Saturday, January 20, 2018

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Manchester By the Sea" (2016)

Scene from Manchester By the Sea
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Directed By: Kenneth Lonergan
Written By: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 137 minutes
Summary: A depressed uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy's father dies.

The Movie

In the past five years, the idea of what entertainment is has changed significantly. It's a time where streaming services win Golden Globes for Best TV Dramas. At the Oscars, Netflix has received significant amount of nominations for their various documentaries, though their big fiction films have entirely failed to capture the zeitgeist. It makes it difficult to suggest that streaming services will upset the Oscars at all, if just because their distribution model is too radical for traditional qualification rules. That is, of course, until Amazon Studios perfected the formula - amid controversy - of how to make films for a streaming service that also play in theaters successfully. It's a fairly new concept, but director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea set a template for what a streaming service could do with the right resources.

Whereas Netflix created conflict with theater companies during the Oscar campaign for Beasts of No Nation, Amazon struck the perfect chord by releasing films first in theaters then shortly playing them on their website for subscribers. It helped that Lonergan created what was considered to be one of the most passionate, honest, and raw movies of the year. Here was a film that took the dark subject of depression and found a way to explore the humor within the frustration. It did so without sacrificing an ounce of artistic integrity. In fact, it created a drama that captured humanity in characters who were deeply flawed but totally compelling, especially in the lead performances by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. It was the indie film that could, and there was little chance of failure.

That is, until the history of Affleck came into the conversation. For all of the praise that he would receive, he was one of a few names during the 2016 Oscar season to be reviled for his past behavior. Fellow Sundance film The Birth of a Nation received universal attacks for director and star Nate Parker's complicated past regarding sexual assault (in spite of claims that he atoned for his sins, the damage made the film bomb in ways that could've been more predictive of Manchester By the Sea). Even if the film defied the odds critically and commercially, it was a film that was rooted in controversy, all of which was on its lead actors' past. For a film praised for charismatic, career-best performances, it had to get over the hurdle of past mistakes that would threaten to take away a few wins.

The Campaign

The story of Manchester By the Sea is an unlikely one. It was a film that was critically acclaimed out of Sundance, and was bought by Amazon Studios for a Fall release. The buzz was clear. Affleck was going to be a big player in the awards conversation, with Hedges and Michelle Williams giving personally affecting performances. It was a starting point that films like Boyhood, Whiplash, and Brooklyn had done in the years leading up to their eventual Best Picture nominations. In that way, it was primed to be the indie darling by which awards season would love or hate. Considering that Amazon Studios was at best known for its TV content, it didn't seem like a major player. They hadn't distributed a film that could capture the zeitgeist before. It's probably why they bet big with a film from acclaimed screenwriter Lonergan, who if nothing else seemed overdue for some Oscar love.

Besides quality, the general distinction between Amazon Studios and Netflix's Oscar success likely has to do with distribution. Netflix releases the same day as theatrical release - which lead to theater boycotts and putting their films in limited markets. Amazon would start in theaters and eventually play on their Amazon Prime streaming service. This meant that their distribution could be more traditional, playing like any other indie film that would ascend through word of mouth. It's the tactic that was at the heart of the film's success. Audiences slowly kept coming to it, in part because it told a tale of grief that wasn't entirely rooted in depression. It was about the awkward moments in between that could be comic even as it was painful.

The issue soon became Affleck himself. He was being praised for his performance, but the backlash became inevitable after a specific story leaked. It was one regarding a sexual assault allegation in 2010 when he inappropriately behaved with a female coworker while filming I'm Still Here. He claimed to have settled the allegations, but they became a prominent text in the conversation. Why should Hollywood reward someone accused of sexual assault? It's a conflict that's surrounded Woody Allen for decades, and here was given a tragic irony when compared with Nate Parker's awards push. Both Affleck and Parker were accused of sexual assault, but Parker's film disappeared where Affleck's remained in the conversation. It may have been coincidental, but it was also a sign of privilege surrounding affluent white males. As much as Williams was praised for her brilliant performance in a very limited screen time, and Hedges as a bright newcomer, Affleck's past threatened to sabotage the film - even as Lonergan went around praising the film and interviewers were told not to interview the actor about these allegations.

Among those who spoke out against Affleck was Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu. With trailers touting Affleck's potential Oscar win, she quickly attacked his white privilege. It also didn't help that the man elected president in 2016 was also notoriously accused of sexual assault to the point that Wu's comparison of Affleck to him was a giant attack. She didn't care if he gave a good performance. She was annoyed that this man was getting credit in places that would ruin her career. She wrote on Twitter that: " Boys! BUY ur way out of trouble by settling out of court!Just do a good acting job,thats all that matters!bc Art isn't about humanity,right?" The feud was one-sided, as Affleck never directly addressed Wu. However, she became the voice for women who were offended by Affleck's potential Oscar nomination. It was a predecessor to the Me Too movement, and one that hung over the film even on Oscar Night. Speaking as the film was also seen as being about white men complaining, it was maligned by those who worried that the Oscars So White controversy would span into a third year. The symbolism around that aspect of the film wasn't without irony.

Affleck, who is notoriously shy, did the normal press routine in order to raise his stature. However, one of the oddest moves he made was filming several P.S.A.'s for PETA in the months leading up to the Oscar. In theory, this has absolutely nothing to do with Oscar campaigning, though some could see it as a last ditch effort to make good with The Academy. He had received the nomination, but he needed something to separate him from the up and coming Best Actor threat of Denzel Washington in Fences. His choice to point out animal cruelty in circus environments was an odd one, no matter how noble. Still, it could be seen as a move to show Affleck as a caring individual, and someone who wanted to make positive change. Beyond this, he didn't actually do anything controversial over the campaign season, but his lock on Best Actor was now in crisis.

The Payoff

By all accounts, the film was a success when the Oscars were announced. It received six nominations, including one for Best Picture. Affleck, Hedges, and Williams all received acting nominations while Lonergan received both a Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nomination. If nothing else, it marked the first streaming service to appear in these major categories, let alone the first to get a Best Picture nomination. Hedges was also a dark horse contender for Best Supporting Actor, meaning that his nomination reflected an overall love for the film. Hedges was also among the youngest male actors nominated, meaning that his possible win would've made him part of a part of Oscar history. 

But there was Affleck, who was pretty much considered a lock at this point in spite of his reputation. It's partially why man predicted a Washington upset as the stories of Affleck's past became more prevalent in the conversation. The film won two Oscars that night: Lonergan took home Best Original Screenplay, and Affleck received Best Actor. In some respects it was a bit of an obvious move, and the speech he gave featured typical acceptance speech sentimentality. However, there was one detail evident that proved his reputation wasn't reflective of his perceived talent. Present Brie Larson had won the previous year for Best Actress in the film Room. It was a film that presented a traumatic story of domestic abuse. It was fair to say that Larson's stance was reflective in that film and also in her presentation of the award. She gave him the award - as required - but would spend his speech distant from him in a way that read as unpleasant, even annoyed to be there. It was clear. Affleck may have won, but he wasn't a deity.

In some respects his win should've marked the end of the Failed Oscar Campaigns story. In fact, it could've stopped there and been a relevant note for 2018's Me Too movement, where women are fighting sexual harassment in Hollywood. With the first Oscar nominations coming up since this movement gained momentum, it's tough to say how much stricter they will be on recognizing the work of abusive artists. In some respects, this is already reflected in what films have won other major prizes, such as Best Drama at the Golden Globes. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (also starring Hedges) followed a woman seeking revenge against a man who raped and killed his daughter. The message couldn't be clearer. There was a loud voice against behavior that many felt should've disqualified Affleck in the first place, and has outed former Hollywood icons like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey from their status of former glory.

This could've been a poignant place to stop, but in some ways the Manchester By the Sea backlash is going to continue this Oscar Night. As tradition, the Best Actor winner of the previous year presents the Best Actress award. With many already hating Affleck, there's rumors and cries out to remove him from presenting the award, which would be more ironic if he gave it to Frances McDormand for Three Billboards. Still, Affleck's win is still seen as a sore spot in recent Oscar history, outshining the actual quality of the movie. Amazon Studios has been catering their class of 2017 nominees with some success, though it's hard to not read their first big hit as having both pros and cons. It has tainted the reputation of everyone involved, though hopefully won't be a dark mark on the films being nominated next Tuesday. 

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