Who’s Next? Polanski, Cosby and Oscar’s Code of Conduct Questions

Oscar's Walk the Plank_Illo - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Ryan Inzana

On May 3, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed that its board of governors had voted to oust Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski from its membership ranks "in accordance with the organization's Standards of Conduct." But the timing of the expulsions — seven days after Cosby was found guilty by a Pennsylvania jury of sexual assault and 41 years after Polanski pled guilty to sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 — has confused many Academy members who've been privately whispering about what comes next.

If such expulsions for past behavior become the new normal, these members ask, would they become a regular event? Will the Academy get more attention for the members it expels than those it invites to join? And if so, how many more complaints could the Academy currently be considering?

Academy insiders stress that such extreme disciplinary measures are not expected to become regular occurrences and that, while even the organization's officials don't know what complaints may be awaiting review — since the process is designed to be highly confidential, any complaints brought to the Academy are treated as such — there is not a backlog of complaints awaiting adjudication. Academy officials denied interview requests.

Highlighting the thorny issues raised by the new process, on May 8, Polanski's attorney Harland Braun sent a letter to Academy president John Bailey threatening to sue the organization for depriving the director of a "fair hearing" before the expulsion and for "your organization's blatant disregard of its own Standards of Conduct." (Polanski was awarded the best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003, decades after his guilty plea.)

Many members THR spoke with are happy that Polanski, 84, and Cosby, 80, are out. "If there is no conviction, then you're expelling based on an opinion, and I don't think that's fair," says Rod Lurie, a member of the directors branch. "But both of these guys were convicted, and I think that having a conviction raises the credibility of an expulsion." Larry Gleason, a member of the executives branch, notes, "I was one of the ones who was of the belief, when they expelled Harvey, they probably should have included these guys too. I think they're making just kind of knee-jerk reactions, but ultimately they did the right thing."

Kirby Dick, member of the documentary branch and co-director of two Oscar-nominated documentaries about sexual assault, adds, "I completely support the expulsion of Cosby and Polanski from the Academy. Anyone who has been convicted of sexual assault or is a fugitive should not be allowed to remain in the Academy. Beyond that, it is the responsibility of the Academy to expel any member who has been credibly accused by multiple people of sexual assault. To not do so will only allow this problem to continue. In fact, the Academy’s past refusal to take on this responsibility has contributed to the problem of sexual assault in the industry."

Other members question the wisdom of the Academy wading into matters unrelated to filmmaking. "I feel like taking away [Polanski's] Academy membership is wrong," says Rutanya Alda, a member of the actors branch who worked with the director on Rosemary's Baby. "He was a member of the Academy because he was an outstanding filmmaker." Stu Zakim, a public relations branch member, agrees with the sentiment. "This was absolutely not the right way to handle it," he says. "I'm not standing up for what Cosby did in any way, shape or form — I think he's a piece of shit. But what is personal and what is business?"

Until Oct. 14 of last year — when Harvey Weinstein was expelled following an emergency meeting of the board of governors after the mogul's history of alleged sexual assault and harassment was reported — only one person had ever been expelled from the Academy in its 90-year history. That was actor Carmine Caridi, who was tossed out in 2004 for the "crime" of loaning screeners.

Then, in January, the Academy adopted a new code of conduct and created a subcommittee of its existing membership and administration committee, which is currently headed by casting director David Rubin, to review complaints lodged against members and evaluate any appeals. The committee forwards its findings on to the board of governors for a final decision. Thus far, the only claim known to have come before Rubin's subcommittee, which operates in top secrecy, was one against Bailey. The subcommittee decided it was unfounded — but only after it was leaked to the press — and the board dismissed it in March.

The question now is whether the Academy, having banished three members, will have to rule on other members who have been accused of various degrees of sexual misconduct. In resigning as a member of the board of governors in April, producer and former studio chief Bill Mechanic lodged a litany of criticism, including his belief that the Academy's board had "decided to play Moral Police."

While there is no evidence that any specific complaints about these men have been brought to the Academy, Oscar winner Kevin Spacey has been accused of, and denies, multiple allegations of sexual assault; producer Brett Ratner has been accused of, and denies, multiple allegations of harassment and misconduct; Oscar winner Casey Affleck was accused of sexual harassment by two women but settled with them in civil suits; and actor Stephen Collins acknowledged on tape that he had touched minors but was never charged.

Meanwhile, industry veterans Robert Blake, who in 2005 was found liable in a California civil court for the wrongful death of his wife, and James Toback, who currently is facing hundreds of allegations of sexual misconduct — cannot be expelled, if only because neither is an active member. Both have failed to pay dues — since 2003 and 2008, respectively — and so have lost their membership status. As for Woody Allen, one of the highest-profile filmmakers to be accused of — and deny — sexual misconduct, the Academy is off the hook: Allen has always declined invitations to become a member.

The Academy's current position is that it has not one but two "avenues" through which it can sanction members: The first is through Rubin's subcommittee, which will review a member's conduct if a claim is formally registered; the second is through the board itself, which can initiate expulsion procedures for cause even if a claim has not been registered. An appeals process is provided only for cases examined by Rubin's committee; if the board takes the initiative to vote for an expulsion on its own — and an expulsion requires a two-thirds vote of the 54-member board — there is no appeals process.

As the Academy attempts to navigate the new terrain in which it, and its members, are being held to a higher standard, one thing remains true: Once awarded, Oscars are inviolate, the Academy confirms. In other words, neither Weinstein nor Polanski will be asked to return his Academy Award.

This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.