Casey Affleck is an Oscar front-runner.
There was a time when that sentence would have sounded like the person delivering it had misspoken (“Don’t you mean Ben? Or maybe Matt?”). But Affleck’s performance in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has raked in widespread and near-universal praise from critics. His has been an autumn spent scooping up the awards actors typically collect on their way to that sweet, sweet podium.
Affleck is both a Hollywood insider due to his family connections and outsider due to his questionable professional choices: He was dragged and nearly discarded by the industry after his disastrous attempt at a fake documentary, I’m Still Here, that supposedly tracked Joaquin Phoenix’s plan to retire from acting and pursue a rap career but was revealed to be an elaborate, ineptly-executed hoax. And so Affleck fits neatly into multiple narratives the Academy loves: He’s A-list-approved yet still an underdog, a man making good on his talent as he puts away childish things and enters his forties. Add in a “superb,” “stunning lead turn” in “a film of astonishing honesty” and, if you listen closely, you can actually hear the sound of someone engraving Affleck’s name into a statuette.
There’s just one catch: In 2010, Affleck was accused of sexual harassment.
Producer Amanda White and cinematographer Magdalena Gorka alleged Affleck subjected them to unwanted advances and an incessant stream of sexually aggressive, inappropriate behavior during the filming of I’m Still Here. They sued for $2 million and $2.25 million respectively. The behavior the women describe in their lawsuits is repulsive. Gorka says Affleck once snuck into bed with her while she was sleeping and that she awoke to find Affleck had his arms around her and was wearing only a t-shirt and underwear. White says that after she refused Affleck’s sexual advances, he “grabbed her in a hostile manner in an effort to intimidate her into complying.”
Affleck threatened to countersue and, after a mediation, eventually settled with both women for an undisclosed amount. (Earlier this year, Affleck quietly separated from his wife of ten years, Summer Phoenix, Joaquin’s sister.) The case against him in a court of law is over, but the case against him in the court of public opinion could easily rage on — except, for the most part, it hasn’t. Though a handful of publications have brought up these allegations in light of Affleck’s all-but-guaranteed Academy Award nomination, the biggest outlets — with the best access — have largely given him a pass, slipping mentions of the allegations late in stories that emphasize Affleck’s reluctance to embrace stardom and his phenomenal work in Manchester.
Affleck’s Manchester gig is deemed in a glowing Variety story as “the role of a lifetime”: “All of Hollywood is going to want to get a good look at Affleck this awards season because of his sublime performance in Manchester by the Sea.” The sexual harassment allegations make a cameo about two-thirds of the way through the story, and Affleck dismisses them by suggesting his relative fame invited an unfounded character assassination by his accusers: “I guess people think if you’re well-known, it’s perfectly fine to say anything you want.” A New York Times profile of Affleck that declares he is “on the precipice of wider glory” for a “turn” that “drew gasps at this year’s big film festivals” mentions the allegations halfway through the piece. Affleck was asked, by email, if he “felt responsibility for what happened” and responded “that he did not.”
In spite of the sexual harassment allegations, and the cultural context of 2016 in which we consider them now —at the end of a year in which a great deal of attention was paid to violence against women and the astonishing frequency with which men evade punishment for said violence — Affleck appears to be continuing his march to the podium, and to an Oscar-buzz-attendant career bump, undeterred.
Which is surprising when you think about the very different trajectory another auteur-actor who, barely a year ago, seemed destined for that same glory: Nate Parker.
Parker is the director, co-writer, and star of The Birth of a Nation, a historical drama about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion that earned rapturous reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. As the 2016 Academy Awards, the second in a row in which zero people of color received acting nominations, loomed, Parker and TBOAN took on (possibly outsize) significance: A talented, promising black actor-director and his slave-revolt drama could take home trophies at the 2017 ceremony, and the Oscars would be so white no more.
But Parker also had a history of alleged sexual violence. In 1999, when Parker was 19 years old, he and his then-roommate Jean Celestin were charged with rape. The two men were tried, together, in October 2001, and Parker was acquitted on all charges by a jury, in part due to testimony that he had previously had consensual sex with the victim. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault but saw the charge overturned four years later by a Superior Court judge who ruled that Celestin’s trial attorney provided an ineffective defense. He went on to become Parker’s TBOAN co-writer.
The allegations, readily available on Parker’s Wikipedia, went all but unmentioned until late this summer, when Variety asked Parker to comment on the incident in an interview. From there, Parker’s Oscar prospects rapidly deteriorated: More chilling details about the alleged assault became public, including the fact that the woman in question committed suicide in 2012. Parker’s attempts at publicity damage control were clumsy and insufficient, and when the movie premiered in October, reviews were lukewarm. It’s not just that Best Actor Oscar that looks out of reach for Parker, but a career in movies, period.
Why is Affleck, so far, avoiding Parker’s fate? The answer is a complex combination of a battery of factors: The differences between the allegations; Parker and Affleck’s relative status in Hollywood; race and privilege; and the possibility that, when it comes to success in the film industry, the best defense is the best performance.
Parker was charged with rape in criminal court. Affleck was accused of sexual harassment in civil court.
In addition to being charged in criminal court, Parker also admitted to having sex with his accuser, a 4.0 student at Penn State who was 18-years-old at the time. (Celestin also admitted to having sex with her, and that he did not use a condom.) And the claims against Parker and Celestin didn’t end there: The victim also alleged that Parker and Celestin harassed her in the wake of her accusations. She sued Penn State for not protecting her from their harassment and received a settlement of $17,500.
Meanwhile, Affleck was accused of sexual harassment in civil court and has categorically denied both Gorka and White’s allegations. And, though the actions detailed in Gorka and White’s lawsuits is plenty upsetting, they are offenses of a fundamentally different degree from those of which Parker stood accused.
In her lawsuit, Gorka describes waking up after a night of filming to find Affleck had slipped into bed with her while she was sleeping. One night when the crew stayed at Affleck’s New York apartment after a long shoot, Affleck offered her the bed and volunteered to take the couch; Gorka alleges that, while she was sleeping, Affleck snuck into bed with her and she awoke to find him lying next to her in bed, “wearing only his underwear and a t-shirt. He had his arm around her, was caressing her back, his face was within inches of hers and his breath reeked of alcohol.” She “was shocked and repulsed because she did not know where he had touched her while she was sleeping or how long he had been there before she woke up.”
Gorka left the project “as a direct result of the harassment,” but, unable to find work elsewhere, returned to I’m Still Here when she was contacted by White, who was supposed to be present throughout filming. But upon her return, Gorka says, “she was subjected to a near daily barrage of sexual comments, innuendo and unwelcome advances by crew members, within the presence and with the active encouragement of Affleck.”
White claimed Affleck tried to get her to stay in his hotel room and, upon her refusal, “grabbed her in a hostile manner in an effort to intimidate her into complying.” White also said Affleck instructed another crew member to show her his penis, though she explicitly told him not to; that Affleck regularly talked about his “sexual exploits” on set; that Affleck referred to women as “cows”; and “inappropriately suggested [White] and a male crew member have a baby together.” White also alleged that Affleck blocked her from entering her bedroom during shooting in Costa Rica because “Affleck and Phoenix locked themselves in her bedroom with two women.”
New information about old allegations kept Parker’s case in the headlines.
While Parker was making the rounds promoting TBOAN, more disturbing details about the rape case surfaced.
In August — eight months after TBOAN premiered at Sundance and less than two months before its nationwide October 7 release date — Deadline obtained a copy of a phone call transcript between Parker and the victim. At one point, she asks him, “Can you tell me honestly how many people I slept with that night, so I know what I’m looking at here?” When she asks how she had sex with another person that night, Parker says, “it started happening and you didn’t stop it, you know what I mean?” She replies, “But Nate, I was so out of it. I was, my whole body was numb, I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Days after the transcript came out, Variety reported that the woman committed suicide in 2012. Her brother told Variety that she overdosed on sleeping pills. She had testified in court that she’d tried to kill herself twice after the incident with Parker and Celestin. Variety obtained a copy of her death certificate, which reported that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse.”
Parker gave multiple interviews in an attempt to diffuse the story, including a two-hour conversation with Variety to which he brought along his six-year-old daughter. He referred to the event in question as “a very painful moment in my life.” He cited his wife, his five daughters, his four younger sisters, and his mother in an interview with Deadline (apparently to insinuate a man with a mother and other assorted female relatives could never be a rapist, which is… interesting logic). This awkward non-apology circuit was roundly trashed by The Hollywood Reporter in a story on Parker’s “failed media tour,” which included the tidbit that Parker refused an offer from Oprah to address the story on CBS This Morning with Gayle King. (Saying no to Oprah: Never a great idea.) On 60 Minutes, Parker refused to apologize, saying he was “falsely accused” and, ultimately, “vindicated.”
In September, Gabrielle Union — who plays a rape victim in TBOAN and, as a survivor of sexual assault, speaks publicly about violence against women — wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times, saying, “I cannot take Nate Parker rape allegations lightly.” And in the November issue of Essence, Union said to “every victim or survivor… I support you if you don’t want to see the film I absolutely understand and respect that. I can’t sell the film.”
Upon opening in October, TBOAN entered “flop territory,” taking in only $7.1 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend and dropping 60 percent in its second weekend, a stunning loss for Fox Searchlight, which maybe regrets shelling out $17.5 million for this thing at Sundance.
As for Affleck, there has yet to be any new information released regarding the old allegations that could bring bad press upon him or his movie. On the rare occasion Affleck is called upon to comment, he has dismissed the allegations completely. He treats the story as a non-story, and as a result, it essentially becomes one.
‘TBOAN’ didn’t deliver on the hype, and neither did Parker.
Reviews of Manchester have been almost uniformly stellar, with glowing praise heaped on Affleck’s performance in particular. The New York Times deemed Affleck “exceptional”; New York Magazine declared “Affleck proves he can convey suffering as well as any actor alive” and listed Affleck’s as one of the best film performances of 2016. Last week, the National Board of Review sent a boatload of awards Manchester’s way, including Best Film of the Year and Best Actor for Affleck. Affleck also won Best Actor at the Gotham Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, honors that mark a man as a likely Oscar contender.
Removed from the group-think-glow of Sundance, TBOAN received fairly average press. It was a movie without movie stars (save for Union, and hers was a non-speaking role). Its subject matter was dark and violent, and it didn’t garner good enough reviews to convince audiences it was necessary to bear witness to the story within it (unlike, for instance, 2014 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave). As Forbes explained in an early autopsy, “We had a grim and violent slave drama with no movie stars that ended up with mixed-positive reviews.”
If TBOAN wasn’t so great, why all the sob-filled standing ovations at Sundance? As Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan put it, “no one wanted to rain on Parker’s parade…I talked to plenty of people at Sundance who felt the film was just okay or even mediocre, but they weren’t eager to share their reactions at the time, lest they step on Parker’s moment. It’s part of the reason that the rape accusation took so long to resurface, despite its constant presence on Parker’s Wikipedia page… No one wanted to be perceived as the white journalist who took down Nate Parker.”
While the rape case obviously did not help Parker’s Oscar chances, it wasn’t the only thing working against him; he may well just have delivered a so-so performance in a so-so movie, and his off-screen issues only expedited his fall from grace. Affleck has, thus far, netted near-universal adulation for his work in Manchester, and his may be a turn so powerful that critics, audiences, and the Academy overlook Affleck’s personal life in order to recognize a career-making performance.
Casey Affleck is white. (Though he has some ideas about how Hollywood can solve racism!)
White men can, to use a technical term, basically do whatever and never be held accountable for it. (You may have noticed that Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump, who was accused by several women of sexual misconduct, is the President-elect of the United States of America.)
This is not to suggest men of color cannot also be accused of violent crimes against women and continue their careers apace, because plenty do: Bill Cosby was doing swimmingly, career-wise, until two years ago, despite the fact that multiple women went public with their allegations against him back in 2005, when Andrea Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby. R. Kelly, Kobe Byrant, Derrick Rose, alleged rapists all, and all have emerged from their respective accusations basically unscathed.
But all of these men were more established in their careers than Parker was at the time allegations against them became public; one could argue that all three are more talented in their fields than Parker is in his; and it’s hard to overstate the impact of Parker’s victim’s suicide on the public’s perception of Parker and his film.
And Affleck’s race is inextricably linked with the other aspects of his privilege: A famous family name, the connections that come along with it, and the opportunity to star in a movie like Manchester, exactly the kind of movie the Academy likes to honor. (More on that in a bit.)
Don’t underestimate the influence of the other Affleck.
Affleck has been accompanied on his Oscar campaign by big brother Ben and big brother’s bestie, Matt Damon, who produced Manchester and has dutifully talked up the younger Affleck in the press. As Allie Jones notes over at The Cut, “This brotherly posing makes prestige outlets hesitant to ask the younger Affleck tough questions, for fear of losing access to all three stars. His cruise to the Oscars continues undeterred because of his privileged position in Hollywood.”
BEN AFFLECK: I'm directing a new movie and I was thinking about you for the lead role
BEN AFFLECK: Well I'm obviously very flattered
— Elle Oh Hell🤺 (@ElleOhHell) October 15, 2016
Parker had no such allies or access to the A-list — remember: He turned down advice from Oprah — and was afforded no similar protection.
If you are in need of some comic relief from this story, imagine what would happen if an unknown actor-director (or, better yet, actress-director) had attempted the same stunt that Affleck tried to pull with Joaquin Phoenix and I’m Still Here, and then imagine how it would go over if this person ever tried to be treated as a respectable, credible professional ever again.
Affleck’s performance is exactly the kind of thing the Academy loves to reward.
In Manchester, Affleck plays a very sad white man. If you want to win an Oscar, it is extremely helpful to be sad and also to be white. People of color have been shut out of all the Academy Awards’ acting categories for two years in a row. (And, of course, the problems begin long before anybody sets foot on a red carpet: There are significantly more parts available to white actors in any given year than there are parts for actors of color.) Comedies rarely net actors Academy Awards, because the Academy has conflated readily-apparent difficulty with quality, but that is a conversation for another story (you can find that story here.) Anyway, Affleck playing a very sad white man in a movie about other very sad white people is to the Oscars what an all-you-can-eat ice cream social is to Vice President Joe Biden.
Awards shows value what happens on-screen, not off.
Hollywood’s hiring practices are so egregiously sexist that they constitute a civil rights violation. No surprise then that the Oscars, the trophy-distribution center at the end of the entertainment industry supply chain, has not typically held it against men when said men have been accused of sexually abusing women — or, as the case may be, girls. Woody Allen, who has been accused by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow of sexually abusing her when she was seven years old (Allen denies her accusations), has won four Oscars, most recently in 2012, and received nominations for many more. Other awards shows have the same convenient blind spot. (See: Chris Brown and R. Kelly’s continued presence at the Grammy Awards.)
It’s hard to forget about a rape allegation when you’re watching a rape scene.
There are two rape scenes in TBOAN. In one, Nat Turner’s wife Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King) is victimized by a group of slave catchers; later, a white man visiting the plantation where Turner is enslaved rapes Esther, played by Union. Though neither rape is shown on-screen, the before and after is, and some reviewers took issue with the way in which the trauma male characters felt about the rape of women in their lives seemed to take precedence over the experiences of the women themselves.
Whether or not a consumer of culture can ever completely separate the artist from the art is a whole other complicated question, but fair to say it might just be impossible to do so when the art is rape scene (or rape-adjacent scene) and the artist is an alleged rapist.
Correction: This story initially referenced abuse allegations against and the arrest of Sean Penn. Penn did face abuse allegations and he did win two Oscars after the fact, but the assault allegations against him were later recanted and he was not arrested. The original language has been removed.