It’s no coincidence that RadarOnline waited until Casey Affleck took home a Critics’ Choice Award and was about to earn a Golden Globe nomination to rehash the details of the sexual harassment allegations filed against him in 2010. Even though the suit was settled and the “exclusive documents” Radar obtained are, in fact, the same documents that multiple outlets have been reporting for months, the website was presumably waiting for the right moment to strike.
In a fairly unprecedented phenomenon, the media appears to be using awards contests as cause to audit celebrities’ morality. We’re seeing that dynamic play out with Affleck, an Oscar front-runner for his performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” one of the year’s indie hits. A Mashable story from September that renewed the attention surrounding Affleck’s case weighed the actor’s awards odds and questioned why “no one” was discussing his allegations. With the 2017 Oscar race heating up over the past two months, the media’s scrutiny has intensified. This week alone, BuzzFeed, New York magazine and The Hollywood Reporter published new pieces about the claims against Affleck. But why now?
It’s vital to hold public figures accountable for using their power to abuse others, but timing is equally important.
As the court of public opinion grows less forgiving of celebrities’ transgressions, the attention concerning Affleck’s past signals that the tenets of Hollywood awards may shift dramatically. The Academy is, in many ways, a well-appointed hive mind whose historical preferences make it possible to predict each year’s prizes. Those preferences also let us treat the Oscar race like a derby, with ponies shifting positions as the season lingers through late February. Studios spend millions of dollars to stage Oscar campaigns as if they were political elections. It’s now understood that, to win, potential nominees must embrace what pundits call “narratives.”
Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, coasted all the way through last year’s awards on two counts: After four losses, he was overdue for a win, and anyway, didn’t you hear how arduous it was to shoot “The Revenant” in that arctic tundra? Leo ate raw bison liver, for chrissake! Honor him! DiCaprio and his “Revenant” cohort repeated these anecdotes again and again. They’re an example of what publicists want: a positive narrative that bolsters their candidate’s odds. The Affleck fracas is what they don’t want: something that might dissuade voters from supporting that nominee. Affleck’s narrative initially focused on the lesser-known Affleck brother finally finding a lead role that elevates him, but these resurfaced allegations cloud that arc.
Allie Jones made a fair assessment on The Cut, noting that Affleck’s Oscar campaign has billed him (somewhat falsely) as a quiet Hollywood outsider whose seriousness denied him top-tier stardom. “If [the accusers] were telling the truth about Affleck and his behavior, however, Affleck is not who he says he is,” Jones wrote last month. “His behavior, as described in their complaints, is not the behavior of a humble actor uncomfortable with fame. It is the behavior of someone who uses his own power and privilege to take what he wants from women.”
To recap: In 2010, Affleck was accused of harassing two women with whom he worked on the hoax Joaquin Phoenix documentary “I’m Still Here,” which Affleck directed. Amanda White, a producer with whom he had worked for 10 years, said Affleck recounted his sexual exploits, attempted to psychologically and physically coerce her into staying in a hotel room with him overnight, and ordered a crew member to show her his genitals.
Affleck was also accused of harassing Magdalena Gorka, the film’s director of photography, who said she was subjected to a “near daily barrage of sexual comments, innuendo and unwelcome advances.” Gorka claimed to have awoken to find Affleck in her bed, wearing only his underwear and a T-shirt, his arm wrapped around her as he caressed her back. The incident allegedly happened when the production traveled to New York, where some of the crew stayed at Affleck and Phoenix’s shared apartment.
When the claims were first reported in 2010, Affleck denied all of the allegations and countersued. He later settled the case to the apparent satisfaction of all involved parties. But the praise Affleck is receiving for “Manchester by the Sea” ― specifically, the increasing likelihood that he will win Best Actor ― has invoked criticism that Hollywood and the media are not taking him to task for these alleged offenses.
It’s vital to hold public figures accountable for using their power to abuse others, but timing is equally important. News outlets are wondering why these allegations haven’t killed Affleck’s Oscar chances. Truthfully, if journalists are hoping to link his alleged off-screen transgressions with his awards fate, it’s just too late. “Manchester by the Sea” has made $14.5 million (and counting) at the box office, Affleck has already earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, and last week he hosted the coveted “Saturday Night Live” holiday episode. He’s secured his acclaim, so trying to derail Affleck now places an inflated premium on the Oscars’ prestige. He’s already won.
None of this is to say the media’s criticisms are invalid. Such conversations may be the only way we can curb the horrors that occur behind Hollywood doors. As seen in long-settled cases like Bill Cosby’s 2005 sexual assault lawsuit, new discussions can offer additional victims a platform to come forward. Even if the headlines about Affleck have not prompted other possible victims to speak out, the conversations we’re having are warranted.
It would be one thing to hold studios accountable for hiring alleged harassers from the get-go, but choosing awards season is a misguided opportunity to make up for lost time, particularly with regard to a settled case.
But those conversations should have begun much earlier. Affleck was cast in multiple movies since settling the lawsuits against him in 2010, including the high-profile “Interstellar.” He booked the “Manchester” gig in January 2015. Why no outrage then? “Manchester” was always a big-name Oscar hopeful, originally slated to star John Krasinski or Matt Damon. Its director, Kenneth Lonergan, is a previous Oscar nominee for his “You Can Count on Me” screenplay. Yet no critics and journalists ― The Huffington Post included ― questioned Affleck’s past when they fawned over the movie at Sundance earlier this year. It would be one thing to hold studios accountable for hiring alleged harassers from the get-go, but choosing awards season is a misguided opportunity to make up for lost time, particularly with regard to a settled case.
If everything is about timing, it’s worth asking why a somewhat similar situation derailed Nate Parker’s Oscar bid this summer. Parker, a relative newcomer, was poised for success with the Sundance breakout “The Birth of a Nation,” which Fox Searchlight acquired for a massive $17.5 million on the heels of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. The slave-rebellion biopic’s potential came to a crashing halt in August when the media began examining Parker’s 1999 rape charges, for which Parker was found not guilty. (Parker’s classmate and future “The Birth of a Nation” co-writer, Jean Celestin, was initially deemed guilty, but his charges were overturned.)
Perhaps Parker was more harshly judged because he is black ― history shows that white men fail upwards while people of color are punished for their misdeeds. But there are key differences between Affleck and Parker. Parker was the subject of criminal charges, whereas Affleck faced a civil suit and ultimately settled outside of the court system. Furthermore, the events of “The Birth of a Nation” ― which Parker, wrote, directed, produced and starred in ― are perpetuated partly by a character’s rape. Once Parker’s allegations resurfaced in the media, fresh information about him and his victim kept the news cycle alive. Making matters worse, Parker skirted probes in interviews and declined to apologize. The film floundered at the box office in October, and his Oscar hopes are now dead.
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In Affleck’s case, there’s been no new information since Mashable published its story. He did give a brief statement to Variety in an October cover story, which can be construed as a denial. “People say whatever they want,” he said. “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 everybody has families and lives.” Affleck offered similar sentiments in a New York Times profile published in November.
So, again, why now? Any further discussion of the allegations on Affleck’s part would apparently violate the terms of the settlement. (Criminal cases like Parker’s, on the other hand, are public record.) Once more journalists saw “The Birth of a Nation” and Parker’s news cycle ballooned, it became irresponsible to ignore his past. As comedian Marc Maron noted in a disclaimer at the beginning of a recent interview with Affleck on his “WTF” podcast, the actor is not legally allowed to address the 2010 incidents.
“I was not told I couldn’t ask about it,” Maron said. “There were no questions that were said off-limits for this conversation, but Casey is not going to address the details of the case because of the terms of the settlement. There’s not much I can ask, if the settlement means Casey can’t talk about it.”
Maron makes a valid argument, even though we never would have required a comedy podcast to be a venue for journalistic probes anyway. Accepting that revisiting Affleck’s case results in a dead end, Maron and the media can instead ask questions that further our understanding of the situation, as they did with Parker. For example, were there discussions with studio executives or publicists about how to address the matter? (The Wrap reported that Affleck’s publicist has been trying to prevent the story from mushrooming. When HuffPost reached out to Affleck’s rep, Mara Buxbaum, she declined to comment.)
If so much of this interrogates why Affleck gets a “pass” when Parker doesn’t, let’s look at a case that more closely mirrors Affleck’s. In 2010, Britney Spears’ former bodyguard Fernando Flores accused the pop star of making “repeated unwanted sexual advances” toward him and summoning him to her room “for no reason other than to expose her naked or near naked body.” Spears denied the allegations and settled the claim in 2012. No one wrote about this sordid history when praising her new album, “Glory,” which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart. By not revisiting Spears’ allegations, the media tacitly decided the claims against her were likely false. Affleck isn’t afforded the same assumptions, perhaps because women have historically been victimized at the hands of men. But if the press has a duty to hold famous abusers accountable for past transgressions, we have created mixed messages about where to draw the line in terms of settled accusations. The one thing we do understand about both cases? It’s impossible to know the absolute truth.
In a time when we as a society are far more conscious of sexual harassment than ever before ― though not conscious enough to avoid electing a man with his own history of nonconsensual advances ― the media understandably wants to reevaluate these cases. Journalism has become a form of activism. These discussions are critical, and the media is not alone in questioning celebrities’ alleged wrongdoings. Just look to Twitter: This past weekend, the public shared opinions about Affleck’s “SNL” appearance. Some were not thrilled with NBC’s decision to give the actor a platform, like one user who tweeted: “#SNL’s host is sexual harasser Casey Affleck. Good, I get to go to bed early.”
In the court of public opinion, it’s about deciding whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist. Can you still watch “The Cosby Show” without thinking of Bill Cosby’s numerous sexual assault allegations? Was the Academy wrong in honoring Roman Polanski 26 years after he pled guilty to child rape and fled the country? How has Johnny Depp racked up casting notices since photographic evidence of his abuse toward Amber Heard made the cover of People magazine in June? Or how about this one: Should awards bodies ignore “Hacksaw Ridge,” the Mel Gibson movie that collected three Golden Globe nominations last week, including one for its misogynistic, anti-Semitic director?
If most of the press didn’t choose Affleck’s ‘Manchester’ casting or his recent divorce as moments to recount his alleged harassment, why would awards season become the nail in his coffin?
These are all questions the press has revisited in recent years. But without clear-cut directives, we must decide when the censure is appropriate. If most of the press didn’t choose Affleck’s “Manchester” casting or his recent divorce as moments to recount his alleged harassment, why would awards season become the nail in his coffin?
Most Academy members will determine Affleck’s worthiness come February without considering the media fallout. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, at least some voters are unperturbed by his harassment case. “This time of year, it’s all about getting voters to actually see the contenders,” executive editor Matthew Belloni wrote. “And while one Oscar-nominated producer recently told me he felt an ‘ickiness’ when deciding to pop in his ‘Hacksaw’ screener, he did it anyway and liked the film. This same producer didn’t think twice about watching ‘Manchester.’ But, like many, he hasn’t even bothered to open his ‘Birth of a Nation’ screener.”
Instead of waiting until Oscar campaigning to cry afoul, the press can opt to ignore alleged transgressors’ fluffy talk-show sound bites and instead challenge casting notices when they’re first announced. One recent way HuffPost has attempted to handle Gibson’s supposed comeback ― and to separate the art from the artist ― is by not publicizing anything that isn’t specifically about “Hacksaw Ridge.” Similarly, HuffPost skipped writing up Affleck’s recent “Fallon” interview and most of his “SNL” sketches. If the media ignores certain celebrities’ public appearances (or the absurdity of their growing beards), how can they maintain fame?
We aren’t about to change the world alone, but the media can make an impact by pinpointing the right time to start a discussion. Affleck is already clearly in the industry’s favor, and there’s not much the media can do to tarnish that now. What we can do is use this as a lesson for future coverage.
The renewed attention surrounding Affleck’s allegations mark a new frontier for Hollywood. It’s time we figure out what that means.