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The Thorny Ethics of the Oscars

 
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2016 2:43 am    Post subject: The Thorny Ethics of the Oscars Reply with quote

How much should the sexual-harassment controversy surrounding Casey
Affleck, or the ethical questions around other directors and actors,
affect Academy voters' choices?

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-thorny-ethics-of-the-oscars

The New Yorker
The Thorny Ethics of the Oscars
By Michael Schulman
12-21-16

The Academy Awards officially need a rabbi. How else to navigate the
thorny ethics that seem to sprout up each year around the question of
separating the artist from the art? Of course, this is a quandary that
many of us face during all points on the calendar, whether we’re
wrestling with nostalgia for “The Cosby Show” or the prospect of a new
Roman Polanski film. But awards season puts these unsolvable issues in a
stark light. The most recent round of hand-wringing over Woody Allen was
set off when he received the lifetime-achievement award at the Golden
Globes.

Last season’s Oscar race was scarcely over when a big, screaming scandal
kicked off the current one, thanks to Nate Parker, the writer, director,
and star of “The Birth of a Nation.” At Sundance, Fox Searchlight
snapped up the film, about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, for
a record $17.5 million. In the heat of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the
hype was undoubtedly fuelled by the desire to solve (or hide)
Hollywood’s racial disparities with a dashing new auteur. But the
movie’s rollout was obliterated by revelations about Parker’s past: in
1999, he and his Penn State roommate had been charged with raping a
classmate, who killed herself years later. Parker was acquitted of all
charges (his roommate was convicted of sexual assault, but the charge was
later overturned), and maintained his innocence throughout an agonizing
press tour, declining to express contrition for what was, if nothing else,
a devastating incident for his accuser. The movie tanked at the box office
and has disappeared from any awards conversation.

As upsetting and complicated as the “Birth of a Nation” debacle
was—rarely does a movie stomp so firmly on the hornet’s nest of race
and sexual assault—it was a pretty cut-and-dried case of whether a work
of art should be embraced despite the apparent sins of the artist.
(Answer: no.) Now that awards season is in full swing, some stickier
scenarios have emerged. Casey Affleck, the star of Kenneth Lonergan’s
tenderly wrought drama “Manchester by the Sea,” is considered the
front-runner in the Best Actor contest, having already won the New York
Film Critics Circle Award and several other critics’ prizes. (He’s
also nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award.) As Affleck’s star
rose, a disquieting episode from his recent past came back to light. After
he directed the 2010 pseudo-documentary “I’m Still Here”—the one
about Joaquin Phoenix pretending to go crazy—two women, the producer
Amanda White and the cinematographer Magdalena Gorka, sued him for sexual
harassment. Though Affleck initially denied the allegations, both lawsuits
were settled. The stories are gross: Affleck ordering a male crew member
to show White his penis; Gorka waking up to find Affleck in her bed in a
T-shirt and underwear, caressing her back.

The episode hasn’t toppled Affleck’s awards ascendance, despite
insistent headlines like the one that ran on Think Progress: “Why
aren’t sexual harassment allegations derailing Casey Affleck’s Oscar
chances?” Why did Parker’s scandal sink his entire movie while
Affleck’s is a footnote? The comparison is tricky. Surely, there’s a
racial element that lets white men off the hook more easily than black
men—and Affleck has the additional force field of a famous name and a
famous brother. But the accusations against Parker were far more serious,
the consequences more tragic. And, while Parker was the unavoidable
selling point of his movie, in which he cast himself as the hero, Affleck
is part of an expertly calibrated ensemble; he plays a jerky, damaged,
socially stunted loser. In other words, his personal morality isn’t
baked into the movie’s premise. Perhaps Lonergan was able to draw on
some aspect of Affleck’s seaminess while maintaining the safety of his
set—should the movie’s fortunes suffer? Then again, if you’re an
Oscar voter, do you really want to reward this guy, even if you thought he
gave the best performance of the year? Won’t that just give him more
opportunities to be on more movie sets, where it’s conceivable that
he’ll mistreat female crew members? You see where the rabbi would come
in handy.

The Affleck controversy has coincided with two other ethical curveballs.
One is the reheated outrage over the 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris,”
after a 2013 interview resurfaced in which the director, Bernardo
Bertolucci, admitted that he and Marlon Brando conspired to surprise the
actress Maria Schneider—who was nineteen at the time—with a
lubricating handful of butter during the infamous rape scene. Before she
died, in 2011, Schneider herself spoke of the nonconsensual nature of the
scene and its psychological toll on her—did we fail to listen to her
then? Unlike with “The Birth of a Nation” or “Manchester,” there
are no mitigating factors between the art and the artist: the ugliness is
up on the screen, perpetrated in the name of “authenticity.” It’s
sickening to think that the film was nominated for two Academy Awards, one
for Bertolucci and one for Brando. (Both won Oscars for other films.)
Still, is every Brando film now tainted by association?

At the same time, none other than Mel Gibson has swooped into awards
season, with a Golden Globe nomination for his direction of “Hacksaw
Ridge.” I haven’t been able to bring myself to see the movie, which
seems to follow the Gibson formula of heroic suffering amid nearly
fetishistic violence. It’s now been a decade since the D.U.I. arrest
that gave us “sugar tits” and “The Jews are responsible for all the
wars in the world.” Is it comeback time? The fact that “Hacksaw
Ridge” has surpassed a hundred million dollars at the global box office
seems to indicate so. It’s dispiriting to think of Affleck, Parker,
Gibson, and Brando as points on a never-ending Hollywood continuum: 1)
look the other way, 2) career death, 3) career rebirth, and 4) legacy
reëvaluation. Our movie culture, at times, seems like a perpetual
reckoning with the excesses of men—not to mention the underutilization
of women, especially behind the camera. All of this, of course, comes
during the rise of Donald Trump, in which appalling misogyny and even
sexual-assault allegations seem untethered to consequences.

It seems impossible, and misguided, to demand an ethical CAT scan for
everyone who’s nominated for an Oscar. Not long ago, I had lunch with an
Academy member who had been busily attending screenings. When I asked
whether the Affleck story would color his vote, he said anxiously, “I
just don’t know.” Each Artist vs. Art case is complicated—less a
one-to-one ratio than a quadratic equation—but, at some point, Academy
members will be faced with a list of five names and a choice to make. What
if it’s between Affleck and Denzel Washington for Best Actor, and you
think Washington’s a great guy but Affleck gave the better performance?
Forget the rabbi: each Oscar voter is now his or her own Solomon the Wise.
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