Inevitably, Hollywood’s Great Awakening caught up with Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski on Tuesday night, as the governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to expel the two in keeping with the group’s new ethical conduct rules. Cosby, just convicted on sexual assault charges, may have been the easier decision. After all, he was never much of a feature film presence (though I have a weak spot for Hickey & Boggs).
But Polanski is another matter, and not just because he was entangled with Jack Nicholson, at whose house he committed the 1977 unlawful sex with a minor that got him banished; or Anjelica Huston, who was in and out of said house at the time; or any number of celebrities and power players who have supported him since. (Including aid to his legal effort.) More embarrassing, at least for the Academy, is Polanski’s Oscar for directing The Pianist. The award drew a loud standing ovation at the Kodak Theater on the night of March 23, 2003. Meryl Streep joined in. So did Harvey Weinstein, though his own contenders—Rob Marshall for Chicago, Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York, and Stephen Daldry for The Hours—had just been bested.
“The room erupted — first in ‘whoas,’ then in a gathering storm of applause,” Newsweek wrote of a demonstration that is memorialized in a much-viewed YouTube video.
Over at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick library, the print clips aren’t old enough to have gathered much dust. But they read like archeology — artifacts from an era so distant, we could doubt that it ever existed.
There is David Linde, then co-head of Focus Features, which released The Pianist, assuring The Hollywood Reporter that his studio was not equipped to judge the moral status of its artists. “It’s not in our area of expertise to deal with this long and often painful history that Roman has been associated with,” he said of Polanski’s fugitive status.
Who could dream that 15 years later, Linde would serve on the board of governors that kicked Polanski out of the Academy for that same “painful history”? (The Academy did not disclose individual votes or the final tallies.)
Certainly not Warren Beatty, the erstwhile ladies man, now married to former Academy governor Annette Bening. In those not-so-dusty clips, Beatty is quoted as saying: “The Pianist is an absolute masterwork. Neither a personal mistake nor the misfortunes of the creator are relative to that.”
If art and behavior lived in separate boxes at the time, that was not just a convenience for the celebrity elite. Samantha Geimer, who had been the 13-year-old victim of Polanski’s assault, sounded the same theme in an op-ed piece she contributed to the Los Angeles Times. The Pianist, she wrote, should be “judged on its own merits.” A feeble boycott attempt by British child endangerment activists went nowhere. The Pianist won directing and best picture awards at the BAFTAs, and picked up seven Cesars in France. Following its Oscar win, according to Variety, the film saw its weekend box-office rise 137 percent.
Even the New York Times, these days as vigilant as the Academy in patrolling for sexual misconduct, both in its ranks and in its coverage areas, was not much interested in Polanski’s misdeeds. An Arts & Leisure piece of perhaps 1,600 words—it was titled “Polanski and the Landscape of Aloneness”—gave just one sentence, at the bottom, to the fact that he was wanted for a sex crime. (The Times review said even less.)
But that was all before the Awakening, back when sophisticates thought it gauche to suggest that misbehavior could cloud achievement, and weren’t shy about saying so.
“I didn’t know I had so many friends,” Polanski told Variety‘s Army Archerd after the awards. As it turns out, of course, he didn’t. Or, at least, not many who have spoken up since the Academy decided he no longer belongs.