Editors Note: When I read the petition that a group of Hollywood celebrities drafted demanding the release of convicted rapist and pedophile Roman Polanski, I think what offended me most was the word “demand.” The idea that these people (including very accomplished directors, such as Martin Scorsese) feel that they have the right to make demands that laws just be ignored, solely because some criminal made a few good movies, is deeply offensive to a regular guy, such as myself. The world is already too full of scumbags getting a free ride because they’re talented, rich or famous.

A Free Pass for Celebrities: Separating Art and Humanity


“People regard art too highly, and history not enough.”

                       — John Irving
                                              “The 158-Pound Marriage”


In October, Woody Allen and 138 other luminaries issued a petition to “demand the immediate release” of director and rapist Roman Polanski. I hate to criticize Woody, a screenwriting and filmmaking genius, but, this time, he sounds like one more foolish celebrity with only a tenuous connection to the real world.

Given his own somewhat sordid past, Allen is a less-than-ideal spokesman for Polanski, who was seized by Swiss authorities for extradition to the U.S. for drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl in 1977. But this hasn’t stopped Woody from insisting that a talent for directing memorable movies places Polanski above the law, giving him a free pass the rest of us nonartists lack.

Guilt or innocence isn’t at issue: Polanski is a convicted felon, who confessed to statutory rape before fleeing the U.S. for France to avoid prison time. The petition objects to his apprehension “at an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers,” which “will take away his freedom.” What’s at issue is whether someone who has the “support and friendship” of “everyone involved in international filmmaking” deserves freedom from responsibility for his actions.

Among the glitterati, pedophilia is old news, from the jailing of the great writer and wit Oscar Wilde in the 1890s to allegations against swashbuckling film star Errol Flynn in the 1940s. What’s obnoxious is the artistic community’s inability or unwillingness to separate the person from his art: When celebrity criminals are involved, where’s the dichotomy between the achievements and the human being?

In the 1982 movie “My Favorite Year,” Peter O’Toole’s Flynn-based character observed that celebrity got him blamed for things he didn’t do, but enabled him to “get away with murder in other areas.” In real life, writer/killer Jack Henry Abbott illustrated the latter principle. After Abbott penned the critically acclaimed book “In the Belly of the Beast,” author Norman Mailer campaigned for his parole, but, only six weeks after his release, the career criminal murdered again. Mailer’s loathsome position was that “culture is worth a little risk,” and, at trial, Abbott was supported by actress Susan Sarandon, who’d named her son after him.

More recently, a cadre of luminaries, including Sarandon, Mailer and Ed Asner, has agitated for the release of convicted cop killer Abu Mumia Jamal, despite overwhelming evidence and several appeals that have found him guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Radical chic Hollywood types can’t seem to accept that a black militant, who’s also a pretty good writer and journalist, might have killed a white cop, no matter how many judges, juries and eyewitnesses agree that he did.

An axiom variously attributed to Plutarch and Lord Acton asserts, “Great men are seldom good.” This has been true throughout history. Even a perfunctory reading shows that many Old Testament “heroes,” such as Moses and Joshua, were also genocidal killers. On a much larger scale, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar boast similar resumes. And the great conqueror Genghis Khan is often ranked as history’s most genocidal murderer, surpassing even such 20th century monsters as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao.

Ancient historians, including Suetonius and Tacitus, described most of the Roman emperors as evil, perverted sadists. Even the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, author of “Meditations,” and renowned as one of Rome’s “Five Good Emperors,” was also known for mercilessly persecuting Christians. The Gandhis of history are few and far between.

In 1999, the Arts & Entertainment network chose the 100 most important people of the past 1,000 years. Second on that list was Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest intellect in human history, but also a rather appalling human being, who used his position as Master of the Mint to gleefully send dozens of counterfeiters to the gallows. Next on the list was Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism and a fanatical Jew hater, who encouraged Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools.” If the hell in which Luther so enthusiastically believed actually existed, he’d be sweating there now.

Nonetheless, personal flaws shouldn’t diminish someone’s achievements in other areas. Are Wagner’s operas less majestic because his anti-Semitism made him Hitler’s favorite composer? Is Leni Riefenstahl a lesser auteur because she was Hitler’s favorite moviemaker? Does Elia Kazan’s craven lack of moral courage during the 1950s blacklist or Mel Gibson’s loathsome bigotry diminish “On the Waterfront,” and “Braveheart” as cinematic triumphs?

Conversely, being accomplished in one area doesn’t mitigate criminality in another. “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” remain great movies, for which Polanski is rightly celebrated, but his invitation to a film festival isn’t a free pass, literally or metaphorically, no matter how many celebrities protest that Polanski should be entitled to “travel without hindrance.”

Allen’s petition warns that Polanski’s extradition “will be heavy with consequences”; however, if one consequence is that the rule of law is affirmed, the rest of us noncelebrities will manage to live with that.

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.