In a year with many worthy contenders, hands-down the most intriguing category at this year's Academy Awards is best actor. It's such a fascinating race because it is both the easiest to call and potentially the most difficult.
If the Academy's 6200 or so voters cast their ballots for the person they think has given the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (to give the award its full ungainly title), Casey Affleck is, by most assessments, guaranteed to win for Manchester by the Sea. He is exceptionally good in a truly outstanding (if rather gruelling) movie.
But, if they take into account, the tawdry allegations of sexual harassment that resurfaced with a vengeance in January, it's possible the award might go elsewhere – to Viggo Mortensen, perhaps, for his terrific turn as an ideological puritan raising six kids in a forest utopia in Captain Fantastic, or to Denzel Washington for his tour de force as the blowhard man-of-crushed-dreams in Fences.
Affleck is brilliant, but the issue is this: can you overlook moral turpitude in order to acknowledge great work? More to the point, should you?
In case you missed it, tThe allegations against Affleck go back to 2008 and '09, when he was directing the "documentary" I'm Still Here, starring his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, who had supposedly quit acting to pursue a career as a rap artist. (Affleck is recently divorced from Phoenix's sister Summer, with whom he has two children.)
In 2010, cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White separately alleged they were subjected to systematic sexual harassment on the shoot by Affleck, Phoenix and various other members of the production team.
Among many other claims, Gorka said she at one stage woke up to find Affleck in her bed, reeking of alcohol, wearing only his underwear, and stroking her back.
Additionally, both women claimed they had not been paid according to the terms agreed with Affleck and the production company. The pair sued for $US2.25 million and $US2 million respectively.
The cases were settled out of court, confidentially. That means we don't know to what extent Affleck conceded their claims, only that he presumably felt it was better they were never aired publicly.
But we can get a sense of what he thinks of it all from an interview he gave to Vanity Fair late last year. "I guess people think if you're well-known, it's perfectly fine to say anything you want," he said in response to a question about the lawsuits. "I don't know why that is. But it shouldn't be, because everybody has families and lives."
Whatever the substance of the allegations, it was a neat attempt to cast himself as the victim of the case. And maybe it worked: Affleck's march towards Oscar glory seems to have been barely troubled by the campaign against him waged by actor Constance Wu and others.
The same could not be said of Nate Parker. The writer-director-star of The Birth of a Nation was tipped as a hot favourite for Oscar action until reports surfaced in November of his central role in an alleged rape while a student at Penn State in 1999. Parker was acquitted, which might have left him and his film languishing in the same grey zone as Affleck, were it not for a couple of significant factors.
While Parker was found not guilty of raping the 18-year-old white girl he had taken back to his dorm room, his roommate Jean Celestin (who was also his collaborator in developing the based-on-fact story of a slave revolt in 1830s Virginia) was found guilty and jailed.
Celestin was eventually granted a retrial, but the prosecution withdrew its case before it went to court. According to an extensive report on the case by The Daily Beast, his conviction has since been expunged.
The alleged victim reportedly dropped out of college after claiming she had been harassed by Parker and Celestin and their supporters. In 2013, aged 30, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
If all that were not enough to make support for a Parker push in the Oscar race problematic, there was also the small matter of what the PR consultants call optics. The Birth of a Nation is about a slave who rises up after his wife is raped by white men.
By December, Parker's film was dead in the water; in Australia, it didn't even get a cinema release (it is getting a belated straight-to-DVD release next month). It's true that the allegations against Parker were of a very serious nature, but he was found not guilty.
Meanwhile Affleck's guilt or otherwise was never assessed because he settled out of court. He will, in all likelihood, win that Oscar on Monday. Is either of these the right outcome?
It's not as if the Academy isn't used to doling out forgiveness to its favoured sons. Roman Polanski, who admitted in court to raping a 13-year-old girl then fled the US before sentencing, received a best director Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist. Hell, he even got a standing ovation.
Mel Gibson, once persona-non-grata in Hollywood for his anti-Semitic outbursts and threats of violence towards women, appears to have been well and truly welcomed back into the fold. On Monday, he is one of five contenders for the best director award, and his Hacksaw Ridge is in line for five others, including best picture. And in news fresh from the "surely not" desk, he's even considering an offer to direct Suicide Squad 2.
Since sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen first surfaced in 1992, his films have been nominated for 18 Academy Awards (including best director twice), winning four.
Arguably, the Nate Parker scandal broke too early in his career for him to be able to brush it off (though a recent piece from Buzzfeed convincingly argues other factors were at play too). Gibson, though, is established Hollywood royalty, now restored after a period in exile.
Affleck, meanwhile, is the junior member of a major Boston-born Hollywood power clique: Ben is his older brother, and Matt Damon, who was originally cast in Manchester by the Sea and lobbied hard for Casey Affleck as his replacement, is one of his closest friends.
It's a fair bet those factors, as well as the undeniable quality of his performance, have weighed on voters' minds far more heavily than the boorish behaviour that allegedly took place seven or eight years ago.
It's a fair bet that Affleck will walk away with that statuette on Monday.
It's a fair bet the whole tawdry episode will soon be consigned to a footnote in history, at most.
Whether that's the right outcome, though, is far less certain.
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