Illustration | Yasmine Shelton
Thinking critically about Casey Affleck’s critical acclaim in Manchester by the Sea
Content warning: Discussions of sexual violence and abuse
Every day when I walk home from campus, I pass by an ad for the film Manchester by the Sea. When I first noticed it I thought, “Oh, man, I sure love Michelle Williams—I bet that will be great!” A couple weeks passed and I continued to walk by the ad and think, “Oh man, that movie sure was great and I still love Michelle Williams!” However, now when I pass by the ad I think, “Oh, man, another man with a sexual harassment allegation is going to win an Oscar!” The last feeling is not a good one, but it is a reoccurring one.
The Academy of Arts and Science is about to induct another member into what I like to call “The Woody Allen Club.” That’s right, on February 26th Casey Affleck is almost undoubtedly going to win an Oscar for his performance in Manchester by the Sea. This does not change the fact that Affleck was sued by two different women for sexual harassment in 2010. It strikes me as strange that he can a) actually possess the moral indecency to sexually harass another human being, b) still remain quite rich and famous, and c) be a front runner for the most prestigious acting award in Hollywood.
However, as mentioned, Affleck is joining a prestigious club. The Woody Allen Club is a group of men who, despite numerous allegations and charges for crimes such as sexual assault, aggravated assault, and domestic violence, have managed to thrive in Hollywood.
The club is, of course, named after twenty-four-time nominee and four-time Oscar winner Woody Allen who has been accused of sexually abusing his step-daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was a child. For many, these allegations were only recently brought to attention when Farrow published a letter in 2014. However, she originally accused Allen of sexual abuse in 1993 after her mother, Mia Farrow, published a complaint with the police. Why is it that, while these accusations were made nearly 25 years ago, Allen’s career has remained quite successful?
Allen is not the only person in this esteemed club. Roman Polanski was convicted of sexual intercourse with a minor (13-year old Samantha Gailey) in 1977 and has since been nominated for three Oscars, winning Best Director for The Pianist in 2002. Polanski continues to be defended by numerous members of the industry, including Woody Allen himself. Sean Penn, who has been accused by ex-wife Madonna of domestic violence, has been nominated for Best Actor five times, winning twice. Another of this year’s Oscar nominees (this time for Best Director and Best Picture for Hacksaw Ridge), Mel Gibson, was the subject of a domestic abuse investigation in 2010. Gibson has also been recorded making anti-Semitic comments when he was arrested for driving under the influence. Gibson has already won Best Director and Best Picture for 1995’s Braveheart.
These are all respected actors and filmmakers. I’ve enjoyed works by all of these men. So, how do we reconcile talent and abuse? Should the Academy be obligated not to give Affleck the Oscar because of his sexual harassment charges? Or should the Academy not concern itself with social and legal issues at all?
Casey Affleck did, undeniably, give one of the best performances of the year, and prior to my knowledge of his charges, I would have said unequivocally that he deserved the Oscar. Now I cannot say that comfortably. The Woody Allen Club is not only a club of men who have abused women and lived to tell the tale in their Oscar acceptance speeches, it is also a club of men whose work I can no longer go to see without feeling sick to my stomach.
There are people who disagree with this idea; many believe that the Oscars should not concern itself with politics and morals. The thing is, film is inherently political in how it chooses to depict life and, by extension, so are the Oscars. By giving Casey Affleck an Oscar, just like giving Woody Allen or Sean Penn the prestigious award, the Academy is implicitly condoning abuse. It is saying that even if you rape someone, you tie them to a chair and beat them, or you harass them to the point they feel the need to sue you, you can still have a career in Hollywood. Not only that, but you will have a career that can still flourish.
To complicate an already complicated issue, it is important to discuss the controversy surrounding Nate Parker and his film The Birth of a Nation. The biopic about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner is Parker’s directorial debut and following the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it was looking to be a Best Picture front-runner. Instead, it was not nominated for a single award. This turn of events is a result of a widely publicized report that Parker and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin had been accused of raping a fellow student while at Pennsylvania State University in 1999. Parker was acquitted of all four charges, but Celestin (who is a credited writer on The Birth of a Nation) was convicted of sexual assault.
News outlets, such as Variety and Deadline, ran this story and suddenly The Birth of a Nation went from Sundance darling and Oscar front-runner to a box-office failure with lukewarm reviews. I am not looking to defend Parker or his film. But, I do want to ask why Woody Allen is allowed to make true to life films in which his teenage love interest is played by a girl half his age (Allen’s love interest in the “classic” film Manhattan was played by seventeen-year-old Mariel Hemingway who has stated that Allen, who was forty-three at the time, tried to seduce her). I want to ask why Casey Affleck now has his own Sundance film to promote with little pushback from the industry.
Outside of Hollywood, a criminal charge, no matter how minor, often carries enough stigma to make getting any job difficult. But inside Hollywood, directors will continue to line up to work with the likes of Sean Penn and Casey Affleck, regardless of these allegations or charges. The controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation raises questions about the intersectionality of race within these issues, and the lauding of Manchester By The Sea reiterates the privileging of white, connected figures in Hollywood. Nate Parker is not a good man, but neither is Casey Affleck; yet only one of them has had their careers ruined by their criminal record.