For the sake of entertainment, movie and television audiences willfully suspend their disbelief and hope this sacrifice will prove to be rewarding. We give up — at least in part — the cynicism we apply to our daily lives in exchange for something that we expect will make those lives a little easier to bear.
Lately, though, it feels like we’re giving up a little more than our skeptical sensibilities.
On Sunday night, Casey Affleck, who settled two lawsuits recently for sexual harassment allegations in 2010 with women from the set of film “I’m Still Here,” accepted the Academy Award for best actor for his performance in “Manchester by the Sea.” This once again demonstrates what contemporary culture confirms ad nauseum: Sexual assault, at least in the eyes of those currently in power, is not an offense for which a man will be denied success.
To make matters worse, the duty of presenting Affleck with his award fell to Brie Larson. Larson, who had to present Affleck with a Golden Globe for the same role in “Manchester” and who won the Oscar for best actress in 2016 for her role as a rape survivor in “Room,” refused to hug him when he came to the stage.
Some may argue that introducing a moral litmus test to the Oscars would be a dicey process that could dangerously stifle art. Others may say that Casey Affleck truly gave the best performance of any male actor in a leading role this past year.
I hardly think demanding actors to refrain from sexually violating other human beings would unduly harm the film industry. Anyone for whom that demand would pose a problem does not deserve the power and privilege celebrities acquire. Surely our country’s cinema scene is not so hopelessly lacking in talent as to depend on men accused of sexual assault for its survival.
If your alleged victims suffer, so should your career. Although there is no way to provide full justice for survivors of sexual assault, we cannot simply take that to mean that no consequences are necessary whatsoever.
Adopting a more optimistic perspective on the actions Hollywood could take to improve, it is clear that reform would need to start long before awards season began. Directors should make casting choices more carefully and weed out candidates with dangerous histories like Affleck’s from the very beginning.
Such was clearly not the case with “Manchester by the Sea,” nor do I expect that kind of screening process — though fair and sorely needed — to become a new standard. The least the film industry could do, then, is decline to reward people like Casey Affleck with the highest honors available.
It is painful to know that such a claim, which simply argues that sexual assault survivors deserve the dignity of seeing their wellbeing prioritized above the success of their attackers, will be met with resistance.
In his acceptance speech, Affleck admitted that he wished he “had something bigger and more meaningful to say.” I wish that, too, Casey; something along the lines of an apology, or a refusal to accept the award would have been more appropriate.