Oscars 2017’s Biggest Controversies: Casey Affleck, Mel Gibson, and ‘La La Land’

Ahead of Sunday night’s Academy Awards, The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon discuss this year’s awards season backlash.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

MARLOW: So here we are: the 89th annual Academy Awards. Much about this year’s glitzfest seems underwhelming and culturally passé, from Jimmy Kimmel serving as host to La La Land dominating the proceedings with 14 Oscar nominations. But at least there’s some much-needed diversity this year, right? Even if a film about a white guy reclaiming jazz will probably take home most of the awards?

KEVIN: The progress is great, but you’ll have to pry the Academy’s fetish for whitewashed nostalgia from its cold, dead hands.

MARLOW: And especially when it comes to movies fetishizing Hollywood itself (yes, I am still bitter about Birdman besting the far superior Boyhood). Anyway, in our first series of Oscar back-and-forths, let’s address this year’s controversies. Oscar has a rich history of smear campaigns, from the Drudge Report’s bizarre war against A Beautiful Mind to the “right to die” debate surrounding Million Dollar Baby to a deluge of hit pieces bashing The Wolf of Wall Street as glamourizing finance bro douchebaggery. This year, the knives appear to be out for La La Land, filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s delightful song-and-dance musical about two dreamers—Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone—reaching for the stars in Los Angeles. Is all the backlash warranted?

KEVIN: My reaction to the backlash is kind of my reaction to the movie: Eh. Is it warranted? No. Is the insane amount of hype La La Land received warranted? Also no. And therein lies the problem: the race to crown movies the BEST EVER kind of poisoned La La Land before people saw it and realized it’s simply good. And then not loving La La Land—but also not hating it, merely thinking it was OK—suddenly got painted as backlash. And then suddenly the backlash got overblown. It’s a vicious cycle, Marlow.

MARLOW: Vicious / You hit me with a flower / You do it every hour / Oh baby, you’re so vicious. Don’t mind me.

KEVIN: Is it a little tone-deaf to make a film about jazz and make the white guy the savior and the black guy the one corrupting it? Yep! Is the amount of mansplaining Ryan Gosling’s character does in it a bit much? Sure thing! Could the gap have been bridged more seamlessly between musical homage and emotional drama, and could Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have been a wee bit better at the whole singing thing? Most definitely! But that’s not a blanket dismissal of the film. Though the intensity of this “backlash” narrative might make it out to be that way. Really, though, this all stems from a desire to make the Best Picture race into something interesting. This year, it’s just not.

MARLOW: I agree—it’s a terribly boring year when it comes to Best Picture, so people have concocted this La La Land backlash from sheer ennui. And as I mentioned with Birdman, the Oscars are already masturbatory enough without giving the night’s big award to movies about Hollywood, whether it’s The Artist (the history, the glamour!), Argo (Hollywood saves the world!) or Birdman (actors are such tortured souls!). None of those movies deserved Best Picture—far from it. But I quite enjoyed La La Land, even if the achingly beautiful Moonlight is more worthy of the night’s big honor. A tighter race, however, is the Best Actor category, with the legendary Denzel Washington (Fences) going up against mopey Casey Affleck in Manchestah by the Sea. Affleck is, as it happens, not without controversy.

KEVIN: Past sexual abuse and harassment allegations, which Affleck has denied, have derailed what was a bullet train heading towards Oscar for the actor. We’ll debate whether Affleck deserves the award later in the week, but now let’s talk about whether these allegations should have any bearing on his Oscar chances—to which I say goddamn absolutely.

MARLOW: I agree. And shameless self-promo: check out our Amy Zimmerman’s piece on the disturbing Casey Affleck allegations here.

KEVIN: Give me a few drinks and I’ll slurrily give my diatribe about the inexcusable race double standard. Nate Parker couldn’t take a selfie in front of a Birth of a Nation poster during his press tour without reporters popping out from behind a tree to ask him about his own past scandal—eventually burning the film’s Oscar chances to ashes and sweeping it under the award season rug completely—but Affleck made it through 90 percent of his press commitments with major outlets without being asked once. But for now I’ll just say that Affleck’s allegations don’t need to be compared to Parker’s. They should stand on their own, and how they affect voters’ opinions of his performance and whether it should be rewarded should draw attention to the industry’s issues with privilege and predation. The artist vs. art debate is one that will never be settled. And as it rages, the scandal should be a part of the conversation.

MARLOW: People—particularly on the far-right—always argue that we should separate the art from the artist, which any film theorist will tell you is a patently absurd argument. Film not only holds a mirror to society, but is a reflection of the artists behind it, and as audience members, we view film through the prism of our own prejudices. Playing a grieving father, Casey Affleck is courting our sympathy in Manchester by the Sea; we are meant to feel and empathize with his inner torment, and guilt. It is inherently more difficult to win us over when the man inhabiting this character stood accused of serial sexual harassment and assault by his former producer and cinematographer. This also brings us to Mel Gibson, whose sappy World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge inexplicably received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. That the Academy—essentially the crème de la crème of Hollywood—has chosen to forgive the uncontrite Gibson is, in my opinion, beyond the pale.

KEVIN: I have had conversations with Hollywood “industry people” who have said “it’s been 10 years, Mel is a good director, he’s proven that he should be forgiven,” but who have said, with a straight face, “Well she shouldn’t have said those things” when I brought up Katherine Heigl as an example of the gender double standard when it comes to scandal and forgiveness. That said, I knew that Hacksaw Ridge was going to get into Best Picture. The race was missing—not needed, but missing—the jolt of Coors Light machismo that is the bloodline of at least one nominee each year. With its Hallmark card commercial storyline and adrenaline-pumping action scenes, Hacksaw Ridge fit the bill. But I was genuinely shocked to see Gibson get into Best Director. Should Gibson be forbidden from working again forever and forever, Amen? I won’t say that. (But I won’t stop you from doing so.) But maybe not be included in the most prestigious lineup of filmmakers over the likes of a dozen or so also, maybe even more, deserving helmers? That’s, apparently, too much to expect.

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MARLOW: Right. My issue with the Gibson nod wasn’t just that he’d been forgiven, but also that he’s being rewarded for, as you said, a “Hallmark card” film that is undeserving of the accolades (we’ll save that for a later debate). But the bigger issue here is that Gibson never adequately apologized for his actions, and has shown very little contrition. To recap: Gibson said that the “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” (his father is a Holocaust denier); said that his former fiancée deserved to be “raped by a pack of niggers; ranted against “wetbacks”; threatened to kill New York Times reporter Frank Rich; unleashed a homophobic tirade, wherein he said, “They take it up the ass… [pointing to his butt] this is only for taking a shit” (of the comments, he said, “I’ll apologize when hell freezes over”); and, last but certainly not least, punched his ex-fiancée in the face, shattering her teeth. If a woman or a person of color did even one of those things, they’d be chased out of Hollywood. It’s bonkers.

KEVIN: Well, Marlow, this is 2017. Vile, horrifying, hateful, harmful things someone has said on record don’t matter anymore—in Hollywood or in the White House. But let’s not give Gibson any more article space. Let’s move on to the final “controversy,” which is one I barely care about but lots of people seem to care about so much that it makes me wonder about them, to be frank: category fraud.


KEVIN: This year, that fraud in question is Viola Davis competing in Best Supporting Actress for what is ostensibly a lead performance. This happens every year. People get upset about it every year. That doesn’t change anything. Actors compete in the category they are most likely to win, and Davis is most likely to win in supporting. And you know what? Viola Davis should win an award for Fences! If that means taking advantage of the age-old Academy practice of category fraud—and there is a case to make that Davis’s character is supporting to Denzel Washington’s in the film—then so be it. I mean, god save all of you if Davis competed in Best Actress and they gave it to Emma Stone instead. Hell hath no fury like me if Davis doesn’t get this damn Oscar.

MARLOW: The words “fraud” and “Viola Davis” should never be in the same sentence, although that’s the Oscars for ya. She is perhaps the best actress alive right now. Viola forever.

Tune in tomorrow for a lively debate on the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories.