If you buy into the current hype around this year’s Academy Awards, Casey Affleck is the current front-runner for Best Actor. He’s already won preliminary accolades from critics’ associations and major film festivals, and his publicity firm, ID PR, is doing a full-court-press campaigning on his behalf. The attention is for his role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, in which he plays a Boston janitor navigating several different kinds of grief, and coming to terms with being given custody of his teenage nephew.
Meanwhile, the internet is coming to terms with multiple sexual-harassment lawsuits against Affleck, who has settled those cases out of court. The Daily Beast has a pretty definitive account of the charges, but you can also read the court filings from the two plaintiffs — producer Amanda White and cinematographer Magdalena Gorka. Affleck was accused of sexually inappropriate and emotionally abusive behavior toward White and Gorka over a period of many months while they were working on his 2010 documentary I’m Still Here. Among other things, White stated that Affleck frequently referred to women as “cows,” sent her threatening text messages after she refused to share a hotel room with him, and locked her out of her room so he and Joaquin Phoenix could have sex with two women in it. Gorka alleged similar behavior, including that Affleck often joked about how she should have sex with various members of the production team, and that she once woke up to find him in her bed. Eventually, both White and Gorka were forced to leave the project.
We keep having the conversation about the relationship between fame, talent, and sexual misconduct, but there’s a new anatomy to it now, thanks to the internet. Stars’ sexual misbehavior gets a lot more attention when we don’t have to rely on establishment press to bring it to the public eye — social media and online publications are leading the charge to expose this kind of behavior, and change the conversation around it.
After nominating white people for every single acting award at last year’s ceremony, The Academy faced a massive backlash and threats of boycott. They were asked to reckon with the fact that the awards aren’t just a fun little dinner party for them, they have real effects on who gets attention, funding, and acclaim in the film industry. Viewers care who wins these awards, but the industry cares more. If the Academy awards the Oscar to Casey Affleck in February, they may have to gear up for another year of public pillorying, hand-wringing, and apologizing.
Online shame and declining ratings for a once-profitable telecast may be far more powerful than basic human decency. That’s not ideal, but it’s a weapon for those of us who are tired of stories about men using their power to abuse and degrade women, including their own employees. The internet has failed us dozens of times this year, but if it gets just a little bit better, it could make Casey Affleck the last Casey Affleck. While he won’t be the last man accused of what he has been accused of, he could be the last one to get within arm’s reach of one of our silliest but ultimately most prized cultural honors.
But the work of exposing and questioning sexual abuse and harassment still falls largely on women. The public still doesn’t care enough when it’s not awards season. And we still make excuses for men if we think their art justifies it.
The problem starts with the trade magazines and the big papers. Affleck’s settlements aren’t the same as a criminal conviction, but there should be some heightened suspicion of guilt here: two nearly simultaneous accusations and settlements, two women who have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by terminating contracts on a buzzy project much bigger than most things they had previously worked on. Journalists should, at the very least, be investigating the claims against Affleck, and asking him more pointed questions based on what they find. Even if his acting work is exemplary, we should not be considering giving him an award meant to boost fame, confer approval, and guarantee continued industry success — not without at least hearing answers to these questions. So far, he does not seem capable of giving satisfying answers to even the most basic inquiries.
Variety’s recent 2,000-word cover story on Affleck contains six sentences about the lawsuit. Four of them are his: “People say whatever they want, sometimes it doesn’t matter how you respond. I guess people think if you’re well known it’s perfectly fine to say anything you want. I don’t know why that is. But it shouldn’t be, because everyone has families and lives.” Affleck was also recently included in one of The Hollywood Reporter’s actor roundtables, which are meant to bring together the cream of the crop. In it, he’s obviously not asked about the harassment allegations. A November profile for The New York Times proclaims “Casey Affleck is Making Another Splash, Reluctantly,” yet barely interrogates what might be one of the more obvious reasons for his reluctance. Again, most of the words on the issue are his: “It was settled to the satisfaction of all. I was hurt and upset — I am sure all were — but I am over it. It was an unfortunate situation — mostly for the innocent bystanders of the families of those involved.”
The narrative of “Casey Affleck, reluctant star, good sad boy, deserver of awards” certainly has been questioned — just not by the trade publications, or the major mainstream media. The impetus for pushing these conversations forward seems always to fall on websites with huge financial and editorial investments in female readership. Jezebel, Mic, The Hairpin, and New York Magazine’s The Cut have taken the lead on the complaints against Affleck — as they do almost all of the time. Trade magazines and established culture publications that originally indulged in glossy profiles of Nate Parker and luminous reviews of The Birth of a Nation were shouted into turning on their heels by these same publications, and by dozens of smaller sites and vocal individuals.
There’s still a notable delay between the sounding of the alarm on these platforms and the response from older sites and magazines. When Nate Parker’s rape trial story broke in August (despite technically being public record and part of his Wikipedia page for over a decade), The Hollywood Reporter initially ran a lengthy and ludicrous column about how he could “survive a rape trial scandal” by asking for support from the Black Lives Matter movement. After a swift and decisive online backlash, THR changed course, and spent the following two months matching public outrage beat for beat.
Publications with a broad audience and reliance on access to movie stars are still effectively bandwagon-jumpers when it comes to sexual scandal involving powerful men. As The Cut’s Allie Jones points out: “Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have championed and protected Casey Affleck throughout his career, sending a message to the media that they are a united front… This brotherly posing makes prestige outlets hesitant to ask the younger Affleck tough questions for fear of losing access to all three stars.” So, they wait to see how much the public really cares. It is still not a given that they do.
Part of that is because one of the less obvious stings of toxic masculinity is that fighting it can be incredibly boring. The Casey Affleck story sounds like a hundred other Hollywood horror stories we’ve heard, and gearing up to feel furious about it yet again is muscle memory. It’s exhausting, and feels unfair to have to work up a unified, aggressive response every time.
It’s well-known that Hollywood has a gender problem. But as this situation illustrates, women aren’t just missing out on tangible opportunity in Hollywood, something that’s obvious and nameable. They’re also missing out on all the creative work they could be doing if they weren’t devoting emotional and mental energy to avoiding and deterring sexual harassment from their bosses, fulfilling the obligations they feel to speak out and argue about sexism on behalf of others, and wondering what they can do this month to evade the clutches of a system that doesn’t want them to get anywhere. The cost of every opportunity can be extreme.
The fact that this particular lawsuit didn’t inspire outrage until it was intimated that Affleck might win Best Actor says a great deal about the current atmosphere in Hollywood. Who knows how many stories like these have gone without comment because they’re de rigueur, and their time in the limelight has not yet come?
And even while the online sentiment sours against him, there are many ways that the cards are still stacked in Affleck’s favor. Chief among them, the precedent set by the two-decade-long conversation about Woody Allen. When the public was asked to assess the likelihood that Allen had committed the crimes he was accused of, they had already called his films era-defining art. We were asking a very specific and challenging retroactive question about to what degree we should continue to enjoy his work and call it important, but somehow that was mutated into a broader question with a broad response: “Yes, okay, sure, lots of artists have troubling personal lives.”
Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Tilda Swinton, Ethan Coen, and Woody Allen have defended Roman Polanski, who was convicted of statutory rape and then fled to France to avoid sentencing. Tim Burton defends Johnny Depp, who was recently accused of emotional and physical abuse by his ex-wife Amber Heard. No one has been terribly shy about giving more work to Sean Penn, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Fassbender, Mike Tyson, or Bill Murray, all of them accused of specific and twisted acts of violence. Our collective recollections of Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and Sean Connery are still overwhelmingly positive.
But these situations aren’t the same, and deciding not to pad Affleck’s career with an award known for making stars’ names should be much easier. For one thing there’s much less doubt surrounding the accusations, and for another, Casey Affleck — while talented, sure — is not embedded in the cultural canon in the way that Allen was. Plenty of people can act. Why shouldn’t heinous behavior end his career, just as being terrible at his job in any other way would?
What’s being said really is that — at all times, even when it’s not exceptional, even when it’s mediocre — the male artistic vision is more important and valuable than the basic dignity or safety of any given woman. It does not have to be a work of genius. I am guilty of the inverse, which is no better: I’ve rolled my eyes talking about Woody Allen, as if to say the conversation is irrelevant because I don’t think his movies are good enough to excuse his alleged behavior — as if to say there is some level of artistry in film that would be?
Almost in specific answer to that question, yet another film industry abuse scandal just broke. The 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, while not technically a Hollywood product, made nearly $13 million in the US, and was headlined by American movie star Marlon Brando. It’s considered a controversial classic that pushed the boundaries of portraying perverse sexuality on film. Recently, it was uncovered (via footage from a 2013 interview) that the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, conspired with Brando to shoot the film’s notoriously graphic rape scene without informing the 19-year-old lead actress Maria Schneider how they planned to stage it. Bertolucci defended the choice, saying he wanted to see Schneider’s reaction as “a girl, not as an actress.” Both men were nominated for Academy Awards. Schneider was fired from a later film, Caligula, for refusing to shoot any more nude scenes, then spent most of the 1970s and ‘80s struggling with drug addiction.
We romanticize the classical notion that destruction leads to creation, and never is it more appealing than when what’s being destroyed is “just” female dignity. “In service of great art? Of course it’s worth it.” As a society, we often do it for much less. We often do it for no reason at all. The United States just elected as president a man accused of sexual assault two dozen times over.
Affleck’s other huge advantage is his human shield of Hollywood elites. He has two of Hollywood’s most profitable A-list actors in his court — his childhood friend Matt Damon and his brother Ben Affleck. (Among other things, Damon produced Manchester by the Sea.) Again there’s a parallel in a precedent set by the Woody Allen controversy. Woody Allen accrued substantial personal wealth, a vast professional network, and decades’ worth of beloved films that insulated him from the conversations about whether he was a child molester, and about whether he was a vague sort of predatory creep for dating and marrying his own step-daughter, 35 years his junior.
If audiences cast Woody Allen out based on a strong moral objection, they would logically have to write off anyone who agreed to collaborate with him after 1992. After all, if everyone refused to work with him, he wouldn’t be able to work. That means actors like Emma Stone, Cate Blanchett, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Scarlett Johansson, Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard, Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Peter Sarsgaard, and Colin Firth, as well as backers like Amazon Studios, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate, and The Weinstein Company. As a principled boycott, it’s hard to fathom — how would you even keep track of every person in Hollywood who has signed up to participate in the back half of Woody Allen’s career? Would you have to spend four hours on IMDb before every trip to the theater? There lies the magic that protects these men — they’re surrounded by people we like, and people whose movies we would like to continue enjoying without guilt.
In the same vein, Casey Affleck will host Saturday Night Live on December 17th — becoming the second alleged sex criminal to host the show this year. This is the Christmas episode, reliably the most-watched episode of the season for SNL. It’s yet another way that he’ll be presented as likable, talented, and popular leading up to the Oscars. That should alter our opinions of everyone who works on the show, but we don’t want it to. So instead, audiences will unconsciously alter their opinions of Affleck.
All of these factors make for a vicious cycle, one that insures that the conversation about harassment, abuse, and misogyny doesn’t often come to a head unless these things threaten to tarnish awards season. Even then, there are ways to talk ourselves down and avoid the hard conversation. And that’s how the reality that it is grossly, possibly illegally challenging to work in Hollywood as a woman gets obscured by a debate about whether or not this one specific gross dude gets an Oscar. He’s a symptom, not the disease. The fact that his brother and friend instinctively protect him from the press is a symptom of the disease. The fact that we’ve been trained to prioritize some good films over the dignity and crippled ambition of women is a symptom of the disease.
But despite everything we are bad at, we are getting better at holding people in the film industry accountable for specific acts of misogyny that make it harder for women to succeed. Maureen O’Dowd’s survey of 100 women in Hollywood gave voice to dozens of their specific and vivid grievances; studio bosses who say they can’t find women capable of directing a blockbuster are refuted online almost daily; actresses who speak up about equal pay are encouraged by an eager public on social media even while they’re maligned by their co-stars. Casey Affleck is getting a pass in mainstream media, but not on the internet more broadly, which continues to look at the big picture, resisting the urge to shrug off anything outside the packaged narrative his publicists want us to hear. If we really want to make sure there are no more Casey Afflecks, that’s what we need to do as well.