By Robert Harris
Published Wednesday 19 May 2010 07.00 BST
The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Thursday 20 May 2010
Scrutinising a recent allegation by a British actor, Charlotte Lewis, that as a teenager she was assaulted by the film director Roman Polanski, the comment piece below pointed to positive remarks made by her in published reports some years ago about her relationship with the director. The commentary was incorrect, however, in saying that one such report – a 1999 News of the World interview with Charlotte Lewis – got no mention in a Mail on Sunday feature on 16 May about the new assault allegation. In fact the newspaper and web versions of the MoS piece did quote from the 1999 interview, though without naming the paper where it appeared.
Last Friday in Los Angeles, the so-called celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred – whose most recent clients include two of the alleged mistresses of Tiger Woods – called a press conference. A British actor, Charlotte Lewis, appeared alongside her, claiming to have been sexually assaulted in 1983 by Roman Polanski, who is fighting extradition to the United States after his 1977 conviction for unlawful sex with a minor.
Carried live on cable TV, Lewis made a short and dramatic statement: “I am also a victim of Roman Polanski. Mr Polanski knew I was only 16 years old when he met me and forced himself upon me in his apartment in Paris. He took advantage of me, and I have lived with the effects of his behaviour ever since.” Allred added that her client was “ready to testify under oath if and when that is necessary”. The Los Angeles legal authorities subsequently confirmed to the Associated Press that they had interviewed Lewis the previous day. More than a thousand newspapers across the world have reprinted her story, unchallenged.
Yet there was, from the outset, something slightly peculiar about it. Lewis alleged that the assault (“the worst possible”) took place in 1983, but apparently it was not so horrible that it put her off working with Polanski, since she appeared in his 1986 film, Pirates. Asked by a reporter on Friday whether Lewis – a former Playboy cover girl, who has not appeared in a film for seven years – was “shopping for a book deal”, Allred briskly responded: “Next question.”
I know Polanski well, as we recently collaborated on a film of my novel, The Ghost. So when, on Saturday afternoon, I was telephoned by a reporter from the Mail on Sunday, I could guess what it was about. They were running an “exclusive interview” with Lewis: did I have Polanski’s telephone number so that they could contact him? I suggested they call his agent.
On Sunday morning, the interview duly appeared across two full pages, with the dramatic headline: “I will never forgive Polanski. I’m telling the truth and Roman knows it is the truth.” Ah, but is it? In fairness to the Mail on Sunday, they did at least do a little research in the cuttings library before going to press, and actually included a comment Lewis had made on the record about Polanski in 1986: “I found him very attractive. I’d love to have had a romantic relationship with him – and a physical one. You can’t help falling in love with him. But he didn’t want me that way.” The paper tried to explain away the glaring discrepancy between her stories then and now by saying “at the time she was speaking she was still working for Polanski and, it could be argued, in thrall of him [sic]”.
But there is in the archives a third version of Lewis’s relationship with Polanski. A profile, titled “Wild Child”, clearly written with the actor’s co-operation, appeared in the News of the World on 8 August 1999: “In a no-holds-barred interview Charlotte … confessed how she seduced kinky director Polanski when she was a nubile 17-year-old …” (The Mail on Sunday newspaper makes no mention of this earlier 2,800-word article, leaving it to the online-only version, which reports Lewis to have been “misquoted”.)
According to Lewis, at any rate in the incarnation presented in 1999, she and a friend “bought a cheap rail and ferry ticket to Paris and met him. I think he was entranced with me because I looked like Nastassja Kinski, who he’d directed in Tess. I knew Roman had done something wrong in America but I wasn’t too sure what. He’d already cast me in his film Pirates, so it wasn’t like it was a casting-couch thing where you have to sleep with someone to get the part. I wanted him probably more than he wanted me.” Thus began, she claimed, a six-month physical relationship.
So now we have three versions of what happened in Paris 27 years ago – ranging from no sexual relationship at all, to eager participation in a prolonged affair, to assault – and all of them put forward by the same person. It is hard to blame Lewis for the confusion she has spread. If her own account of her life as reported by the News of the World is correct, then she is more to be commiserated with than condemned.
But the behaviour of the media, and of some lawyers in America, is a different matter. The Polanski affair has now become utterly politicised. The man in charge of the case, the Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley, is locked in a tight race for the Republican nomination to become California’s attorney general: much of his prominence is down to his high-profile pursuit of Polanski. It does not seem to matter that the officers of the court in 1977 recommended that the director should not serve a custodial sentence, or that the original trial judge more or less made up the law as he went along. A lynch mob is in town, bent on destroying Polanski, whatever the facts of his case or the opinions of his real victim, Samantha Geimer, who has long since publicly forgiven him and asked for him to be left alone.
I know few readers will be as sympathetic to Polanski as I am; I understand the instinctive recoil from the crime he committed a third of a century ago. Even so, the scenes at Allred’s media circus last Friday ought to make anyone with a vestigial sense of justice shudder at the thought of what will await him if ever he is returned to the United States.