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How do you separate the performance from the performer? It’s a question the Academy faces every year. And, each year, right up until the final Oscars are handed out, there’s no easy answer.
Actors who go to great lengths to transform their physique — putting on weight as Robert De Niro did for Raging Bull, losing it as Matthew McConaughey did for Dallas Buyers Club — seem to be rewarded with an extra A for effort and for their extreme dedication to their craft. Similarly, actresses who surrender any sense of vanity — Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster — also have earned points for temporarily abandoning their status as glamour girls. But that’s only because audiences, and Oscar voters, have a sense of what those stars look like in real life and so can appreciate the effort that went into the transformation.
But what about how stars behave in real life? How much does that affect how voters judge their work onscreen? Certainly, it doesn’t hurt to project a winning personality — like two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks and three-time winner Meryl Streep. And in the case of first-time nominees, particularly when they are new to the Hollywood scene, a good charm offensive never hurts. Witness Marion Cotillard‘s victory for La Vie en Rose and Eddie Redmayne‘s for The Theory of Everything — even if other factors also came into play, the fact that they knew how to work the room had to give them a bit of an advantage.
On the other hand, what if a performer is known to be difficult? What sort of hurdle does that present? Consider Sean Penn. He isn’t known for being warm and cuddly, and yet he’s won the Oscar twice, admitting with a degree of self-deprecating awareness when he accepted his second trophy for Milk in 2009, “I want it to be very clear — I know how hard I make it to appreciate me.”
Take it a step further, though. What happens when an awards hopeful is said not just to be difficult, but is accused of bad behavior, even if those allegations are years old? That seems to be the question mark hovering over Casey Affleck at the moment.
For most of this awards season, Affleck has been the toast of the film industry for his heartbreaking portrayal of a man beaten down by tragedy in Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester by the Sea. First unveiled at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the film hasn’t faltered as it has toured the festival circuit and made its bid for awards glory.
Along the way, Affleck has won the best actor Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, Gotham, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle and London Critics Circle awards and has received nominations for the best actor BAFTA, Spirit and Academy awards. But at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, his winning streak was broken. In what many considered an upset, Fences‘ Denzel Washington claimed SAG’s best actor prize — and it’s got to be considered an important victory, since the winner of that prize has gone on to win the best actor Oscar for the past 13 years in a row.
So what happened? It’s certainly possible that SAG-AFTRA members simply liked Washington’s performance more. Fences is, of course, an adaptation of August Wilson‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play; Washington already won a Tony for its 2010 Broadway revival, and his performance is showy and theatrical in a way that often appeals to awards voters — and also in a way that Affleck’s much quieter portrayal of a depressed man who is turned inward is not.
But it’s also possible that something else was on voters’ minds that has nothing to do with either man’s work onscreen.
Flash back for a moment to the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. All eyes were focused on Nate Parker and his Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation. Nine months earlier, when the movie debuted at Sundance, it was hailed as a surefire Oscar contender. But then, over the summer, details of a 17-year-old rape case — in which Turner was charged and acquitted — resurfaced in the media. The firestorm that surrounded him and his movie became even more damaging with the revelation that the woman who brought the charges subsequently committed suicide. Parker’s attempts to address the controversy only made things worse, and Fox Searchlight’s efforts to refocus attention on the film itself and away from Parker weren’t any more successful.
The movie’s fate, both commercially and in terms of awards, was sealed.
Even if, as some argued, The Birth of a Nation had been overpraised at Sundance, it now faced the opposite reaction. There were those who refused to go see the movie and consider it on its own merits — separate from those of its filmmaker.
The one exception has been the Directors Guild of America, which nominated Parker for its award for best director of a first feature. For all practical purposes, though, The Birth of a Nation became an extreme example of a work of art tarnished by the reputation of the artist responsible for creating it. And Parker’s own talent as a filmmaker was overshadowed by his lurid past.
It was against that backdrop that an editor at the website Mashable wrote an article raising the question in its headline: “Amid the uproar over Nate Parker, why is no one talking about Casey Affleck?” The article went on to recount years-old allegations made against Affleck — by two women who, in 2009, had worked behind the scenes on I’m Still Here, his infamous 2010 indie mockumentary about his longtime best friend, Joaquin Phoenix.
In July 2010, Magdalena Gorka, the film’s cinematographer, and Amanda White, one of its producers, brought separate civil suits against Affleck. White accused him of breaking an oral agreement to pay her $50,000 for her work as a producer and of several instances of verbal sexual harassment; Gorka, in her suit, alleged similar remarks as well as an instance of Affleck drunkenly caressing her back while she slept.
Affleck’s attorney filed a motion in which he vehemently denied the allegations on behalf of his client and accused White of extortion. Days later, lawyers for all involved quickly reached a settlement and released a statement saying the matter had “been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties.” With a confidentiality agreement in place, that appeared to bring down the curtain on the incident.
In the wake of the Mashable story, a number of other publications attempted to wrestle with the question of why Affleck hadn’t been subject to the same outrage that was directed at Parker. But while the obvious issue of race hovered in the background, there also was a recognition that the two cases were very different — both in the seriousness of the accusations themselves and in how they had been raised and resolved.
In any event, there didn’t appear to be any real appetite on the part of the media to relitigate the Affleck dispute. And while a few voices did object to his Oscar nomination, the case against the actor didn’t gather any real traction.
Still, it didn’t recede into the background entirely. The chatter has reached some members of the Academy, and — make no mistake about it — is being encouraged through whisper campaigns on the part of some of the awards consultants representing actors who are competing against Affleck and films that are competing against Manchester.
And that’s where a line needs to be drawn: Such conversations shouldn’t be any part of whether or not Affleck is worthy of an Oscar. Academy members aren’t being asked to decide if he — or anybody else for that matter — is a flag-waving, all-American Boy Scout. The Academy has an honor that it reserves for people of extraordinary character — it’s called the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, not the best actor Oscar.
Making the Oscars’ competitive awards about anything other than a nominee’s performance — its technique, its emotional honesty, its truth — is just silly, every bit as much as the Baseball Hall of Fame’s refusal to enshrine Pete Rose.
Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, isn’t a member of the hall — not because he broke any rule on the field, but because he was a degenerate gambler off the field who bet on the sport (though never against his own team, he says). Meanwhile, O.J. Simpson, despite his alleged and proven crimes, remains in the Football Hall of Fame (having been inducted years before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman). Football got it right and baseball got it wrong.
Voters can measure achievement objectively. Voters cannot measure character objectively, nor should we get into the game of trying to do so.
And that — with the exception of a brief and disgraceful period when the Academy refused to recognize anyone who was accused of being a member of the Communist Party — has been the Academy’s official policy.
Plenty of people who have behaved badly have been celebrated at the Oscars. Mel Gibson, who was certainly persona non grata in many quarters in Hollywood after his drunken anti-Semitic and misogynistic rants in 2006, was welcomed back into the Academy’s good graces this year with his directing nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. Since Woody Allen‘s acrimonious breakup with Mia Farrow in 1992 and the accusations and denials of sex abuse that followed, he’s received nine Oscar nominations and won a best original screenplay prize for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor and then fled the country in 1978, subsequently received (in absentia) the best director Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist.
In dispensing these honors, the Academy wasn’t condoning the behavior of those artists. It was recognizing, as it should, their art.
And that really ought to be the defining criterion — the evidence that’s up there on the screen. In deciding how to mark up one’s ballot, the backstory that an actor loaded up on carbs or went on an extreme diet shouldn’t really enter into the equation. And whether an actress bravely chose to forgo makeup shouldn’t be a factor either. Actors who can recount a good story at a Q&A shouldn’t have an advantage. And neither should the charmers who chat up anyone who approaches them at all those cocktail parties and lunches on the awards circuit. And, definitely, any allegations should be ignored.
Voters should judge the art and not the artist.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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