Given the way the ceremony ended, when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty infamously gave the best picture Oscar to “La La Land” instead of “Moonlight,” you’d be forgiven if you forgot the biggest controversy going into the 89th Academy Awards.
Casey Affleck was the front-runner in the best actor race, and an internet furor was slowly but surely growing over a pair of lawsuits against him alleging various forms of verbal, physical, and sexual harassment.
The incidents occurred during the production of Affleck’s film “I’m Still Here.” The movie is remembered (if it is at all) as the one in which Joaquin Phoenix pretended to be crazy and showed up on David Letterman in character.
Among other complaints, Affleck was accused of “violently” grabbing one producer when she refused his advances and hopping into bed and groping the cinematographer while she slept. The cases were settled, and Hollywood seemingly moved on.
Plenty of women, however, were upset at Affleck’s redemption narrative. The most prominent was actress Brie Larson. It’s a tradition at most award shows for the winners of the best actress category to present the best actor statue the following year. Larson had won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards for her portrayal of a woman who’s been kidnapped, raped and imprisoned.
Her visible disappointment at the Globes was noticed on Twitter as was her happiness when Denzel Washington won instead at the SAGs. On Oscar night, though, Affleck prevailed. Larson refused to applaud. Washington was noticeably uncomfortable when Affleck praised him on the stage. Meanwhile, the actor’s brother Ben and friend Matt Damon were overjoyed.
What a difference a year makes.
Casey Affleck announced on Wednesday that he won’t be presenting at this year’s ceremony, citing his fear of how the #MeToo movement would react. Larson is one of the leading voices of Time’s Up. Ben Affleck’s behavior was freshly examined. Matt Damon twisted himself in knots, and was subsequently raked over the coals, in his tone-deaf attempts to defend his friends.
There’s even a strange coda to this story as Denzel Washington scored a surprise best actor nomination after sexual harassment allegations sunk James Franco, once considered a front-runner. His candidacy was likely torpedoed by a story from the Los Angeles Times containing accusations from some of his acting students.
Franco’s experience highlights a strange aspect of Oscar season. After all, there’s a reason the run-up to the show is called a campaign. It features all the same narrative-building, big-dollar advertising and smear tactics that a political contest does. As a result, award campaigns give alleged victims something the law so rarely does, a chance to strike back.
Rumors about Franco existed for years. It didn’t help his reputation when he attempted to pick up a 17-year-old over Instagram a few years ago. So when Franco took the stage to accept his Golden Globe wearing a “Time’s Up” pin, it took only a few moments for the first tweets to come in accusing the actor of hypocrisy.
As he continued the press tour, Franco was asked by late show hosts Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers about the allegations. The star’s unsatisfactory answer was that he contested their versions of history yet understood their concerns and would change his behavior.
After the graphic L.A. Times piece was published, Franco cancelled his promotional appearances. It was left to his sister-in-law to deliver a lukewarm defense on the red carpet at the SAG Awards. Reports suggest that Franco himself was relieved by the snub because he worried about how he would be received.
There’s no small bit of irony that award season has become the best avenue for actresses to fight back against harassment and discrimination, since for the past few decades Harvey Weinstein terrorized the award circuit.
Now Hollywood’s most popular and powerful actresses are taking the award shows back. Yet the question remains: Is the public willing to go further? For example, new front-runner Gary Oldman has his own problematic history. Will he be the next person held to account?
If the film community is really serious about this epidemic, however, it can’t just start and end at campaign season. Denying someone an award or nomination may be satisfying, but it’s also low stakes. Those who have committed wrongs can live with not winning gold statues, but, if their careers are threatened, they’re liable to fight back. Will the movie-going public hold them to account or tire of all these terrible tales and once again turn a blind eye?
Real change is going to require a much larger campaign.