It’s rarely a tense moment—and supposed to be a joyous one, at that—when one Oscar winner passes the golden statue to another, part of one of the Academy Awards’ most endearing traditions: the previous year’s acting winners presenting the current year’s award in the opposite gender’s category.
That’s just one reason why last year’s Best Actor presentation was so remarkably uncomfortable.
Brie Larson, who had won Best Actress for her performance as a kidnapping victim and sexual assault survivor in Room, and who is a noted advocate for survivors of domestic violence and rape, was forced to announce that Casey Affleck had won Best Actor for his performance in the drama Manchester By the Sea.
While professional as always, Larson’s facial expression could hardly hide her disdain. Certainly her refusal to applaud the actor did. “I think that whatever it was that I did onstage kind of spoke for itself,” Larson later said about her lack of ovation. “I’ve said all that I need to say about that topic.”
That topic would be the allegations of sexual harassment against Affleck, and her displeasure with the fact that rather than making him face repercussions, his industry—her industry—seemed to be rewarding him.
Affleck’s win came at the finish line of an Oscar campaign haunted by sexual harassment allegations made against the actor, largely following the publication of an essay recounting them in The Daily Beast. Two women had filed lawsuits against Affleck after working with him on the 2010 documentary I’m Still Here. The graphic details of their claims can be read here.
Affleck denied all wrongdoing, and the cases were settled for undisclosed amounts in 2010.
In the year since Affleck’s controversial win, the industry’s attitude toward men accused of sexual misconduct has markedly changed.
The industry is not just seeing a deluge of reports of Hollywood men’s despicable behavior, but, finally, also punitive actions taken in response. Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Charlie Rose, and a red carpet’s worth of men accused of inappropriate or abusive behavior—in some cases criminal in nature—have faced severe career consequences because of their actions.
Society is angry. Those silenced for so long are demanding change—which brings us back to Affleck, and that seemingly innocuous Academy Awards tradition.
With award season in full swing as the year winds down, planning for March’s Oscars telecast is beginning in earnest. That means the Academy is already hammering down details of the ceremony, which includes starting the process of considering whom to invite to participate, so that schedules can be cleared and appearances can be arranged.
The optics of inviting Affleck to present the Best Actress trophy at this year’s telecast are, quite obviously, horrendous.
The idea of any of the mad-as-hell women in the industry forced to grin-and-bear congratulations from a man dogged by sexual harassment allegations is, tradition be damned, borderline cruel. But when you consider the actresses and performances that are, at this stage, frontrunners for the award, the notion becomes downright nonsensical.
There’s Meryl Streep playing Washington Post trailblazer Katherine Graham, who refused to be silenced in a roomful of men, in The Post and Larson’s good friend Emma Stone, portraying crusader Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes. Jessica Chastain, who has been among the most outspoken actresses advocating for change, is contending for Molly’s Game, and Saoirse Ronan stars in the only female-directed project on the shortlist, Lady Bird.
Then there’s the actress most predicted to win, perennial takes-no-bullshit icon Frances McDormand. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand plays a mother crusading for justice after the brutal rape and murder of her daughter, in a small town that wishes she would just keep quiet rather than confront them with such unpleasant things.
Is the Academy really tone-deaf enough to create circumstances in which Casey Affleck, amid so much ill-will, presents a trophy to that actress, for that performance?
When the Academy, in a historic and unprecedented move, voted to expel Harvey Weinstein from its membership in the wake of bombshell investigations into his history of systemic sexual abuse, predation, and harassment, the decision was applauded, but hardly viewed as punctuation on the controversy. In fact the conversation was only beginning. Questions like “Why now?” swirled in tandem with, “Who’s next?”
Reactions running the gamut from hypocrisy—Weinstein is hardly the only abuser in the Academy’s ranks—to damaging ambiguity in policy followed: What’s the line that warrants an ousting? Why haven’t the likes of Mel Gibson, Bill Cosby, or Roman Polanski been booted? And, yes, what about Casey Affleck?
In its statement announcing its decision on Weinstein, the Academy said the vote was made “not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”
Now is its chance to send that message.
While it remains to be seen what actions the Academy will take to enact institutional change, at the very least there is one pressing ceremonial decision to be made that could make a potent statement about where it is heading.
Will the Academy refuse to invite Casey Affleck to present, an action that would speak volumes amid a heated debate about sexual assault and harassment in the industry?
Earlier this month, filmmaker Cameron Bossert launched a Change.org petition titled “Don’t let Casey Affleck hand off the 2018 Best Actress Oscar,” which gained over 19,000 signatures. In an interview about the petition, Bossert said, “I started this petition because I thought the idea of Casey Affleck handing over the Best Actress Oscar given our current climate was distasteful.”
“The allegations against Affleck reflect an abusive bro culture we should be working to change because it makes women feel unsafe and undignified,” he continued. “I don’t think he deserves the honor of handing off the Oscar in 2018. There’s a difference between rooting out a person like Weinstein in this emergency kind of way, and making other gestures to shift behavior and culture within the Academy.”
When The Daily Beast interviewed Bossert, he told us, “The Oscars are very discretionary in many ways, and one way to use discretion is to look at the behavior of intended award recipients. If it doesn’t meet the standards of the behavior we want to see in the industry going forward, we should use that discretion to withhold awards.
“Witch-hunt culture is terrible,” he added without irony. “But this is a cultural moment right now and I think it’s appropriate for someone like Affleck to be a scapegoat.”
Variety editor in chief Claudia Eller point-blank asked Academy CEO Dawn Hudson about the petition and whether the organization has “given any thought” to it during a conversation, fittingly, at the Inclusion Summit.
“Yes, we are. Of course we are,” Hudson replied. “We’re giving thought to all of this.” It was hardly a decisive answer, but it reflected an earlier comment that Hudson had made in the conversation, that a seeming turning point in the conversation surrounding sexual harassment and the abuse of power in the industry is a “moment to seize now.”
We reached out to the Academy to inquire if there was an update on the “thought” it was giving to “all of this,” specifically its plans regarding an invitation to Affleck to present, as per tradition, as well as for addressing the current conversations during the telecast. We have yet to receive a response.
For much of last year’s awards season, the allegations against Affleck were tiptoed around in an industry that has historically had a practice of not discussing such things.
Maybe it was an extension of the art vs. artist debate that’s run in circles for decades. Perhaps people were nervous about running afoul of the powerful Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who protected Casey Affleck and campaigned heavily for his Oscar win. It could be owed to institutionalized optics—popular white men tend not to face repercussions for such things—or because people didn’t find it necessary, or their business, to litigate allegations that were settled out of court.
Likely for a combination of those reasons, Affleck managed to weather most of his awards push without having to confront his allegations—and Affleck’s colleagues and organizations like the Academy escaped tough questions about them, too.
This time, this year, it feels different.
The Academy has experienced painful growing pains as it has struggled to acclimate to a changing modern society.
It’s been under scrutiny not just for its lack of diversity, but for its perceived sluggishness in championing diversity. A lack of patience with the organization has stemmed from a seeming onslaught of controversies, ranging from repeat years of all-white acting nominees to confusing rejection of popular tastes to embarrassing gaffes like the La La Land-Moonlight Best Picture fiasco last year.
A decision on Affleck’s role in this year’s ceremony shouldn’t be one that comes from the public relations department in an attempt for damage control. But it is a decision that, while sure to send shockwaves in a membership that has historically preferred to act out of procedure rather than passion or subjectivity, telegraphs to the world what it needs to hear: Something is being done. Things are changing. We are changing.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Affleck was accused of sexual assault. The allegation was sexual harassment, not assault. We regret the error.