The filmmaker Roman Polanski has made some bold, extraordinary creative decisions in his career. Casting starlet Mia Farrow and indie-film god John Cassavettes in Rosemary's Baby; reimagining the detective noir genre into the American classic Chinatown; creating a global sensation by discovering Nastassja Kinski in Tess; guiding unknown Adrian Brody to an Oscar in The Pianist.
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton's Third Law of Motion impacted Roman Polanski when, on March 10 1977, he plied drugs (specifically, methaqualone) and alcohol to 13 year-old Samantha Gailey during a photo shoot in the home of actor Jack Nicholson (who was not present).
Within days of the incident, Los Angeles County District Attorney John K. Van de Kemp had brought charges against Polanski based upon investigations stemming from a statement taken from Gailey. Case number A334139 of the Superior Court of the State of California detailed charges against Roman Raymond Polanski of rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor; a guilty verdict was obtained following a plea bargain that allowed the director a 90-day period to finalise his dealings in America and attend a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation at Chino State Prison, which he completed.
Upon release, Polanski returned to London then, a day later, to his home in Paris. As France does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., he has been able to remain in Europe for over 30 years. That is, until last Saturday, when the 76 year-old stepped off the plane in Switzerland to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich Film Festival. He was detained by Swiss officials and, at time of writing, still sits in detention pending appeal action or U.S. extradition enforcement.
Polanski's heinous actions certainly didn't destroy his career – from his Continental base, he would make acclaimed films such as The Tenant (1977) and Tess (1979) and work with such international stars as Walter Matthau (Pirates, 1986), Harrison Ford (Frantic, 1988), Hugh Grant (Bitter Moon, 1992), Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley (Death and the Maiden, 1994) and Johnny Depp (The Ninth Gate, 1999). As the details of his crime faded from the collective memory, he found particular favour in 2002, when he was awarded the Oscar (in absentia) for Best Director and the prestigious Palm d'Or at Cannes for The Pianist.
Other celebrity figures, whose criminal misjudgements and lapses in self-control (true or not) became the stuff of tabloid fodder and industry ridicule, were not so fortunate...
Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was a silent film sensation. A brilliant physical comedian of considerable girth, whose sad-clown face led to the era's first $1million contract, Arbuckle was the toast of 1920s Hollywood. He had dozens of hits, including The Bell Boy (1918), Good Night, Nurse! (1918), The Garage (1920) and Brewster's Millions (1920). Though his superstardom came crashing down when, following a party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on September 3, 1920, a young actress named Virginia Rappe died from peritonitis, a complication that stemmed from injuries sustained after having been raped with a beer bottle. Arbuckle was implicated (by a disreputable acquitance of Rappe, who herself had once been investigated over extortion claims) and the William Randolph Hearst-led tabloid press set about crucifying the comedian. Arbuckle pleaded his innocence and was finally acquitted after a third trial. But the career of one of Hollywood's biggest stars was destroyed: cinemas across the U.S. and Britain banned his films; Washington introduced the Hays Code, ensuring the film industry embrace a moral high-ground. Arbuckle reinvented himself as a comedy director but never overcame the stigma of the trial and accompanying media circus. He died, alone and suffering alcoholism, in 1933.
A talented, beautiful actress through the 1930s, Seattle-born Frances Farmer was on the brink of stardom in 1936 following her starring role in Howard Hawks' Come And Get It. A passionate and intelligent woman whose friends included playwright Clifford Odets and the cultural elite of 1930s New York City, Farmer was a loud-and-proud advocate of left-wing politics who had won a trip to Russia through a subscription drive for The Voice of Action, Seattle's Communist newsletter. In addition to her politics, she had a reputation for being wildly temperamental, clashing with studio heads and film directors. America's most influential columnist Louella Parsons labelled her the next Greta Garbo but Farmer had made influential enemies on both Coasts. An affair with Odets ended badly; her anti-Communist mother turned on her publicly; stints in live theatre led to sackings and reports of wildly-erratic behaviour.
Four years after the acclaim of Come And Get It, Frances Farmer was institutionalised, by what many believe to be a Hollywood conspiracy to remove her from the industry. Subjected to shock therapy and solitary confinement, she emerged a changed woman, her talent diminished. She eventually gained fitful employment, even hosting an anthology television series entitled 'Frances Farmer Presents...' in the late 1950s, but died alone of cancer in 1970. Her story remains the most powerfully symbolic of the vicious nature of Hollywood fame.
Character actor Jeffery Jones was a familiar face to moviegoers of the 80s, thanks to standout performances in Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984), Willard Huyck's Howard the Duck (1986), Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) and, most famously, as Principal Ed Rooney in John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Jones worked steadily and credibly in such films as John McTiernan's The Hunt For Red October (1990), Peter Hyam's cult-fave Stay Tuned (1992), Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible (1996), opposite Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis, and twice more with Burton – in Ed Wood (1994) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). However, Jones' career screeched to a halt in 2002 following the revelations that, over an 18 month period, he had coerced a 14 year-old boy to pose nude and masturbate as Jones photographed him in his Los Angeles home. In case number BC323446 before the Los Angeles County Court, Jones was charged with: sexual abuse, assault and exploitation; use of a minor to perform prohibited acts; assault and battery; negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress; false imprisonment; and invasion of privacy. Jones pleaded no contest and is now a registered sex offender under Californian law. He has worked intermittently in low-budget, straight-to-video C-graders and episodic television, but his status as audience favourite and go-to support player of a decade ago is gone forever.
In the mid 1990s, Disney was finding success with a more adult audience through its production arms Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Films. Test screenings were indicating Hollywood Films' new fantasy drama Powder (1995), about an albino boy (played by Sean Patrick Flannery) with benign yet extraordinary telekinetic powers, was destined for sleeper-hit status. With a cast that boasted Jeff Goldblum, Mary Steenbergen and Lance Henriksen, all felt right as the promotional tour kicked off. At the helm of the film was writer-director Victor Salva, who had impressed Disney heads with his 1989 horror thriller Clownhouse. But as positive word-of-mouth spread on Powder and opening figures showed promise, a revelation about Mr. Salva's past changed everything. Whilst filming Clownhouse, the then-29 year-old Salva videotaped himself performing sexual acts on the film's 12 year-old star, Nicholas Forrest Winters. Victor Salva was charged with one count of lewd and lascivious conduct, one count of oral copulation with a person under 14, and three counts of procuring child pornography; he would serve 15 months of a three-year jail term. Disney bosses were stunned to learn that the world leader in family-friendly branding – The Happiest Place on Earth – was distributing a child molester's film. Before cinema owners could react, Disney pulled the film from distribution. Salva would go on to resurrect his career by launching the horror franchise Jeepers Creepers in 2001, but seems destined to a career on the fringe of Hollywood stardom.
- - -
There is a belief that the bigger the reputation the more leeway Hollywood and the loyal global fanbase will afford a celebrity's indiscretions. Mel Gibson's drunken anti-semitic road rage incident; Hugh Grant's alleyway tryst with hooker Divine Brown; the late Michael Jackson's acquittal of child molestation charges – all cast a pall for a while over the career momentum of those involved but all seem to have bounced back. Relatively 'minor' lapses in judgement – Nick Nolte's mug-shot end to an alcoholic bender; the wild-man ways of 80s-excess poster boys Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr – are distant memories to stars enjoying new phases in their celebrity cycle.
Some celebrity actions are unforgivable even by the public's lax standards – it's hard to imagine Phil Spector, Robert Blake and/or O.J. Simpson ever re-entering the celebrity spectrum again.