Roman Polanski, Charlie Sheen, and Consuming Art By Unattractive People

In our discussion about the unattractive behavior of athletes, Dirk Lester asked “How do you think this compares as a dilemma to the deciding whether or not (or how) to consume media created by the likes of Roman Polanski or Charlie Sheen?” It’s a good question, though not one with a simple answer, I think, because of the different power dynamics when an objectionable person is a decision-maker than when they’re a role player. And my calculations here are personal, and not meant to tell anyone else how to watch sports or movies or television.

Charlie Sheen feels to me like a good analogue to how I feel about Albert Haynesworth. Both are objectionable men whose salaries I don’t really want to contribute to. But they also both work with people who don’t have a demonstrable track record of enabling dreadful people. As Saul Tannenbaum wisely pointed out in that same thread, Myra Kraft personally vetoed Christin Peter’s continued membership in the New England Patriots after learning about his extensive and disturbing record of violence against women, and the team released him three days after drafting him. Chuck Lorre has a somewhat difficult reputation, but Sheen aside, he doesn’t seem to have extensively coddled any stars who behaved far outside the bounds of propriety. So I weigh the individuals as exceptions against the overall lived values of the organizations that employ them, and against my affections for the folks who end up having to work with them, who likely don’t get much say in it. It’s not Angus T. Jones’ fault his Two and a Half Men star has a record of violence against women, and it’s not Wes Welker’s fault that Albert Haynesworth once stomped an opponent in the face. In those cases, I can keep watching the Patriots, because I think on balance, the team still shares my values. Fortunately, I don’t care enough about Two and a Half Men to agonize over whether I’m justified in watching it, and most of Sheen’s other work I want to engage with is available through Netflix Instant, where I don’t have to feel like I’m directing additional income in Sheen’s direction.

Polanski feels like a different case to me. I’ve read extensively on the subject, I’m aware of the problems with the trial, but I can’t reconcile myself to the idea that he’s a victim. And I find it fairly distasteful the number of prominent and well-paid actors and actresses who insist on treating him as such, or insist that once you get to know him, he’s really a lovely guy, because it’s a way of convincing themselves that it’s all right to work with him. Roman Polanski may be popular in Hollywood, but I don’t really think politely turning down a chance to work with him is a career-ender. And it’s not like Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, or John C. Reilly, who are starring in his next movie, Carnage, are vulnerable or in need of a career boost such that an opportunity to work with Polanski is critical to their future success. So I’m much less inclined to treat the involvement of untainted people in Polanski’s movies as a reason that I should excuse his past behavior and send money his way. I still haven’t seen The Ghost Writer, though I very much want to, and hope to find an occasion where I can see it for free, or on an airplane, or in some other context where I don’t have to direct any additional money in Polanski’s direction. I suppose if I was invited to a critics’ screening of a Polanski movie I would go.

This is a messy industry, and a lot of my job is assessing content that I don’t think is perfect (much less the stuff that’s downright offensive). I don’t have a blanket rule to extract from either Sheen or Polanski, and as with sports, I take them case by case, though I do keep an eye out for patterns. If the Patriots, as an organization, made the collective decision that a record of repeated violence against women wasn’t disqualifying for team membership and started signing a lot of folks with domestic violence and assault convictions, I’d stop watching. My approach here isn’t perfect, and it hasn’t shamed Polanski into submitting to justice or Sheen into doing redemptive work for domestic violence groups, nor do I expect that it will. Fixing them is not what this is about. Instead, I’m searching for positions that make me comfortable in the long term, with all the compromise and shading that inevitably entails.