In the past week, I’ve had a strong inclination to dust off my old copy of Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic, “Chinatown.”
I’ll admit it — Polanski’s recent arrest has brought the film back to my immediate attention. But the film is still great. And the more I think about it, the more I’ve felt a recent kinship with the film’s protagonist, Detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson.
If you haven’t seen the film, Gittes is your typical hard-boiled detective, fiercely honest with a genuine thirst for justice. Throughout the movie, he gets entangled with solving a case involving deep-seated corruption in L.A.’s Chinatown. But his optimism that justice will be served keeps him going until the very end.
So what does this have to do with anything?
Well, let’s start with the film’s director, Roman Polanski. Polanski was arrested Sept. 26 in Zurich on a U.S. arrest warrant stemming from charges that he raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977 — in Jack Nicholson’s home, no less. When the charges were brought against him 30 years ago, he pleaded guilty. However, to avoid sentencing, he fled to France, where he lived comfortably until last week.
I was surprised and, quite honestly, disgusted to see that many in Hollywood put together a petition calling for Polanski’s immediate release. Signatories include some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors (and some of my personal favorites): Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, to name a few.
Now, I believe that the absurdity of this petition speaks for itself. Polanski committed a serious crime and, no matter how much time has gone by, he needs to be punished by the law. To let him off scot-free would simply set another dangerous precedent from which many in Hollywood already benefit. As Gittes says in Chinatown about another corrupt man, “He’s rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything.”
The good news is that, by and large, the majority of Americans see right through Hollywood’s twisted morals and are demanding that Polanski be treated like any other person who breaks the law. The public still is demanding that he be punished for his actions, even if they happened 30 years ago.
This was very encouraging to me. “I suppose our society’s morals aren’t so bad,” I said to myself. Like my fictional friend Jake Gittes, I thought: “Justice shall be served!”
There I was, just cruising on my little cloud of moral optimism for a few days until late last week, when talk show host David Letterman and the American public had to bring me down again.
Last Thursday, David Letterman appeared on his “Late Show,” to explain what he called a “bizarre experience” of an extortion plot against him. He explained that he had been approached by a man who could prove Letterman had sex with several of his staff members. Letterman, in an apparent attempt to avoid further scandal, detailed the event in front a of a live studio audience, which was sprinkled with laughs and claps from the audience. The kicker came when Letterman confessed outright: “The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show,” Letterman said. “Now, my response to that is, yes, I have.”
The audience’s response? Laughter. Then applause. Sustained applause. The cheers were not unlike those of a group of frat brothers cheering on one of their own for “getting some.” I half expected the audience to invite him to do a keg stand to celebrate.
I’m sorry, but am I missing something here? The American public deplored the Hollywood petition to free Polanski, yet we’re OK with applauding marital infidelity and sexual affairs with employees? I don’t mean to equate child rape with consensual sexual affairs — the former clearly is more serious, but both are abjectly wrong, right? Right?
If Letterman had been a wealthy CEO, a politician or a pastor, he would not be getting off nearly as easily. He would not be applauded during his confession; he would be booed. A recent study has even shown that most Letterman viewers have not changed their perceptions of him despite the scandal.
Why is this? Because he makes us laugh. He, like most celebrities, entertains us. And in some rare cases, these entertainers are bestowed the coveted title of “artist” — like Polanski.
Just like the protagonist in “Chinatown,” I thought justice would be served, only to be disappointed in the end. I just can’t help feeling like Gittes when he’s told in that famous line in the final moment of the film, as he stands helpless in the face of corruption, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
“It’s Hollywood” is more like it.
Dan Faas is the State News opinion writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
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