Peter Bart: Roman Polanski Expands Legal Action Against Academy Expulsion, Reminding Members He’s An Oscar Winner

Roman Polanski
AP Photo/Jarek Praszkiewicz

The Motion Picture Academy’s decision to expel Roman Polanski in 2018 is headed for court again on Tuesday, and savvy observers likely will distance themselves from the rancor that the case will generate.

Polanski is resolutely pursuing his appeal because he feels he was denied due process. The Academy is defending its Code of Conduct, mindful that some members wish the whole thing would go away for this reason: A substantial portion of the Academy’s expanded membership of 10,000 now lives outside the U.S. where Polanski’s work is still winning top prizes at festivals. In this country his films are deemed unreleasable but in Europe he’s a legend.

Polanski himself will not appear in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday. He has been a fugitive since 1978. Meanwhile, the Academy declines to comment on the case, or even to confirm the court date, and there’s no indication it will retreat from its decision.

The sheer mention of Polanski’s name sparks controversy, to be sure, but the litigation still carries clout. His work had earned him six Oscar nominations, two BAFTAs and four Césars (the French Oscar). He again won a César this year for An Officer and a Spy, a period film dealing with anti-Semitism. His 2002 film The Pianist won him a Palme d’Or at Cannes; also the best director Oscar from the Academy.

To be sure, none of this cancels out the rape scandal of 1977 for which he served 42 days of psychiatric evaluation at Chino, plus, according to his attorneys, an additional nine months in home custody in Switzerland. In 1978, while waiting further probation notification from the California courts, Polanski was tipped that the then presiding judge had changed his mind and intended to “send him away” for a term approaching 50 years.

The source of the “tip” was Howard W. Koch, who had twice served as president of the Academy and whose son, Hawk, would later hold that office. As a result of the warning, Polanski sought refuge in France; he has never returned.

Personal disclosure: I worked with Polanski on two movies and thus am outside the box in terms of taking a pro-or-con position on Polanski’s litigation. Further, I am a long-standing Academy member and decline contradicting a decision of my colleagues.

At the same time, several new Academy members from overseas have expressed their concerns to me about potential jeopardies posed by the litigation. Hypothetically, If a new member were targeted by an allegation of harassment, for example, could the additional publicity generated by his or her Academy membership stir professional problems as the charge works its way through the Academy’s process of judgment and appeal?

In announcing its Code of Conduct, the Academy promised an efficient and effective course of review. In the Polanski case, however, his attorney, Harland Braun, argues an absence of review.

The Polanski case poses a difficult distraction, coming at a time when the Academy also has many other issues on its plate. The COVID-19 crisis has forced disruptions in the elaborate process leading up to the Oscars, prompting cancellations of screenings and filmmaker interviews. Eager to encourage membership participation, the Academy has stepped up to initiate a variety of new programs – virtual screenings and conversations among members and Oscar candidates. In one event, titled “Academy Dialogues: It Starts With Us,” panels will review a spectrum of issues on the themes of inclusion and diversity.

While aggressively initiating these programs, however, the Academy policy on the Polanski case is to make no comment.

The entire sequence of events thus seems a distant and disturbing memory from an era long past.

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