Over the next month or so, audiences will have the chance to see no fewer than two films starring Casey Affleck, although we wouldn’t blame you if you had no idea that either existed. Our Friend, based on the true story of Matthew and Nicole Teague, initially played at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival to muted reviews and premiered on-demand in mid-January. Mona Hastvold’s The World to Come, a historical drama that Affleck also produced, premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and was widely overshadowed by more acclaimed releases. For a guy who won the Best Actor Oscar only four years ago, Affleck’s kept away from the spotlight. His most high-profile post-award movie, A Ghost Story, was a micro-budget indie drama where he wore a sheet over his body for the majority of its running time. Casey’s never been as famous or obsessed over as his brother Ben but the quietness of his career following what many would consider a professional peak is still notable. It reveals that, like his sibling, Affleck is a savvy figure, albeit for more insidious reasons than the former Batman.
In 2010, while making the mockumentary I’m Still Here with his then-brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, two of Affleck’s co-workers accused him of ‘uninvited and unwelcome sexual advances.’ One of the film’s producers, Amanda White, sued Affleck for $2 million and alleged instances of sexual harassment. The film’s cinematographer, Magdalena Gorka, also sued Affleck for $2.25 million with multiple complaints including intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of oral contract. Gorka claimed that she had been subjected to multiple instances of sexual harassment by fellow crew members ‘within the presence and with the active encouragement of Affleck.’ Affleck initially denied the claims and threatened to countersue, although no such suits were ever filed. The lawsuits were later settled out of court.
This is the dark shadow that looms over everything that Affleck has done in the past decade, and it’s an important detail to remember as we explain his actions in the industry that followed, including his aggressive awards campaigning and subsequent sidestepping of the spotlight.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, receiving rapturous reviews and being picked up for distribution by Amazon Studios. Almost immediately, Affleck and his team went to work to secure his first Best Actor Oscar nomination (he had previously received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.)
You can look to Affleck’s Oscar campaign for the perfect example of how to ruthlessly fight for your little gold man. It was as if he had a checklist of campaigning requirements and he fulfilled them one by one with merciless precision. He guest-hosted Saturday Night Live in the midst of awards season. He was profiled for CBS. He did glossy and glowing interviews with the likes of The New York Times. He turned up on every actors’ panel to discuss the work and play the humble craftsman alongside his peers. He turned up at every red carpet, film festival, and industry shindig, ensuring he received more press coverage than he had since… well, since the sexual harassment allegations. The only thing he didn’t do was drag his wife and kids out for cheesecake photo sessions, and that’s probably because Summer Phoenix was getting ready to file for divorce.
The entertainment press fell in line too. They fawned over his Manchester By the Sea performance and either completely sidestepped the allegations or framed them in a way that made them seem utterly frivolous compared to his heartrending talent. And it worked. Affleck had an almost clean sweep of the precursor awards leading up to the Oscars. It helped that the Best Actor competition that year was somewhat lacking, with the exception of Denzel Washington in Fences. It was Washington who won the Screen Actors Guild award that year, not Affleck.
The person who seemed the happiest about that decision was Brie Larson, the previous year’s Best Actress winner. Tradition dictates that the winner of last year’s award gives it out to the current year’s winner of the opposing gender. That meant that Larson spent a lot of that period giving statuettes to Affleck, and she barely hid her disdain for the process. Famously, she refused to clap when Affleck gave his Oscar speech, a detail she later confirmed was a minor form of protest against the accused sexual harasser. Denzel didn’t seem thrilled about it either, as Affleck tried to kiss his ass during his speech and Washington looked ready to throw a chair at him.
And then Affleck went away. He’d won his award. He’d gotten the industry to not give a f**k about his status as an accused serial sexual harasser because they liked his acting. Only a few months after that win, Harvey Weinstein would be fully exposed as one of the most dangerous predators in Hollywood history, which kickstarted the worldwide mainstream acknowledgment of the pandemic of systemic misogyny. If the #MeToo campaign had occurred only a year earlier, Casey Affleck would not have won Best Actor. Not because the industry would feel any sort of real humility over the situation, but because they’d be too embarrassed to tick the box next to his name. Affleck clearly knew that the tables had turned, and he was glaringly absent from the following year’s awards season. A ‘source’ ran to Deadline, a publication that has a real soft spot for accused men like him and said that Affleck magnanimously didn’t want to draw attention away from the winners and the larger cause.
In 2018, Affleck gave an interview to the Associated Press, where he tried to play the penitent man. For the first time, he discussed the allegations and lawsuits in greater detail and claimed that he had grown to understand his own culpability. Some accepted the piece as a real apology from Affleck, but the timing always felt crooked. Where was this when he wanted an Oscar? Where was this when he had his lawyers smearing the accusers and their claims as ‘total fiction’? Accountability isn’t free, so the notion that Affleck had his Come to Jesus moment only after he and his team had effectively steamrolled over the elephant in the room in order to win him an award didn’t sit right for many people. If Affleck thought this would pave the way for him to become a more prominent figure in Hollywood, it failed miserably.
Affleck was always more of an indie actor than Ben, with bigger movies like the Ocean’s series and The Finest Hours peppered throughout his 25+ years filmography. Post-Manchester By the Sea, his focus has only gotten smaller, with almost all of his films getting strictly limited releases that require little to no press coverage on his part. He’s not doing a ton of talk-show appearances or being asked to read thirst tweets on Buzzfeed. That would require him to face more uncontrolled scrutiny than he’s probably comfortable with. When Affleck went to the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 to promote Light of My Life, a film he also directed that centered on a man protecting his daughter in a dystopian world, he tried to dispute the allegations once more and how hard it was for him to deal with the scrutiny. He may have still been deemed important enough to get a film into the Berlinale, but the press wasn’t so willing to let the issues at hand slide. He can’t avoid that forever, even as he embraces a much more low-key direction with his career.
Affleck’s comeback is as quiet as he can manage at this point in time. He may personally try to spin his current professional choices as deeply personal ones but it’s also clear that he either can’t or won’t prepare for the more intense scrutiny that would justifiably be leveled at him should he try to aim for the A-List. Of course, this is still Hollywood and it’s not as if white guys with a modicum of talent have ever had to struggle for long. Doors are still open for Affleck. The question is whether his ego wants to make that step. Frankly, the masses aren’t crying out for more Casey Affleck movies and I think he knows that. He may be calculating but he’s not stupid. What a terrifying combination.
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