During the 2016 Academy Awards, Brie Larson, who went on to win Best Actress for her portrayal of a kidnapped sexual assault victim in Room, stood up to hug each survivor of rape and sexual abuse who had stood on-stage with Lady Gaga during her powerful performance of “Til It Happens To You” from the documentary on the campus rape epidemic, The Hunting Ground.
It was a quietly powerful moment that Larson was commended for, and she has been vocal since then in her support of women and viewing her film projects as a form of activism. Last night, she had to uncomfortably embrace Casey Affleck, rewarding him with a Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea.
In 2010 while making the mockumentary I’m Still Here, Affleck was accused of sexually harassing two female co-workers, who listed allegations of verbal abuse, mental intimidation and unwanted physical contact, including an instance where Affleck was alleged to have climbed into bed with the sleeping plaintiff and touched her without her consent. The case was settled out of court, and was seldom discussed in the media until the months leading up to Affleck’s Oscar victory, when his PR campaign began in full force.
That publicity tour, assisted by Affleck’s older brother Ben and Manchester by the Sea’s prominent producer Matt Damon, was a tour de force of public whitewashing. Affleck, who had previously been known for his notoriously difficult and rude interviews, suddenly became quieter and more genial: The interviews got more charming, the softball questions avoided asking about the allegations, he attended every ceremony with a suitably earnest speech, and even guest hosted Saturday Night Live. If you heard about the sexual harassment allegations, it wasn’t through those interviews. It was through think-pieces and articles, primarily penned by women, questioning the convenient silence surrounding Affleck’s victory tour.
This is hardly the first time the film industry, so often criticized as a liberal bubble of “political correctness gone mad”, has harbored rape culture and rewarded its abusers. Roman Polanski drugging and raping a 13 year-old girl didn’t stop the Academy from handing him a Best Director award three decades later, even though he couldn’t enter the country to pick it up for fear of arrest. The accusations of rape made by Dylan Farrow towards her father Woody Allen were quickly swept under the rug. Director Victor Salva spent 15 months in jail for possession of child pornography and "lewd and lascivious conduct" with a minor, but he still went on to direct two Jeepers Creepers movies. Then, of course, there’s Affleck’s fellow nominee on the night, Mel Gibson, whose history of misogyny, anti-Semitism and domestic abuse against his then-partner are extensively documented.
None of this is new, and Affleck is not the first to benefit from this system, but it was especially stinging last night, following the previous year’s turmoil where sexual assault became a dismissible trait for a Presidential candidate. Hollywood stood in opposition to Trump, but remained wilfully blind to their own problems.
This glaring issue was all the more notable in its rewarding of rape culture when compared to the fate that befell Nate Parker and his lauded Sundance prize winning directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation. After premiering at the festival, Fox Searchlight paid a record amount for the film and it immediately became the Oscar front-runner to beat, but then a rape trial from Parker’s college days resurfaced, wherein it was revealed that the alleged victim had committed suicide several years later. Parker and Fox Searchlight upped their PR efforts to keep the issue contained but it failed miserably, and the film was quietly buried at the box office and received no nominations. For once, it seemed, Hollywood couldn’t ignore the toxicity of rewarding rape culture, and took authoritative action.
Of course, Parker’s situation is not directly comparable to Affleck’s – there are key differences such as the severity of the crime at play – but it’s hard not to notice the way in which a more famous, well connected white man with major allegations to his name still managed to spend months on the awards trail with little to no disruption, while Parker sank without a trace.
The argument most frequently used in such situations is a plea to “separate art from the artist." It’s an age old theory that almost all of us will have used at some point in our lives – Keeping the Polanski case to the side of our minds as we enjoy Chinatown; Enjoying a re-watch of Braveheart as we drown out those incriminating tapes of Gibson; Listening to John Lennon and pretending we’ve never heard the domestic abuse allegations against him. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil – after all, if we blocked out every bad person from cultural history, there’d be a lot less to appreciate – but in 2017, when misogyny is as its most pervasive in our society, it’s a hard pill for many women to swallow. Some of us don’t have the luxury of separating art from the artist, because those artists are complicit in making our lives that much harder.
Speaking to the Boston Globe about his Oscar win, and the fresh life it breathed into the controversy, Affleck said that those criticizing him did not know the details of what had happened (which he cannot talk about due to the conditions of the settlement), adding:
"There’s really nothing I can do about it, other than live my life the way I know I live it and to speak to what my own values are and how I try to live by them all the time.”
In a year where the Oscars offered real surprises and demonstrated much needed and long-awaited progress in rectifying its gender and racial biases, Affleck's win leaves a looming shadow - one that many women are all too familiar with. Casey Affleck will undoubtedly go on to have a continually fruitful career, buoyed by the security of this Oscar win and the support of his big-name family and producers. He’s attached to direct more films in the future too. One can’t help but wonder: With an Oscar to his name and the industry supporting him, how empowered will he be to continue his alleged ways? If Hollywood is not willing to clean its own house, how can it authoritatively stand against the sexist in the White House?