Quentin Tarantino has questions to answer about his Roman Polanski rape comments
Over the last few weeks a mass of interwoven accusations have pushed the movie director into an increasingly uncomfortable place
Director Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman appear on stage to give the Palme d’Or award during the Closing Ceremony at the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
It always seemed likely that the waves of disapproval kicked up by the Weinstein scandal would eventually reach Quentin Tarantino. The director made an early move to distance himself from his old mentor. “There was more to it than just the normal rumours, the normal gossip,” he told the New York Times. “I knew he did a couple of these things. I wish I had taken responsibility for what I heard. If I had done the work I should have done then, I would have had to not work with him.”
That was never likely to be that. As the crisis bubbles, there has been increasing consideration of the faux-heroic tyranny that characterises so much behaviour on film sets. The corrupt belief that insane levels of abuse are permissible in the pursuit of art has long been used to justify gross misogyny.
Recent, belated revelations about Bernardo Bertolucci’s misuse of Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris (misreported in various places, but still appalling) reminded us how unspoken hierarchies govern such interactions. Marlon Brando was let in on the secret about the butter. Ms Schneider was not.
Tarantino has always enjoyed transgression. His promiscuous use of the n-word has sat uncomfortably with many African-American commentators. The violence against women in Kill Bill and Death Proof stretched the forgiving bounds of irony.
Over the last few weeks a mass of interwoven accusations have pushed him into an increasingly uncomfortable place. The most confusing involve his apparent insistence that Uma Thurman perform a car stunt for Kill Bill that resulted in a dangerous crash. Thurman addressed the story in an angry exposé by Maureen Dowd for the New York Times. The greater part of that piece concerned a sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein. That surprised nobody. The revelations about Tarantino confirmed rumours that had been buzzing for 15 years.
Quentin Tarantino on the Howard Stern Show in 2003
It turns out that Tarantino, who called the incident “the biggest regret of my life”, had passed on the tape of the crash to Thurman in full awareness that it might be used to implicate him. “The circumstances of this event were negligent to the point of criminality,” she wrote on Instagram. “i do not believe though with malicious intent. Quentin Tarantino, was deeply regretful and remains remorseful about this sorry event, and gave me the footage years later so i could expose it and let it see the light of day.”
In the course of the piece, Dowd also mentioned suggestions that Tarantino had, when shooting a scene in which Thurman’s character was spat at, provided his own spit and, when she was strangled, wrapped a bicycle chain around her neck. The conversation continued. It was said that Diane Kruger had been treated similarly on the set of Inglourious Basterds. The German actor defended the director. “For the record however, I would like to say that my work experience with Quentin Tarantino was pure joy,” she said. “He treated me with utter respect and never abused his power or forced me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with.”
Tarantino offered a lengthy explanation of how the offending scenes played out. Some of it made sense. Some of it didn’t. On the spectrum of directorial tyranny, Tarantino was settling into a position about a third of the way in from the darker end. He had done terrible things. But he unequivocally regretted some of those things and was prepared to accept criticism of others. Nobody would confuse him with a saint. But he wasn’t Roman Polanski either. Right?
It’s funny how the Polish director, a fugitive from US justice after being charged with rape in 1977, keeps creeping back into this conversation. In a recent, well-argued piece in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman explained how Hollywood professionals had repeatedly equivocated about his crimes. (Interestingly, Michael Douglas, rarely seen in woke camps, was among those who refused to sign a petition supporting Polanski when he was re-arrested in 2009.) As chatter raged about Tarantino, audio emerged of him defending Polanski. Sometimes such rationalisations note that it was “so very long ago”. Others try to mitigate the offense by gesturing towards the murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson. Unfortunately for Tarantino, his justification was of the most sordid stripe. “He didn’t rape a 13-year-old. It was statutory rape, that’s not quite the same thing,” Tarantino told Howard Stern.
It has been reported that Samantha Geimer, then 13, was drugged and sodomised by Polanski. Tarantino agreed that there would be “a bullet in Polanski’s head” if he had raped his own (hypothetical) daughter before veering back into gruesome rationalisation. “I’d beat the hell out of him, but the situation was not that she was against this, she was down to party with Roman,” he said.
The phrase “down to party” will stick with him for the rest of his career. How long will that be? Tarantino is currently developing, of all things, a film that will have something to do with the Tate murders and that, thus, will probably require an actor to play Polanski. At time of writing, Leonardo DiCaprio is on board for an unspecified role and Sony is set to finance the project. Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight made money and won awards. So the scandal will need to escalate if his next tanker is to be turned around.
Nonetheless, nobody should underestimate how much has changed here. The welcome calling-out of Tarantino has drawn attention to faux-heroic tyranny - “Take this punch for art, darling!” - that has persisted too long on film sets. Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo are no better because their crews almost went insane while making them. Treating women like dirt on the set of a good film is no more justifiable than treating women that way on the set of a bad one (or in a restaurant, for that matter). Tarantino seems to have moved some way towards appreciating that. If he is to regain the respect he once had - let’s give him credit for Jackie Brown - then he will need to address his comments on Polanski. As we’ve already noted, “It was so very long ago” won’t cut it.