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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Judge 'The Pianist,' not Roman Polanski

March 04, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

According to Geimer's lawyer, Lawrence Silver, all parties agreed to a plea bargain allowing Polanski, who spent 42 days in jail undergoing psychological evaluation, to plead guilty to one count of having sex with a minor. "What the judge did was outrageous," Silver recently explained. "He approved the plea but [then] he called us into his chambers and said he was going to sentence Polanski, rather than for time served, to 50 years."

When I had lunch with the late producer Howard W. Koch several years ago, he told of being in the shower room at the Hillcrest Country Club when he overheard the judge boast that he was going to put Polanski away for the rest of his life. Koch phoned Polanski to warn him and, before anyone knew it, the director had fled to Paris, abandoning his Mercedes at LAX. The Superior Court judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, staunchly denied any bias against the director but ultimately removed himself from the case.

As for Polanski, once a fugitive, always a fugitive. Ever since he fled, he has lived in exile and semi-infamy, his career in decline until being resurrected by "The Pianist" and its moving portrait of a man saved by his art.

'Profligate dwarf'

Can Polanski be resurrected by his art? I realized I'd been watching Geimer's interviews -- and rereading her piece in The Times -- because I was wrestling with a nagging moral dilemma that I suspect has troubled many academy voters as well: How do we weigh someone's accomplishments against his personal misdeeds?

A tormented man who said in his autobiography, "I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf," Polanski has been repeatedly cursed by people's inability to distinguish between his art and his life. With "The Pianist" up for a best picture, can we judge the movie, not the man?

It's a question the academy has repeatedly confronted. When it comes to a disquieting penchant for underage women, no one can top Charlie Chaplin. His first two wives were 16 when they married him; he was 44 when he married the 19-year-old Paulette Godard, 54 when he married the 18-year-old Oona O'Neill. Before his final marriage, he was accused of violating the Mann Act after fathering a child with the young actress Joan Barry. After being labeled a Communist and threatened with deportation, he left the country in 1952, not to return until 1972, when the academy gave him an honorary Oscar.

Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar in 1999, despite having informed on his friends during a 1952 congressional hearing at the height of the same McCarthy-era Red Scare that sent Chaplin packing.

Want a more timely moral quandary? The No. 1 pop album in the country this week is R. Kelly's "Chocolate Factory." Should you buy a copy for your kid, even though the R&B crooner is awaiting trial on child pornography charges in two states after allegedly appearing in a home video that shows him in a sexual liaison with a young girl?

For Polanski's admirers, it's the movie that matters. Warren Beatty, a longtime Polanski friend, calls "The Pianist" "an absolute masterwork. Neither a personal mistake nor the personal misfortunes of its creator are relevant to that."

In recent years, the Oscars have too often become a personality parade, influenced by a tidal wave of glossy advertisements and personal campaign appearances. But if you really take the Academy Awards seriously, you'd have to argue they matter too much to be treated as a popularity contest.

Weinstein and Scott Rudin often behave like schoolyard bullies, but they make great movies, and if you believe "Chicago" or "The Hours" is the year's best film, give those pictures your vote. Likewise for best supporting actress candidate Catherine Zeta-Jones. So what if she sold her wedding photos to a cheesy British fanzine and is now suing another rag for printing them first? Being tacky has nothing to do with being talented.

Artists are often unhappy, dissolute, disreputable people -- read a biography of Picasso, Ernest Hemingway or Jackson Pollock and see if you'd have wanted them living next door.

The truth is that we always forgive them their transgressions because, in the end, the inspiration we find in their art outweighs our disapproval of their brutish behavior.

No one loathed Kazan more than blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, but as he once told me, "I try not to confuse my moral hatreds with my aesthetic dislikes."

As time passes, the personal transgressions fade into the background; the artist's brilliance is what we cherish and remember.

Perhaps it's too soon for Polanski to receive absolution. But after seeing "The Pianist," I think it's time to put aside our qualms about his behavior and cast our vote for the best movie, even if it wasn't made by the best man.

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"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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