Slapping Some Sense Into the Academy

The night of the 94th Academy Awards Ceremony, the internet erupted into chaos. In a matter of seconds, a prestigious award show turned into a drama-filled spectacle from an altercation that lasted less than a minute. Will Smith and Chris Rock were trending on Twitter in a matter of seconds and it seemed everyone had an opinion to share on this broadcasted scene. Many were convinced it was merely a staged performance since such a rudimentary argument was not expected to take place at a well-respected Hollywood event. Nevertheless, hungry for drama, news outlets, the ever-forgiving views of social media users, and even fellow celebrities took advantage of the spectacle, arguably pushing it too far and dramatizing events that pale in comparison to some of the other atrocities the Academy has turned a blind eye to.  

The Academy is not an innocent establishment. Over the years, they have been criticized for a lack of diversity and representation amongst nominees and award winners. After being under the spotlight for so long, the Academy was able to implement gradual changes that continue to wax and wane in terms of boosting representation of minority groups. However, the majority of the Academy’s choices are designed to placate critics and patch over deep-rooted issues. In countless scandals throughout Hollywood and the film industry, the Board of Governors has remained passive and inattentive to the injustices they perpetuate. 

A prominent example is Roman Polanski, famous Oscar-winner and known fugitive. In 1978, he fled the United States, moving around various European countries over the years in order to avoid his final sentencing after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Yet, this convicted felon who escaped his punishment in the U.S. went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, and he won. Years after pleading guilty to raping a thirteen-year-old girl, Polanski was chosen by the Academy as Best Director for his film “The Pianist.” While the film lost in the category of Best Motion Picture that night, it collected two more awards for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

Nearly 15 years later, the Board of Governors ultimately decided to expel Polanski from the Academy shortly after expelling Bill Cosby. Cosby’s conviction and the MeToo movement in 2017 prompted the Academy to create an updated Standards of Conduct centered on “respect for human dignity.” Without this popularized social movement and scrutiny from the public, it is highly unlikely that the Academy would have taken any corrective action against Polanski, who is unfortunately still praised by many in Hollywood. Even now, the Academy has not rescinded any awards from Polanski, Harvey Weinstein, and various others who have been accused or convicted of heinous sexual crimes. Only a total of six people have been expelled from the Academy. Meanwhile, previous award-winners like Mel Gibson, who was homophobic, antisemitic, and physically and verbally abusive, remain unaffected and even privileged by the prestige of having an Oscar. Casey Affleck and Woody Allen are two additional examples. Like Polanski, Affleck was awarded his Oscar after being sued twice for sexual harassment seven years prior

The list goes on and on in part because there are no consequences for these behaviors. Actors, directors, and big names in the film industry are not being deterred or even moderately prevented from committing similar crimes. As a “prestigious” and “respected” institution, the Academy needs to demonstrate greater accountability — which leads back to the Smith scandal.  

Before agreeing on the 10-year ban from the Academy, Smith had already willingly renounced his Academy membership. He recognized that his behavior was inappropriate, he apologized, and accepted that assault should not be taken lightly. There is no denying that what he did was wrong. However, for the Academy to pretend to bring down the hammer on Smith and perform harsh corrective actions to show their commitment to morality that has been consistently absent when it comes to doling out consequences to convicted criminals is a cruel joke. This is yet another sad example of the Academy’s desire to save face and satiate the needs of the public by creating its own form of retribution that is superficial at most and an all-around feeble attempt at justice. 

The Academy claims that they want to use this incident as an establishing “step towards a larger goal of protecting the safety of [their] performers and guests, and restoring trust in [them].” But, that commitment and objective remains out of sight when corrective actions are handled so carelessly and on the basis of public attention. 

Art by Allen Chen for the UCSD Guardian.