When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that governs the Oscars, made the historic decision to expel Harvey Weinstein last October in response to bombshell exposés on his pattern of sexual abuse, there were two charged reactions.
The first involved hand-wringing over the “slippery slope” of adjudicating personal behavior: Where is the line moving forward that could warrant another ousting?
More resounding, however, was the “what about…?” reflex. What about Bill Cosby? What about Roman Polanski? What about any number of Academy members who have been accused of or found guilty of sexual misconduct, predatory behavior, domestic violence, abuses of power, or impropriety of any type?
Well, the Academy announced Thursday that both Cosby and Polanski will join Weinstein in exile, officially making the actor and the director the third and fourth members in the organization’s 90-year history to be booted. They’re the first to have their memberships revoked following a new set of ethical guidelines put in place following the Weinstein scandal. The only other person to have been kicked out is a character actor, Carmine Caridi, who violated guidelines about sharing screeners.
The move comes one week after Cosby was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault by a Pennsylvania jury.
For the same reasons that it would be hard to isolate the Academy’s unprecedented Weinstein decision from the volume of public outrage surrounding his behavior, this news timed to Cosby’s monumental guilty verdict—after so many years of accusations and settlements—hints that the organization is more willing to kneel to the court of public opinion than ever, but also suggests it is still hesitant to make controversial moves without Teflon justification. In other words: a court conviction.
This Academy that just voted to expel Polanski is the same one that gave him a standing ovation when he won Best Director for The Pianist in 2003, when he could not attend the ceremony because if he returned to the U.S. he would be jailed for a 1977 conviction for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Look at that date again. Unlike Cosby’s conviction, which came just last week, that conviction happened four decades ago. It’s unclear whether Polanski’s expulsion in tandem with Cosby was to prevent more “what about…?” rage, or if it’s a genuine indication of the Academy’s interest in considering the behavior of its members, past and present, as a contingency of membership.
But it does underline the point that the Academy shouldn’t be waiting until a major news story breaks to make these decisions. There are many known allegations of misconduct against current members that the Academy could rule on now.
In its statement announcing Weinstein’s ousting, the Academy said its decision was “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.”
Echoing that sentiment Thursday, the organization’s statement regarding Cosby and Polanski said the decision was made in “accordance with the organization’s Standards of Conduct” and repeats that it “continues to encourage ethical standards that require members to uphold the Academy’s values of respect for human dignity.”
Cynics may have assumed that the Weinstein decision would be a singular incident, that the conversation was so loud, the behavior so unconscionable, and the pressure so strong that there was really no choice but to expel him, but that it was unlikely that action would be taken on other existing members.
After all, nearly seven months—and one full Oscar season—has passed between the Weinstein decision and Thursday’s ruling. Neither the accusations against Cosby nor the Polanski conviction were new. If the Academy hadn’t ruled on them before, why would anyone have assumed that they would now?
Many would argue this is a major step in the right direction for an organization attempting to reform into an active player in the industry’s reckoning when it comes to sexism, diversity, and misconduct like Weinstein, Cosby, and Polanski’s.
But that aforementioned question—where is the line?—is as applicable as ever.
Brett Ratner, who was accused of sexual harassment or misconduct by at least six women, is an Academy member. Paul Haggis, who was accused of sexual misconduct by four women, is an Academy member. Mel Gibson, James Franco, Jeffrey Tambor, and Casey Affleck are all Academy members.
(This is important to note: No, Woody Allen is not an Academy member.)
We are not ruling on those men’s guilt, as many of them have denied wrongdoing and have not been convicted of anything in court. But we are raising them as examples in line with a complicated conversation about these Academy decisions. What merits expulsion? Is it conviction? And whose behavior do we decide to litigate? When do we do it?
Like so much of what’s going on in our culture right now regarding these debates, there’s no right answer.