defenders, who will be convicted during that time of crimes they didn't commit, or given unfair sentences for crimes they did. The pressures of celebrity justice may sometimes work against famous defendants, but the pressures of racism and classism and unenlightened tough-on-crime-ism work just as steadily against the anonymous, and the problem that gets less media attention may actually be the more important one.

Image via The New Yorker.

The Celebrity Defense [The New Yorker]