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Why I'm not celebrating Casey Affleck's Oscar win

Not my best actor

Why I'm not celebrating Casey Affleck's Oscar win
How do you celebrate an Academy Award-winning actor in light of past sexual allegations? Here’s why it’s so hard to applaud Casey Affleck

I was molested on the bus five years ago. I remember exactly when it happened, what I was wearing — not that it mattered, of course, but I'm a stickler for detail — and how he did it. I was sitting by the window on bus 145 from Henderson Industrial Park (shout-out to the publishing folks in that area), with my arm on the ledge. I was lost in thought, doubting my life choices and wondering when a former lover was going to text back. You know, as you do when the sunlight filters through the trees and bestows a Sofia Coppola movie-like sheen.

I then felt a feathery touch below my armpit, and moved my arm thinking it was a fly that had escaped into the air-conditioned comforts of the bus. When it happened for the third time, I got annoyed, looked at that space between the seat and the ledge where my arm rested and saw a hand with fingers outstretched. For a second, I thought a kind stranger behind me was facing pest issues as well. When the unmistakable feel of a stranger's fingertips caressed that unsexy part below my armpit — henceforth referred to as pre-side boob territory — I swiftly turned around. This time, that hand slowly retreated. I turned to the front and didn't want to look at the perpetrator's face. "He touched me. He actually touched me," I said to myself repeatedly. I didn't know whether to be scared, embarrassed, outraged or disgusted. Before I alighted, I turned around and flipped the bird. If I had the luxury of mid-2010s slang back then, I would have described that moment in one word: Shook.

Shook, like how you were when Faye Dunaway (for the last time, it wasn't Warren Beatty) read out the wrong name at the 89th Academy Awards for best picture. Shook, just like La La Land actress Emma Stone when she realised the mistake on stage and kept repeating "oh my god". Shook, when Casey Affleck was awarded the best actor Oscar for his performance in Manchester by the Sea. When I found out that the younger Affleck had just won his first Oscar, I felt sick to my stomach.

Casey Affleck at the Oscars

Post allegations, Affleck is still here

In 2010, two women who worked on the set of Affleck's experimental documentary I'm Still Here filed separate sexual harassment lawsuits. Producer Amanda White and cinematographer Magdalena Gorka sued Affleck in the realm of millions. Gorka, who has more than 15 years of experience in the entertainment industry, had never accused anyone of sexual harassment and even struggled with the decision to file a lawsuit in the light of the ramifications it might have on her career. In her court document, she highlighted negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress among the six causes of action against Affleck and production company Flemmy Productions. Among the incidents, the one that stood out was when Affleck awoke her in bed, lying next to her wearing only his underwear and a t-shirt. He had an arm around her, was caressing her back and had a breath that reeked of alcohol. Affleck also merely stood by when fellow crew made lewd comments throughout production. In the course of shooting the movie, the cinematographer even tried to leave the project twice due to continued harassment.

Numerous news sources have reported on the incidents, with ABC News going as far as to publish the court documents. The world knows that Affleck is allegedly a sexual offender. When Brie Larson — who won an Oscar in 2016 for her portrayal of a rape survivor in Room — presented the award to Affleck, she didn't smile, cheer or clap. I didn't exactly jump for joy, either.

Brie Larson and Casey Affleck walking off the stage after his Oscar win

That safe word: Alleged

Yes, there's that safe word to divide us all: Alleged. He might not be guilty. But why is it often that the first reaction to someone being sexually harassed is that of disbelief? When you tell someone you've been sexually harassed, three reaction questions often arise: 1. What were you wearing? 2. Are you sure? 3. What did you do? There's a pressure to get things right by societal standards. "You had to be wearing something skimpy". "Maybe he was just being friendly". "Why didn't you report him?". When a famous person is accused of sexual harassment, the reaction is split: Some are shocked that such an admirable talent could do such a thing, while others conveniently assume that the victim is out to get the millions.

Take the case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. I've been a big fan of Depp and don't regard Heard much when it comes to the acting craft. When the allegations were reported last year, I couldn't believe my ears. How could Edward Scissorhands himself, the star of my pre-pubescent liquid dreams do such a thing? The case was eventually settled out of court with Heard giving her US$7 million divorce settlement to charities focusing on children and violence against women. Let's just say my lady boner for Depp never resurfaced. When he was cast in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I wasn't sure what to feel.

To write or not to write?

In the lead up to the Oscar buzz, I had prepared a lineup of stories to be published. An intern proposed Affleck for our weekly #ManCrushMonday column, where we highlight someone in the arts worth paying attention to. I set her aside to explain why we shouldn't look as though we're glorifying or endorsing someone who was accused of sexual harassment. I was taking the stance of Larson and fellow industry folk such as Chrissy Teigen and Constance Wu who had spoken out against the actor. When I posted Oscar updates onto Buro 24/7 Singapore's Instagram, I intentionally cropped out Affleck's face from the line-up of winners, which included Mahershala Ali, Emma Stone and Viola Davis.

Oscar winners Mahershala Ali, Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Casey Affleck

Was I right to make such calls, or could I have just separated the person from the performance? Affleck's work in Manchester by the Sea has been well-acclaimed, with the likes of Wall Street Journal calling his portrayal "stripped-back perfection". When we celebrate film on such a global and career-changing arena as the Oscars, is our applause reserved for the actor and actress or his and her craft — or a little of both? Actors and actresses often take a community angle when accepting awards to prove that they aren't bigger than their britches. Halle Berry herself said that her Oscar moment for winning best actress in 2002's Monster Ball was bigger than she was. "This is for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door has opened," she said in her acceptance speech. When Lupita Nyong'o won for her role in 2013's 12 Years a Slave, she took the opportunity to remind us that "no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid."

If an Oscar represents something much bigger than the actor or the craft, then what did Affleck's Oscar for best actor stand for? His entry into the nominations alone had sparked off debates, and his recent win cements sexual harassment's place in a society where people are quick to judge, discredit and conveniently forget. When Affleck won, the audience cheered — including Mel Gibson, a fellow auteur nominated for best director for Hacksaw Ridge who pled no contest to battery against his former girlfriend.

Away from Hollywood's blinding glamour, Affleck's win felt like someone had caressed my pre-side boob territory without my consent all over again. This writer continues to sit in disbelief and engage in Facebook conversations on the incredulity surrounding Affleck's win. I can write about Manchester by the Sea as a moving film about humankind's capacity to love in the face of adversity, but I will not attach my byline to it. 

For more stories on the Oscars, click here.

Adibah Isa

  • Image: United International Pictures, Getty Images

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