From Polanski’s Lawsuit, A Glimpse Inside The Academy Board Room

Roman Polanski

Back on June 26, a little-noticed court filing in Roman Polanski’s lawsuit over his expulsion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered a rare glimpse at dealings within the Academy’s Board of Governors. The view is limited, and colored by the advocacy of Polanski’ lawyer, Harland W. Braun, who included it in an opening brief for a hearing that is currently set before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel on Aug. 25.

But, given the veil of secrecy over board matters at the Academy, even a limited view can be fascinating for those who keep an eye on the organization.

Remember, Polanski, who had belonged to the Academy for almost 50 years, was expelled, alongside Bill Cosby, in early May of 2018. The expulsion was tied to new standards of conduct that had been sent to members on January 27 of that year. Already, Harvey Weinstein had been ejected the previous October, within a week after the New York Times reported on sexual abuse claims against him. Polanski had been a fugitive since fleeing the United States before final sentencing on a statutory rape charge in 1978, and has since been accused of other abuse; but he was also honored by the Academy with a Best Director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003.

In any case, Polanski was informed by letter of his expulsion on May 3, 2018, and filed suit on April 19 of the following year, asking the court to mandate his re-admission.

Among the intriguing details in the brief filed late last month:

As the Academy governors met on May 1, 2018, according to Polanski’s lawyer Harland Braun, they were presented with a letter demanding the immediate expulsion of Bill Cosby, a member since 1996, because of his conviction five days earlier in Pennsylvania on an aggravated assault charge. Braun’s filing said the signature on the letter was redacted, so precisely who initiated the action remains unclear. But, according to minutes of the meeting, someone read out a letter from “the Governors of the Actors Branch”—who at the time were Tom Hanks, Laura Dern, and Whoopi Goldberg—“requesting the expulsion of Bill Cosby from the Academy.”

So, apparently, the actor-governors either initiated or endorsed the Cosby expulsion. But a twist then occurred.

Again according to the minutes, as quoted in Braun’s filing: “Following discussion, a motion was made, seconded, and passed with a two-thirds supermajority vote that Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski be removed from membership in the Academy.”

In other words, Polanski appears to have been “packaged” with Cosby at the meeting. Whether the two were expelled by one vote or separate votes isn’t clear. Nor does the record say who proposed that Polanski be expelled, or exactly why.

On May 8, Braun said he contacted a lawyer for the Academy, complaining that the board had ignored its own just-promulgated procedures for dealing with conduct violations. Under the guidelines described to members on Jan. 27, those accused of misconduct were to be notified of claims and given a chance to respond. In a response on May 15, Braun was told, his filing says: “The factual predicate for the expulsion was Mr. Polanski’s criminal conviction and his subsequent fugitive status. Period. These events are widely known, including by the Board of Governors.”

Polanski, of course, has been arguing in courts around the world, rightly or wrongly, that his flight was forced by judicial misconduct.

In a sort of half-concession, as described by Braun, the Academy offered to let Polanski present evidence to the governors, so they might “reconsider” his expulsion. Braun objected that reconsideration would shift the burden of proof from the board to Polanski; but he offered to meet with the governors, in order to explain the long and tortured history of Polanski’s legal dealings.

That offer of a personal briefing was turned down. Instead, Braun was permitted to file a 450-page document dump from the public record, plus a copy of the Marina Zenovich documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired (which won a couple of Emmys in 2009). The Academy made the documents available to governors through an online portal. Oddly, they were instructed not to print or download any of the material, though most of it came from open court records. In short order, the expulsion was upheld, and Polanski eventually sued.

As of Friday, online records of the Los Angeles court showed no matching or responding trial brief from Academy lawyers. Among other things, they have argued in the past that Polanski’s fugitive status bars him from relief in court. Braun has argued that the judge should conduct a close examination of the legal record—including still-sealed provisional testimony by former prosecutor Roger Gunson—in order to determine whether official misconduct has pre-empted the fugitive disentitlement bar. (An Academy spokesperson declined to discuss the latest filing, citing policy against comment on pending litigation.)

Where ultimate justice lies in any matter related to Roman Polanski is best left to those wiser than I.

But when it comes to twists, turns and confidential maneuvers—well, you just can’t beat the Academy board.

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