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The Oscars Put to the Test – How to Separate the Art from the Behavior

The first question people asked me when the Harvey Weinstein story broke was whether the Academy was prepared to start chucking members whose past included charges of sexual assault and/or rape. Within days Weinstein was stripped of his Academy membership and the AMPAS was immediately ready with their own code of conduct for its members. The Academy, as an institution, can absolutely assert that expulsion will occur if any member is found to engage in any sort of sexual abuse. But that is really only half of the story. The Academy is pressured year after year to right the wrongs of society. For example, many say if more women directors were nominated, or more people of color were represented, then things might change in terms of what movies get made and who makes them. The Oscars are still considered the highest honor bestowed in the film industry, but the annual awards show has become much more than just a way to honor artistic achievement. It is more or less a watering hole for our culture where matters of Hollywood attitudes, successes, celebrities, prejudices, hypocrisies are addressed — all at the same time that artistic merit is rewarded. Because it is such a high honor and because its 90-year history mirrors changes in our society’s evolution, the Academy Awards are really the only awards show where such pressures exist. Sure, a host can get bumped from the MTV Movie Awards for bad behavior, but no one scrutinizes everything other awards bodies do the way they scrutinize the Oscars.

This year is going to be a doozy for scrutiny, as it should be. But no matter how the current turmoil is handled, an uncomfortable topic still lingers: how are we to honor or separate or evaluate the art made by people who have done things that society deems unforgivable, even if such things were concealed, excused, or brushed off in the past? Violations and injustice have always existed and have often remained hidden, but we don’t live in that kind of world anymore. The internet has given voice to marginalized groups. It has democratized moral standards and can levy consequences that determine what is worthy and what isn’t, what sells and what shouldn’t. Twitter and Facebook have made it possible to mobilize public opinion, for better or worse, in ways that impact tangible change. This pressure is especially effective in Hollywood because the entertainment industry is populated mostly by left-leaning people whose conscience compels them to care what others think of them. Clearly, Republicans have no such dilemma. Where conservatives could once claim to be the political group that condemned immoral behavior, they are now the side that excuses it. Liberals are now the side that condemns it, even if it means taking down their fallen heroes one by one.

But we’re heading into voting season when the choices that Hollywood makes to represent the best of its work for the next few months will be put under that intense microscope and face questioning. Will the films be acceptable thematically? Will the people who made them all have clean records? What allegations might be brought out in the next few months that could shift sentiment away from one film or another? While the Oscar race has tended toward awarding movies about good people doing good things (mostly about men, let’s face it), the pressure perhaps feels higher this year to promote goodness than it has at other times. That means movies like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or Lady Bird, or The Post, or any film that features a woman fighting the system should do pretty well, because they are mostly “safe” bets. Films that involve a more problematic treatment of women, or include scenes of sexuality whether questions of consent or appropriate behavior may be debatable might have a slightly harder time in an era where people seem ready to strike out at any time, at anyone.

That’s not to say that coming-of-age love stories like Call Me by Your Name or Battle of the Sexes or The Big Sick may not do well. After all, don’t people want a little respite from the horror and isn’t true love a good remedy? But I suspect — and many others seem to agree — that the zeitgeist this year will be more about fighting our way out of oppression, or beating back evil forces that threaten grave harm to our society.

Then there are those individuals that Hollywood has chosen not to permanently eject whose past histories will resurface in the coming months, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen specifically. Accusations of double standards against Hollywood and the Oscars will single out those two names specifically since both are Oscar winners and each remain objects of admiration in the industry, regardless of what they’ve done. Ellen Page has now come out publicly against both men, saying she’s ashamed she ever worked with Woody Allen and all but accused Hollywood of covering for abuse. It isn’t the first time such a thing was said and it won’t be the last.

When I first joined the internet back in 1994, I was I joined a cinema listserv that would become the best film studies education of my life. The first post I ever wrote did not go well. First, I misspelled “dilemma.” I am a terrible speller (and I always have been), but nonetheless, just to show you how different things were back then, here is how it went down:

Mild replies by today’s standards, but I still felt roundly attacked by the group for even suggesting that Woody Allen’s behavior should impact how I regarded his movies. I learned my lesson then (sort of) and went through the next 23 years believing that the right decision was that art should not require a good behavior test. Artistic creations exist separately from the life and behavior of the people who create it. Does anyone look at Picasso’s work and run through their minds whether it is good or bad depending on how he treated people? Sure the crimes of Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, or Charles Manson clearly can never be separated from their “art” because their crimes consume every other idea about them: they were that horrific. But if we’re talking about sexual harassment, or masturbation, or intimidation, or rape — where is the line drawn? Who falls on which side of that line and how are we to judge them? If Bob Dylan turned out to be a serial killer would that change whether we think his songs are good or not? A revelation like that would certainly be reason for some serious reassessment. But what if it came out that Bob Dylan had sexually harassed someone? Then we’re faced with a new dilemma (spell check can now help me out with that one).

I think what Ellen Page is getting at, and what the newly powerful hive mind is saying, is that each of us can now choose to redefine what kind of products rise in our culture, and who benefits from success and why. Perhaps it is a revolution of a kind, and one that will help topple the “white male patriarchy,” at least where art and commerce are concerned. I myself wonder what that will mean for what defines great art and what doesn’t.

There has to be a reckoning of Hollywood’s treatment of women overall: how they have been depicted on screen, how young actresses are brought in as fresh meat, then chewed up and discarded when they age a few years. Will that start to happen too? It already has, just not in a way that has changed things very much. When the feminist movement began to voice concerns many decades ago, that did have an impact on Hollywood. But it wasn’t long before it all reverted back to way things were. Perhaps, with some of the movies we’re seeing this year, things might start to change in ways that can become the new improved normal.

I am someone who will always believe that Chinatown is a masterpiece. But I’m also a person who has now discomfort watching Woody Allen movies, because many of them seem to reveal a lack of awareness, an opacity about the truth. By contrast, much of Roman Polanski’s recent work reflects a paranoia, a pervasive guilt, a doomed fate throughout; thus, I don’t feel asked by him to “like” who he is. Woody Allen, on the other hand, first presented himself on screen as a kind of paragon of obsessive self-questioning morality. That image was shattered when he married Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi, and then was accused of molesting his own daughter Dylan. The Woody Allen sold to me for years was not the Woody Allen he turned out to be.

I remain conflicted, but welcome any changes that lead to greater understanding. This year feels like the reopening of an inquisition into thorny issues that people like me long ago came to terms with, each in our own way. It’s not the fall of the American Empire, but it’s a seismic shift that has justifiably shaken the American Left and jolted the entertainment industry that once made us proud. Our reaction is important because it reflects on liberals as the new standard-bearers for what is acceptable in our society, now that the “Christian Right” has abdicated that concern. It is a great stride forward because victims are being heard and there is nothing more important than that. But it’s also a time where so many things we once believed are coming apart. How we put those things back together to be better than what they were is the test we must pass. Which movie this year will tell us not only who we are, but who we should be? Right now, there is no way to tell.