Perhaps the most historic, in the sense of era-defining, moment in the history of the Academy Awards was that standing ovation Roman Polanski got when he was given Best Director honors in 2003. There they are, leading Hollywood liberals, leaping to their feet to cheer for a man who, at age 43, gave a 13-year-old girl Quaaludes for the purpose of having sex with her and sodomizing her. Polanski suffered in no significant way for his crime, and today it seems obvious he should at the very least be denied the highest honor his profession can bestow.
In 2018, Polanski (along with Bill Cosby) was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which suddenly discovered 40 years after his crime that he was no longer in accord with “ethical standards that require members to uphold the Academy’s values of respect for human dignity.” They meant “moral standards,” but acknowledging the existence of morality is still too much to ask of the Academy. Before Harvey Weinstein, the only person ever expelled from the Academy was Carmine Caridi, an actor who appeared in The Godfather. His crime was sharing a DVD screener with a friend, who put it on the Internet.
The Jeffrey Epstein case should end a nearly 50-year era in which the mandarins of our cultures — the intellectuals, writers, and artists — almost unanimously ignored, laughed off, or even outright celebrated sexual exploitation of girls and very young women, even in many cases prepubescent ones. Humbert Humbert somehow became the culture’s idea of a barrier-breaking hero whose predilections provided jokes such as the nickname for Epstein’s infamous ‘Lolita Express’ jet, the one stocked with young flesh. Epstein’s habits were so unremarkable that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were happy to be associated with him. Clinton and Trump were not outliers. They were simply symptoms of a disease.
Hugh Hefner fired up a flare lighting the way to an almost anything-goes view of female sexuality, and it reached its apex at the 2003 Oscars. Under the regime of Hefnerism, conservative prudes and often the law stood charged with being uptight and repressive about sex involving girls just over or even under the age of consent. That Polanski became an exile from this country after his crime made him Hollywood’s favorite martyr. The Academy was eager to give him the Oscar both to showcase its view that he had been victimized by prudery and to dunk on conservatives. Attendees didn’t just applaud, they let out a mighty whoop of approval when Polanski’s Oscar was announced by a smiling Harrison Ford. Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese, Weinstein, and others all jumped to their feet to participate in a chilling standing ovation. Jack Nicholson, at whose house Polanski’s assault took place, looked confused and joined in the applause, but remained seated. So did Nicolas Cage. No one captured by the cameras looked particularly peevish. As far as I know, no one in Hollywood had any problem with lionizing Polanski at the time.
Polanski is a man of his era. At 33, Ringo Starr had a No. 1 hit singing “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” Woody Allen made what felt like an autobiographical movie about a 42-year-old television writer having an affair with a 17-year-old high-school student, and nobody blinked. Time magazine put him on the cover under the legend “American Genius.” (It turned out Allen had had affairs with two teenagers around that time). Urged on by her horrible mother, Brooke Shields built a career around being jailbait, posing nude at age 10 for a Hefner publication called “Sugar and Spice,” then starring as a 12-year-old hooker in Pretty Baby (which began filming when she was 11), then at 14 starring in a film about two teens discovering their sexuality, The Blue Lagoon (though a double did her nude scenes). At 15, she starred in Endless Love, which as filmed initially received an X rating, before most of the nudity was cut to achieve an R. Whatever “controversy” attached to any of this was reported by the press solely to pump up the box office, as though conservative naysayers were aliens from a quaint, slightly daft foreign country. The media itself had no problem with it.
Look at the response to Pretty Baby, which features a nude Shields as a prostitute’s daughter who grows up in a brothel and joins her mother’s profession. (Pretty Baby, like Endless Love, enjoyed the cultural camouflage of being directed by an artistically unimpeachable European, Louis Malle. It can’t be smut if it’s arty, was the general view.) The film “takes a robust and humorous approach to life in a brothel,” wrote then–film critic Judith Martin in the Washington Post, before she became advice columnist Miss Manners. That “a daughter of the house should go into the communal family business is natural,” Martin ruled. “And the fussing and excitement surrounding her debut seem not much different from those associated with more respectable ceremonies to launch young girls. Tea dances, packing to go off to college, weddings — those, too combine titillation with finery and giggles.” Child prostitution, you see, was much like a tea dance. Penelope Gilliatt’s New Yorker review of Pretty Baby combines a panting quality with a yearning to sound tasteful that would have enthralled Humbert Humbert:
The most beautifully intelligent picture to have come out in America so far this year . . . A jammy-mouthed little girl of twelve, who is the child of a whore in the brothel, uses her virginity as a lure. . . . For all her look of the nubile, though, she could nonetheless not pass for a grown-up. . . . This may be a film set in a brothel, but it is no more lewd than a Bonnard of a naked woman in a bath. . . . There are many scenes that buzz gently with the giggles of children in the background.
In years to come, anyone learning about the Jeffrey Epstein case will ask: Why didn’t anybody raise the alarm? “What is so amazing to me is how his entire social circle knew about this and just blithely overlooked it,” the journalist Vicky Ward, who profiled him for Vanity Fair, told the New York Times. “All mentioned the girls, as an aside.” Epstein’s acts had deep cultural roots. But things don’t always stay the same, or get worse. Sometimes attitudes take a turn for the conservative. We should be grateful that standards have evolved in the right direction. The next Epstein or Roman Polanski will have considerably more difficulty getting people to shrug off their deeds, much less join in a standing ovation.