Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault, racism and antisemitism.
In July 2010, two women filed a $2m lawsuit against actor Casey Affleck, alleging repeated instances of sexual harassment from Affleck as they worked together on his directorial debut. The allegations included accusations of verbal abuse and physical intimidation, including one instance where a plaintiff complained that Affleck snuck into bed with her while she slept, curling up next to her and touching her without her consent. This case was settled out of court.
Affleck is now nominated for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars.
In July 2006, actor-director Mel Gibson was arrested for driving under the influence and speeding, wherein he went on a drunken tirade to the arresting officer about how “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” (The arresting officer, who he also called “sugartits” was indeed Jewish). After the tape of his arrest was leaked to TMZ, Gibson went on the expected apology tour, then, in June 2010, Gibson’s ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva filed a restraining order against him, alleging domestic abuse. A month later, audio recordings alleged to be of Gibson threatening his girlfriend and spewing yet more bigoted tirades leaked online. In March 2011, Gibson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanour battery charge.
This year, Gibson is nominated for Best Director and Best Picture for his film Hacksaw Ridge.
Both men have benefited from the structures in place in both Hollywood and our society in general that reduced their crimes to mere bumps in the road for a redemption narrative. The industry has been happy to help them both with this journey: For Affleck, by trying to suppress the accusations, and for Gibson, by including them front and centre as part of his ‘route to forgiveness.’
During the same Sundance Film Festival where Affleck’s film, Manchester by the Sea, premiered and began his Oscar narrative, Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation won the Grand Jury Prize, and was then acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5m. Soon thereafter, rape accusations made against Parker re-emerged into public consciousness: In college, Parker and co-writer of Birth of a Nation Jean Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student while she was drunk and unconscious. Parker was acquitted, but the victim committed suicide in 2012. While Parker tried to pre-emptively deal with the inevitable PR fallout while promoting the film, the damage was done, and the press and public took a clear stand against Parker by refusing to support the film or give him an easy ride when trying to deflect questions. The film was a box office flop and received no Oscar nominations. Men of colour face the justified consequences in a way white men seldom do.
Obviously, Parker and Affleck’s situations are not directly comparable – the nature of each crime, the publicness of available details, their differing levels of fame, Affleck’s whiteness, and so on all made a difference – but it is hard to ignore the way Affleck was able to coast through his publicity tour for Manchester by the Sea on his terms with nary a mention of the accusations made against him. He did the Hollywood Reporter actors’ roundtable, establishing him as a category front-runner (as did the film’s producer Matt Damon); he did numerous interviews and fluffy chat show segments (a notable contrast from his chilly, rude behaviour on the same shows when he didn’t have an Oscar on the line); he even guest-hosted Saturday Night Live. When the accusations did come up on those rare occasions, Affleck was clearly the one in control, and the language notably euphemized – The New York Times described him as having “embraced” the woman who accused him of getting in bed with her without her consent. For Affleck, and his masterfully crafted PR team, these accusations were a mere bump in the road to swerve past on the route to victory.
For Gibson, his numerous discrepancies were harder to avoid. For one, we can all Google the DUI videos and leaked recordings. His mugshot still comes up on the first page of his image search. Gibson also did face some repercussions for his past, because for several years, Hollywood wouldn’t touch him. So why the reversal? Simple – in Hollywood, Gibson has many friends, and they’re all in high places. Jodie Foster has been one of his strongest defenders, as well as industry favourites like Danny Glover and Richard Donner. His films are popular and profitable, he has actors in his corner fighting for him, and there’s nothing Hollywood likes more than a success story. Much of Gibson’s past has been written off by Hollywood as a side effect of alcoholism, which makes it easier to sell Gibson as a swell guy with some problems rather than a habitual abuser and bigot.
While Gibson is unlikely to win any Oscars this month – the nominations are really the climax of his faux underdog story back to the top – Affleck is still a favourite to win Best Actor, but even that is looking less likely. His competitor, Denzel Washington, is gaining traction as a real contender, and the accusations against Affleck have returned to the public eye in a way that is becoming increasingly difficult for Hollywood to ignore. Actress Constance Wu admitted she faced real repercussions for speaking out against Affleck on Twitter, and publications such as the Daily Beast, Buzzfeed and New York Magazine have written pieces calling out the accusations. So far, they have done little to derail the winner’s narrative, but with so much of the industry media doing as little as possible to even acknowledge Affleck’s past, their opposition matters.
This trend is nothing new. Hollywood and its white male dominated power structures has always defended its own and shown a willingness to forgive that moves far beyond the boundaries of mere generosity. Just look at Roman Polanski getting a Best Director Oscar several decades after fleeing America to avoid being charged with drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. However, there’s something especially insidious about the domination of Affleck and Gibson in this year’s Oscar race, mere months after Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” bragging. The domination of misogyny, anti-Semitism and various displays of bigotry isn’t just the norm – it’s the marker of power. “Locker room talk” becomes a mere side-effect of getting the job done. Affleck and Gibson are both set to return to work in front of and behind the camera this year, and with industry approved bearers of merit under their belts, who knows how emboldened they will be to continue business as usual.