On February 26, Hollywood gathered at the Dolby Theater to celebrate the year’s most notable films at the 89th Academy Awards. Considering that the annual ceremony is a convention of the best filmmakers out there today, it seems like they cannot get through one show without running into trouble. In fact, this year saw one of the biggest fiascos in Oscars history. During the highlight of the evening, La La Land was named Best Picture – for 45 seconds, when they realized something was wrong. Due to a mixup of envelopes, the night was ruined for both the producers of the aforementioned romantic musical, who had to hand over the most prestigious award in the film industry to someone else, and the victorious producers of Moonlight, who, amidst the confusion, did not receive the full spotlight they deserved.
Personally, however, the hottest issue of the night was not the Best Picture disaster. And no, it was not the fact that Suicide Squad now holds an Academy Award, either. Rather, it is a moral dilemma accompanying the controversy around the night’s Best Actor, Casey Affleck.
To summarize, seven years ago, while working on an individual project, Casey faced two sexual harassment charges. One woman alleged that he had, without consent, snuck into her bed while she was asleep, and both claimed they were subject to verbal abuse and other types of misconduct. Later, the cases were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
As a result of his past, people are questioning whether he deserved the award. From fellow actors to individuals on Twitter, many seem to be critical of the Academy’s decision. To quote Actress Constance Wu, “He’s running for an award that honors a craft whose purpose is examining the dignity of the human experience and young women are deeply human.” Even Brie Larson, who announced his win, refused to clap for him.
We can see that the Academy has been lenient to filmmakers with shady pasts, perhaps even shadier than Casey’s. Woody Allen, the director and screenwriter behind renowned works such as Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris, was accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter. The Pianist Director Roman Polanski was jailed for raping a 13-year old. Yet both Allen and Polanski have since been decorated with Oscars for their undeniably masterful works.
Examining the arts more broadly, we are much more forgiving of the artist. Charles Dickens verbally abused his wife and cheated on her. Caravaggio murdered his rival. Walt Disney was anti-Semitic and engaged in McCarthyism. Still, A Christmas Carol is a part of the high school curriculum, Caravaggio is nicknamed “the most famous painter in Rome,” and Frozen is the highest-grossing animation of all time.
So let me ask the big question: should we separate the art from the artist? Those who choose to view Casey Affleck’s win as an endorsement of his actions argue that upholding someone accused of such crimes allows him more influence and undermines efforts to eradicate sexism in the industry. Others have pointed out that whereas in other workplaces he would be fired, in Hollywood he is sweeping the awards without consequences for his transgressions.
The latter claim is arguably refutable. After the incident in 2010, he has been under the scenes until this year, only taking upon a few minor roles — which has nothing to do with his capabilities as an actor, as he had previously gained acclaim from Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert. In acting business, where you cannot really “get fired,” seven years of inactivity can be detrimental to a career. The recent backlash further shows that he is still facing consequences for his actions. Although he did collect most of the awards this season, he has lost a few to Denzel Washington — most notably the Screen Actors Guild Award — most likely because of his past rather than Denzel’s superior performance.
The former argument is the reason this moral dilemma has been unresolved through the ages. But an award ceremony is not a personality contest and an award is in no way an approval of the recipient’s personal life. The Best Actor Award is given to the actor who most convincingly brought his role to life, and regarding this year’s nominees, I have yet to read an article denouncing Casey’s win due to Denzel or Gosling’s better acting. Also, which sins do we choose to crucify and which do we glance over? To quote a psychology professor at Cornell University, “Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we’d find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by. It’s possible we’d never see a movie, look at a work of art or read a book again.” So when critiquing a work of art, let us forget the artist for a moment and give the art a fair opportunity.