January might be famous for inducing gloom, sobriety, and overdraft panic, but there is a bright spot. A flicker of warmth on the horizon. It’s awards season, which means Oscar speculation, which means there will always be something we want to watch at the cinema, and we have a perfectly good excuse to sit down in a warm, dark room and not move for two hours. One of the most anticipated Oscar contenders is Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s moving story about a reclusive janitor who is forced to change his life when his brother dies, and he becomes his nephew’s guardian. Reviewers are united in their praise for Casey Affleck, who has the lead role. He won a Golden Globe for his performance, and he’s expected to repeat his triumph at the Oscars.
Like many people who work in Hollywood, Casey Affleck’s private life has been subjected to some level of speculation. In 2010, Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka both filed separate lawsuits against Affleck after working with him on the film I’m Still Here, which was released that year. Gorka described how Affleck subjected her to a “near daily barrage of sexual comments, innuendo and unwelcome advances,” and the experience was “the most traumatising of my career”. Both women allege that Affleck tried to initiate sexual contact even when they had made clear that it was unwanted.
To be clear, these are allegations, which Affleck has denied. Nothing has been proved in a court of law. Affleck agreed to settlements with both women, and the financial details have not been released to the public. No one can be sure of what did or did not happen. However, I think this demonstrates the way that the film industry, an area dominated by gossip, runs along gender lines. In Hollywood, women’s careers have been destroyed by lesser rumours. But men can rise above scandal like steam off hot coffee, and are permitted to work without rumours holding them back. Even men whose appalling behaviour has been proved are sometimes hailed as difficult geniuses, to be feted and garlanded with awards.
An allegation, by definition, has not been proved true or false. Celebrities are human, and humans can be terrible
Let’s look at Lindsay Lohan. Lohan is one of the most gossiped about actors in this millennium. Admittedly, there is plenty of evidence to back up the stories about her dangerous driving and excessive use of drugs and alcohol. But when is the last time you heard Lohan referred to in terms of her talent? I don’t think anyone who has seen any of her early films would dispute her presence and power, but she’s rarely offered exciting, demanding roles. The last well known projects she was associated with were 2012 TV movie Liz And Dick, and Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial, low budget The Canyons, and both productions were dogged by gossip about her behaviour on set. Admittedly, hiring someone with a history of substance abuse issues can make insurance complicated, but a reputation for Hollywood hell-raising hasn’t hindered the careers of Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio in the same way.
Similarly, Daniel Radcliffe has been bravely open about his problems with alcohol during the filming of the Harry Potter series – but it rarely comes up in interviews. It hasn’t put anyone off casting him, or stood in the way of his chances to pursue his career. His co-star Emma Watson will probably be asked about the infamous nude photo hack of 2015 during every interview she ever does, because a woman’s talent will never be allowed to overshadow the fact that she has nipples. We’ve seen more than twice as many headlines about an outfit Susan Sarandon at an event than we’ve seen about the fact that two of Casey Affleck’s colleagues have made serious allegations against him.
I don’t think the answer lies in judging everyone and finding punitive ways of dealing with suspected bad behaviour. An allegation, by definition, has not been proved true or false. Celebrities are human, and humans can be terrible. However, as we sit down to gorge on Oscar picks, we can meditate on the way we consume gossip, and the allowances we make for the talented people who can take us away from reality for an hour or two. Are those allowances equal for everyone, or are we gender-skewed? When we look for a form of escapism, are we using speculation about other women’s lives in the same way we use men’s work? If women working in Hollywood weren’t victims of gossip, they’d be more powerful, and taken seriously. And if women are taken seriously, they will be listened to, and powerful men might be less inclined to behave badly towards them.