“What’s so great about a rapist being a recipient of Hollywood’s highest honour?”
In 2003, this question was posed to Quentin Tarantino by radio DJ Howard Stern before it disappeared, seemingly, without a trace. This week, the audio footage debating the director Roman Polanski is back on the news agenda – it’s trending. And for good reason. As the #MeToo aftershocks continue to tremor in the wake of last year’s Weinstein-quake, old questions are being posed once again with added vigour. Old cases reopened. Not only that, old answers are resurfacing along the fractured fault lines, too.
Backdated answers like Tarantino’s, whose past is catching up with him at breakneck speed since a New York Times interview with Kill Bill actress Uma Thurman exposed alleged misogyny at the heart of his filmmaking. Many grimaced at the revelations that the director personally chose to choke and spit at Thurman during the filming of Kill Bill in place of an actor (“Naturally, I did it,” he responded. “Who else should do it? A grip?”). This week, many more expressed shock and disgust at an audio tape doing the rounds again – a tape that comedically equates statutory rape with a false accusation by a consenting “kid” who got in trouble with her mum.
“I don’t consider him a rapist,” Tarantino replied to Stern’s questioning nearly 15 years ago, kick-starting a jaw-dropping conversation that centres on revered director Roman Polanski. For those who need reminding, the crimes are indisputable. In 1977, Polanski was arrested and charged with five offences against a 13-year-old-girl in Los Angeles: “rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor”.
Agreed facts mean very little if you’re willing to play freely enough with them. They mean even less if you’d rather laud the artist than punish the man
As Hadley Freeman explained in The Guardian last week, in a piece that asked why Hollywood continues to revere a child rapist, “On 1 February 1978, after 42 days in jail, Polanski fled the US while awaiting final sentencing, having pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.” On these facts, Freeman, stated, “everyone agrees.” And yet, listen to an eight-minute audio tape with one of Hollywood’s top directors, and “Hollywood’s reverence”, as Freeman puts it, is exposed for what it truly is. Convenient denial. Listening to Tarantino chuckle and jostle, I began to realise that agreed facts mean very little if you’re willing to play freely enough with them. They mean even less if you’d rather laud the artist, despite the facts, than punish the man.
I don’t even have to fish for the quotes with this one. It’s all there in every line he splutters. “He didn’t rape a 13-year-old. It was statutory rape,” Tarantino tells an equal-measures gleeful and outraged Stern. “It’s not the same thing. He had sex with a minor. That’s not rape. To me, when you use the word 'rape', you’re talking about violent, throwing them down… It’s like one of the most violent crimes in the world.”
You can’t throw the word “rape” around, he insists – it’s like throwing the word “racist” around. “She was down to party with Roman,” he later asserts. Being underage was simply a technicality. This, despite Stern pointing out, according to the 13-year-old girl’s own account of what happened, that she repeatedly said that she wanted to go home – that she used the word “no” and she told Polanski she was “afraid”. It is the account of a young teenager. Stern reveals the girl used the word “cuddliness” instead of cunnilingus. Tarantino laughs. “She didn’t even know what the word ‘cunnilingus’ was,” Stern says.
Tarantino’s defenders might argue that this tape is over a decade old. That past comments like this have no bearing on current discussions about dated crimes – and that a debate about Weinstein has snowballed, flattening an innocent bystander in its path. These counter-attacks woefully miss the point. It is, arguably, easier to cry “witch-hunt” than to engage in a frank discussion that we should have had decades ago – one that questions the past in ways many of us find uncomfortable. Perhaps this resurfaced footage tells us just how pivotal this moment is. To revisit, re-engage and, in the case of Tarantino, face unpleasant truths. Because, if not now, when?
And it would seem that even Tarantino himself understands the magnitude of this moment, too. The director came out apologising this week, approximately 48 hours after his glib soundbites went viral. “Fifteen years later, I realise how wrong I was," he said in a statement made to IndieWire. "Ms Geimer WAS raped by Roman Polanski. When Howard brought up Polanski, I incorrectly played devil’s advocate in the debate for the sake of being provocative. I didn’t take Ms Geimer’s feelings into consideration and for that I am truly sorry. So, Ms Geimer, I was ignorant, and insensitive, and above all, incorrect.”
Juxtapose this Tarantino with the Tarantino of old. The Tarantino who, in spite of everything he'd been told, opted to take a humorous punt on the man accused instead of respecting the facts. Which brings us to, perhaps, the most telling one-liner in the entire conversation that took place that day. At the point of exasperation, Stern’s co-host, Robin Quivers, asks Tarantino a question we keep hearing again and again this year as we try and re-examine. “So, why do you side with him?” she asks, tired.
To which Tarantino replies, like the Tarantino we’ve now come to expect: “Because his version sounds more likely."