May the best human win the Oscar

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Is it OK for a public award to honour men who sexually assault and abuse women?

The Oscar Academy panel must realise that in conferring a public award, it gives weight and social power to the recipient, and make its choice with a social — not merely artistic — conscience. | Reuters

This year’s Oscars will go down in history for its many firsts — the mix-up while naming the Best Picture (apparently the cards were — ah — switched); the host Jimmy Kimmel live-tweeting to Donald Trump with a sly reference to Meryl Streep; and finally Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck’s brother, bagging the Oscar for Best Actor.

Mixed-up cards is not as bad as #OscarSoWhite — popular wisdom has it that the Oscar panel has a predisposition to award caucasians over actors of other races — but still, given that they have an entire year to plan one evening, it was a quite a gratuitous goof-up. The gossip mill says that the PricewaterhouseCoopers auditors in charge of handling the cards were busy taking selfies in the backstage (can we find fault with them?) and the result is… La La Land stealing Moonlight’s thunder (no puns intended).

Sure, this year yet again saw a fantastic array of films that at least in a very small way attempted to be not be #SoWhite. After all, this year the fantastic Viola Davis grabbed the Best Supporting Actress award for Fences. And Moonlight grabbed many many more awards as well.

However, this time, the Academy honoured a person over whom hang sexual harassment allegations with one of the highest honours in World Cinema. Casey Affleck bagged the coveted Best Actor award for his role in Manchester by the Sea. His character of a broody loner who has to take care of his brother’s son deserves much appreciation. We could actually see Affleck struggling on the screen with emotions yet untouched, something that went down well with the film’s plotline.

As the award was announced, brother Ben teared up and cheered for Casey whose nomination has been shrouded with controversy ever since it was announced. The sexual harassment allegations, reported by his colleagues from over seven years ago, were settled out of court and Casey has repeatedly denied all of them, although he has not counter-sued. While many in the Hollywood Paparazzi have openly condemned the nomination — let alone his subsequent win — actress Constance Wu said, according to Time Magazine, much to the relief of many: “He’s running for an award that honours a craft whose purpose is examining the dignity of the human experience & young women are deeply human". Wu allegedly suggested that the power that the Affleck family wielded led to many being silent on the issue. She tweeted, "I've been counseled not to talk about this for career's sake. F my career then, I'm a woman & human first. That's what my craft is built on."

Brie Larson, last year’s Oscar winner, did not perform the usual courtesy of applauding Affleck after presenting him the award. Reading between lines and drama much, you say? Well, its Hollywood, after all. Larson, known for advocating the rights of survivors of sexual assault, was lauded by many after “openly” not showing her appreciation for Casey.

Did he deserve the Oscar?

Wu's words call for introspection, especially given the power an actor gains after being awarded an Oscar. Not only does the nominee or winner gain a LOT of money, they also earn respect, name and — most importantly — influence in Hollywood. In an industry marred by the casting couch and sexual favours, when a maybe-offender takes on the biggest honour, it might lead to many others actually pushing the issue under the carpet.

Not the first in Hollywood! Looking at you Woody Allen

Remember Roman Polanski who fled the country after being found guilty to the rape of a 13-year-old ? Mr. Polanski has been nominated by the Academy numerous times and won the Oscar for The Pianist. Director-Actor Woody Allen, accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter, has been honoured with a number of Oscar wins and nominations. Director Mel Gibson, who gave us the phenomenal Hacksaw Ridge this year, once faced charges for assaulting his girlfriend.

Am I saying that The Pianist, Annie Hall and Hacksaw Ridge are not good films? Or that the makers and artistes associated with these beautiful films do not deserve recognition? While pondering this, it is crucial to be able to look into the craft for what it is. When a film touches a chord with an audience, there and then, the crew has succeeded. Every artiste must deserve and demand recognition for their talent. Recognition can spur an actor to aspire to play more substantive roles that reflect society rather than pander to masses. However, this perfect situation almost never occurs. It’s almost too ideal and many a time, we are left to see two different faces of actors: the perfectly enacted personality on camera and an abusive graceless one off it.

And almost always, we fall for the glamour that the on-screen persona provides, what with it providing a welcome relief from our mundane existences. The money and the cameras certainly help us in deifying film personalities and their effortless talents. Therein comes the artiste’s responsibility to see the roles they play in society and the minds they shape through their individual actions. It is not without reason that Stan Lee wrote “With great power comes great responsibility”.

The actor vs. the human being

Not that I'm calling for film personalities to be the Social Worker of the Month. But a showman always commands a certain amount of power due to their sheer pervasion of people's minds. Be it their fashion sense or their divorce stories, everything and anything about them always makes news — and more so if the personality is politically active. Hence, the privilege of fame entails accountability and the need to adhere to the most basic principle of life: respect and empathy for fellow human beings.

Sexual crimes, often rife in cinema, must be deplored more so than others, as sexual offenders are usually repeat offenders. To them, the glitz and the glamour that being in a film might cast a false shadow of power (the wrong kind) that might prompt them to think that they are the heroes they portray. The Academy being the “artistic watchdog” that it is, has the responsibility to take these issues seriously. Instead of validating just the art, there is a need to question the person who hides behind the camouflage of great talent.

So yes, it is surely okay for us to enjoy watching Annie Hall and praise Allen for his remarkable wit and talent. But as the consumers of Annie Hall, it is also incumbent upon us to question these torchbearers when they screw up. And not just give them the biggest honour when their victims have literally disappeared into nothingness.

The Academy's responsibility

Cinema is often the voice of the marginalised, as Moonlight this year has proved. It won't do for the Academy panel to ignore the impact their very public award has on society. The Academy panel owes it to the public and to the acting community to choose people who, as public personas, respect the word of law. There is stupendous hype going around when the nominations are announced, and the panel ought to understand the power they are bestowing upon the nominees and winners; that they are not merely adjudicating acting proficiency but also commandeering the public opinion around the actors.

And to this end, here is a quote from Meryl Streep’s lovely speech from this year’s Golden Globes.

“And this instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

Streep's reference might have been to the President of the United States, but these words are easily applicable to the cushioned lives of many actors and the empty lives of their victims.

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