The shadow of Babylon had fallen over Hollywood, a serpent spell in code cuneiform.
The talk of the town this week was not of Monday impending Academy Awards. The 20-foot Oscars, scattered strategically along Sunset Strip to proclaim AABC's coverage of the event, stood proud and mighty, but the charter in the restaurants and bars beneath them seemed to center on one Hollywood figure not even up in an award; director Roman Polanski.
Two weeks ago members of the Los Angeles County police visited the 43-year-old filmmaker in his suite at the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel with an arrest warrant, charging him with suspicion of forceable rape, child molestation, oral corulation, sodomy and furnishing narcotics to a minor - a 13-year-old girl whose mother had given him permission to photograph her. On Thursday, a grand jury formally charged him with these allegations. Palanski faces up to 50 years in jail and deportation to either Poland or France, the two countries whose passports he holds.
This kind of trouble is not new to Hollywood. In 1921, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle was acquitted of charges of raping and murdering a young starlet at an orgy. Twenty years later Errol Flynn was acquitted of statutory rape charges in a case involving two young girls under 18, still the age of consent in California. A waiter at Musso & Franks, "The Oldest Grill in Hollywood," on the Avenue of the Stars, still chuckles about the time producer Walter Wanger shot Jennings Lang in the groin in a tiff over Wanger's wife Joan Bennett.
"This is dream land," the waiter says. "Everybody thinks they can have anything they want, and they rarely think about the consequences."
In the past year, attention has focused on Hollywood several times in connection with personal tragedies of varying magnitude: Louise Lasser's cocaine possession bust: the unsolved murder of actor Sal Mineo; the suicide of comedian Freddie Prinze.
At Ports, a little restaurant across the street from the old Goldwyn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, somebody at the bar announces that he is "sick and tired - no, bored - with all this Polanski chatter."
"Do you know Roman?" asks a fragile woman sitting nearby.
"No, do you?"
"Let's just say he's an acquaintance."
"Aren't you bored by all this," the man asks.
"Bored," she responds. "A man's career is at stake. And it's just a typically sexist charge."
"Sexist," the man asks in utter amazement.
"Obviously. If some little 13-year-old boy came home and told his parents that he had raped Jane Fonda or Liv Ullmann, they'd pat him on the head."
Indeed, there is a wide variety of opinions on Polanski. There are those who say the charges were inevitable; others maintain that they are preposterious.
"She was the oldest looking 13-year-old chick I ever saw," says a woman who says she saw the girl with Polanski on the night of the alleged incident.
"With the group he hangs out with", says actress Elizabeth Hush, "everything's a new ball game." Hush says she would not be surprised if Polanski had associated with so young a girl. It's common, she says, for local teen-agers to seek out older men, particularly those in the movie community.
"Roman's too smart to do something like that," says one close friend, Academy Award-winning music composer Bronislau Kaper. "No man with sense would try to rape a 13-year-old girl. Roman's got complete control of himself. He's a very well organized and balanced man."
Actor Leonidas Ossetynski, a friend of Polanski's from Polish film circles, puts it more bluntly: "Why does he need rape when he can get a hundred girls'?"
Which, in fact, is one of the age-old paradoxes of Hollywood. As a director of successful movies like "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown," Polanski is near the top of the heap of the Hollywood dream factory. Directors are gods, the chosen few who get to translate their visions into celluloid reality. And the gods don't need to go scavenging, the theory goes. Their dreams are strong enough to attrack the fairest, and the most beautiful, and the most talented.
And so it was on the night of March 10, according to police, when Polanski drove to Wondland Hills in the San Fernando Valley and picked up the fair, blond 13-year-old girl whom he had photographed a month earlier. Polanski had made some pictures of the girl for the French edition of Vogue magazine, a publication he has contributed to sporadically. The girl's mother, and acquaintance of Polanski, had consented, stipulating that her daughter's clothes remain on.
Police now say that the girl stripped to her waist for the first photo session. At the second, held at the Mulholland Drive home of actor Jack Nicholson, police say the director gave the girl champagne and a Quaalude tablet - a depressant drug, often used in connection with sex. What followed, according to the police, is made quite explicit in the charges.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Davis Wells, the man directing the investigation, says these sorts of things are not unusual in the hedonistic environment of Hollywood. "You have all kinds of problems in that community," he says. "If you mix with a certain group you are more likely to get mixed up with cocaine and Quaaludes."
"The San Fernando Valley girls know more about sex than I do," says actress Hush, a middle-aged Valley resident. "It's just a very aware place for every kind of drug or trip you want to get into. This Valley is movement."
Hollywood is the land of dreams, where building facades on back lots are changed into the houses next door, where innocent little girls from Peoria are discovered on drug store stools and turned into stars, where 2-foot-long plastic flying saucers become menancing minions from the beyound in big-budget sci-fi films.
It is also the land of eternal youth - albeit somewhat transitory - and the mecca of disposable goods, services and people. The sun always shines, and anybody can have a Mercedes - leased, of course.
Forty-four-year-old women chase men half their age, although it may not always be the same man. The bill-boards on the Strip are lifelike and imposing, but they're gone in a week's time. Last year's hot star often remains just that - last year's - if he or she is remembered at all.
All that transitory energy easily turns into trendiness and instant gratification. Everyone is "darling" and "baby" on first encounter. Nothing is just good. It's terrific or wonderful. Acquaintances are dear friends.
This craziness has to be fueled by something, and it's frequently sex and drugs. It may not be any more present in Hollywood than anywhere else; it's just more visible, more an accepted part of the lifestyle.
"Hollywood is the only place in the world where you get up to get down," says comedian Martin Mull. And getting down doesn't mean as in work. It means getting high and staying high, and living as if your little world might be plummeted into the Pacific by an earthquake tomorrow in Hollywood, especially if you party all night.
The reason that grown-ups in Hollywood listen to rock music and smoke dope has a lot to do with the reverse-maturization process of the place; It's sin to be old, and the younger you look and act, the better you are. Psychiatrists can help you do that. Even a car-wash on Sunset Strip offers "free psychiatric advice with hot wax."
Craziness is nothing new here. It's also nothing new to Polanski. "I think I know what it is to be mad," he has told interviewers. His films - "Knife in the Water," "Repulsion," "Cul de Sac" and "The tenant" - are filled with elements of the bizarre. He has been called "a little Napolean" (he is 5-feet-5. Once asked what drew him to his odd subjects, he said, "I must be sick."
She: I thought Hollywood was a boulevard of beautiful, dazzling dreams.
HE: I'm afraid you're dead wrong.
Sequence excised from the 1934 Warners' musical "Moulin Rouge" by order of Jack Warern as "too depressing."