Spotlight gets harsher for stars

Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea.
Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea.PHOTO: UIP

WASHINGTON • Mr Donald Trump took the stage in New York in the early hours of Nov 9 to thank America for electing him president. Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in California was Billy Bush, unemployed.

Last year, the celebrity lost his job after participating in a more than decade-old crude conversation and another became the leader of the free world in spite of it.

It is an odd dynamic: a candidate elected while bucking political correctness and facing accusations of inappropriate sexual contact as actors and television personalities face career ramifications over questions of past behaviour.

The public is now vetting celebrities at star-making moments in ways once reserved for people running for office. In recent years, they have dug up old tweets, revisited court cases and lawsuits, and uncovered unsettling details, prompting debates about the ethics of supporting an entertainer's work.

"It's almost like, 'Welcome to politics'," said Mr Rick Wilson, a long-time GOP strategist behind some of the most infamous television campaign advertisements. Past misdeeds damaging present careers is "the kind of thing in political life that we expected for years".

In the world of entertainment, these controversies can be as serious as criminal rape charges or as banal as distasteful jokes - and get extra attention amid increased conversations about race, gender and sexual assault.

In Nate Parker's case, his directorial debut, The Birth Of A Nation, earned serious Oscar buzz early last year and a Sundance-record deal with Fox Searchlight.

But as the public relations campaign for the film mounted, the media took a closer look at his 1999 rape case.

Parker, then a college student, was acquitted and has since maintained the act was consensual. But reporters discovered new details, including his accuser's 2012 suicide.

Soon, many asked whether it was ethical to support the movie. Ultimately, the film about Nat Turner's slave rebellion was a box- office flop that netted zero Oscar nominations.

Mr Dan Berger, president of the independent film company Oscilloscope, said: "It becomes that question: Do you judge an artist's work based on just his work or other things? There's the work and there's the person. From a business standpoint, both of those things matter greatly."

The Internet has made it easier than ever to become a sleuth and social media provides a megaphone for anyone to create a firestorm.

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Bill Cosby had been in the public sphere for years, but a video of a stand-up comic's joke going viral in 2014 lighted the spark that eventually led to Cosby's downfall.

In 2015, Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah would take over The Daily Show. Less than 24 hours later, the South African comedian came under fire for jokes he tweeted in 2009 about women and Jews.

Seven years ago, the entertainment press covered sexual harassment lawsuits filed against Casey Affleck by two women involved in the production of a 2010 project.

He denied the claims, which included allegations of lewd comments and "aggressive" behaviour, and threatened to countersue. The parties settled out of court.

But by last year, Affleck's Manchester By The Sea performance was getting Oscar buzz, prompting a renewed interest in the legal battle. The Daily Beast published a lengthy narrative of the allegations and dubbed them his "dark secret".

Some journalists and others, such as actress Constance Wu, argued that Hollywood should not anoint him with an Academy Award.

On his WTF podcast, stand-up comedian Marc Maron acknowledged continued questions "about why aren't more outlets asking Casey about these accusations, particularly in the current cultural climate". But he said he did not ask Affleck about the case because the terms of the settlement prevent the actor from talking about it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Spotlight gets harsher for stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe