To put it succinctly, Kenneth Lonergan’s new film Manchester By the Sea is mostly worthless. It’s a very pretty movie filled with tragedy and pathos that follows two central characters who undergo so little change throughout the course of its bleak two hours and 17 minutes that it’s unclear why their story was made at all. Nevertheless, star Casey Affleck’s performance as a guilt-ridden, emotionally stunted, straight alpha male trapped in a state of inconsolable grief has somehow made him the frontrunner for Best Actor at next year’s Oscars, and won him Best Actor at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on Thursday evening. I don’t necessarily get it, but I rarely agree with these sorts of decisions.
Beyond my confusion surrounding all the praise heaped on Affleck’s perfectly competent performance of a character who, for the most part, has exactly one note, the reminder that he was accused of sexual harassment in 2010 has made the unmitigated buzz particularly confusing, given our very recent history with another, somewhat parallel story.
In January, Nate Parker’s The Birth Of a Nation set a record at Sundance by selling to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. But the tables turned just months later, when the story changed from “Sundance success” to “the writer, director, and star of one of 2016's buzziest movies was once charged with (and later acquitted of) rape.” Parker and his film were ostensibly written out of the Oscar race before his film hit theaters. Affleck remains a frontrunner, despite a past also marked by troubling accusations, reported by the Daily Beast:
On one occasion, [I’m Still Here producer Amanda White] claimed that Affleck ordered a crew member to take off his pants and show White his penis—even after she vehemently objected. She claimed that Affleck repeatedly referred to women as “cows,” and recounted his sexual exploits with reckless abandon. In her complaint, White recalled Affleck asking her “Isn’t it about time you get pregnant?” once he learned her age, and suggesting that she and a male crew member reproduce.
She also alleged that Affleck attempted to manipulate her into sharing a hotel room with him. When she resisted, White claimed, he grabbed her threateningly and attempted to scare her into submission. Affleck then allegedly proceeded to send White abusive text messages, calling her “profane names” for refusing to stay with him.
As the Daily Beast points out, there are big differences here. Parker was accused of rape in a criminal court, and Affleck was accused of sexual harassment in a civil court. Parker was acquitted, and Affleck settled for an undisclosed sum. In the eyes of the law, both cases are closed. But while Parker’s past became intricately threaded to the DNA of The Birth of a Nation, the allegations brought against Affleck six years ago have gone largely unnoticed as he’s promoted Manchester By the Sea. This is, as has been pointed out by several media outlets over the past month, largely due to journalists with access choosing not to ask about it.
Nate Parker, who (again) was acquitted of rape, was asked about the allegations during almost every interview he gave while promoting The Birth of a Nation (which, by the way, wasn’t very good). Given the upsetting court transcripts and eventual suicide of his accuser, such questioning is expected and warranted. But Affleck, who continues making appearances while flanked by A-list pals Ben Affleck (his brother) and Matt Damon, has been allowed to avoid the subject entirely. Why haven’t journalists been asking Casey Affleck about claims he “attempted to manipulate [White] into sharing a hotel room with him” while she worked as a producer on his shitty 2008 documentary?
Writes Allie Jones in The Cut:
This brotherly posing makes prestige outlets hesitant to ask the younger Affleck tough questions, for fear of losing access to all three stars. His cruise to the Oscars continues undeterred because of his privileged position in Hollywood.
There are some redeeming qualities to be found in Manchester By the Sea. Is Michelle Williams great? She’s only in a few scenes, but sure. Is the music gorgeous? It might be the best score of the year! But the experience of watching a movie that asks us to pity a character, played by an actor who appears to be underserving of it, is unpleasant at best. In the same year that critics and audiences chose to ignore one film based on criminal allegations brought against its biggest star, how is it that Manchester gets a pass?
The blind eye isn’t unprecedented, obviously, as famous white men are often able to shake off allegations of harassment with relative ease. Bill Murray has only become more of a cultural mascot since his wife accused him of spousal abuse in 2007. In the years since Woody Allen’s daughter wrote a New York Times op-ed detailing the time she alleges he sexually assaulted her, his film Blue Jasmine won an Oscar, and Amazon gave him a TV deal. And, of course, our country just elected a white man who once boasted about sexually assaulting multiple women to be the next president.
Affleck is not the last white man whose power and connections will render him nearly immune to allegations of sexual harassment. But, if you want to skip Manchester By the Sea, all you’d be missing is a movie that asks its audience to explore white male ennui while also demanding they ignore its lead actor’s offscreen reality. Which is to say you won’t be missing much.