Should movies be penalized for the moral failings of their makers?
I ask because “The Ghost Writer” happens to be a fantastic movie, and it happens to be made by Roman Polanski. The director, famous for “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and other films, is also infamous for being convicted in 1977 of rape of a 13-year-old girl.
Polanski fled the United States before sentencing and remained a fugitive until his arrest last fall in Switzerland. He’s currently under house arrest in Switzerland while fighting attempts at his extradition.
In the time of his exile, Polanski continued to make films, many of them good ones. Among these was 2002’s “The Pianist,” a riveting piece of historical witness about the Nazi occupation of Poland. The movie won a handful of Academy Awards, including a Best Director Oscar for Polanski.
Now we have “The Ghost Writer,” a political thriller about the autobiography ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) for a retired and embattled British prime minister. (Interestingly, when the prime minister, played by Pierce Brosnan, finds himself facing criminal charges, he is advised to seek asylum in America.)
“The Ghost Writer” isn’t a masterpiece – for that, look to “Chinatown” – but it is a crackling thriller, full of intense performances and intricately directed. But should I be praising it, given the clear crimes – and apparent unwillingness to take responsibility – of its director?
I’d argue that the two things – Polanski’s art and his actions – should be separated. Movies, more than most art forms, become their own distinct entities – something greater than, and independent of, the hundreds of people who work on them (including the director).
In other words, “The Ghost Writer” is not Roman Polanski. And no matter how much we may despise his actions and his seeming lack of repentance, giving the movie zero stars is not the equivalent of extraditing its director.
Of course, that leaves the more difficult question of whether or not I would be comfortable awarding Polanski with the Best Director Oscar if I truly felt he had done the best job of directing in a given year. I’m not sure my reasoning could take me that far. How about you?