The Spacey predicament
The writer contemplates on whether sexual abuse accusations on actors/directors must dissuade us from catching their work, or appreciating them
A curious dilemma has resurfaced following the rising number of celebrities who have been accused of sexual assault. It’s one I felt keenly last year too, as Manchester by the Sea began playing. Its lead actor, Casey Affleck, had been sued for sexual abuse in 2010, and given that the film was nominated for the Academy Awards, the film became a topic of much debate. The dilemma is this: must you, the average consumer of entertainment idly browsing through your film collections at home, feel horrible about consuming the work of those who have been accused of such disturbing abuse of their power and privilege?
Following the allegations against Kevin Spacey, I saw quite a few on social media declare that they could never ever enjoy his film again. Some others vowed never again to catch the films of those whose names have been dragged into the dirt in recent weeks, including Harvey Weinstein and Dustin Hoffman. Given the horrors some of these influential men seem to have inflicted on hapless women trying to make a name for themselves against the odds, the decision to avoid their work is altogether understandable. Why bother watching a film when you know you can’t enjoy it anymore? But what about those of us who are able to distinguish the character from the actor? Very recently, Ramleela — featuring actor Dileep, who’s been accused of abduction — proved to be successful at the box office. Should it not have? Should you have stayed away from watching it?
I’m not so sure. For one, it seems a tad unfair that the contributions of hundreds of innocent people must go in vain, on account of one cast member — even if quite prominent — being a dirty piece of work. In any case, where do you draw the line? What if the producer were accused of money laundering? What if the director were accused of rash driving and running over innocent people? What if the actor were, erm, accused of poaching a deer? Do you stay away from their films? While on it, do you also vow to stay away from all films by Woody Allen (accused of abusing his daughter) and Roman Polanski (arrested and charged with rape of a 13-year-old)? You see the predicament.
I rewatched The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Seven over the weekend, to find out if I felt differently about the films, following the accusations against Spacey. As Doe taunts Mills in the climax and almost begs to be shot dead, I wasn’t thinking of Spacey. As Verbal Kint masterfully deceives the detective into believing his story, I wasn’t thinking of Spacey. As Lester Burnham, the middle-aged father, begins to get physical with his daughter’s friend, well, maybe I thought of Spacey a bit, but not enough to affect my consumption of the film. This may not have been possible had the actor played characters that are designed to be a reflection of his own ethics and moral code, as is the case with many of our image-conscious actors. Spacey’s characters do not appear to be mere fictitious extensions of himself.
This isn’t a dilemma only concerning films, of course. Fans of football clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona have been known to use developments in the lives of Messi and Ronaldo to gain oneupmanship. “Messi doesn’t pay taxes.” “Ronaldo is egocentric.” But when the football remains glued to Messi’s feet, as he zips in and out of defenders, and against all odds, he connects a miracle pass, you’re definitely not thinking about his taxes. Well, at least I’m not. A great scene, a terrific passing shot, an incredible goal, an elegant cover drive… these are all things of great beauty, and immune to character flaws of the practitioner.
Should Spacey continue to find good work? Should House of Cards not have been called off? I’ll leave the authorities that be to deal with such complex questions. As a lover and passionate consumer of films though, I won’t shirk away from watching it, if it does get released. Let’s not drag art down to their level.