Brie Larson may be an Oscar-winning actress, but she's not quite perfected her poker face. All awards season, every time she had to give an award to Casey Affleck, her face betrayed her. It happened most infamously at the Golden Globes — and it happened again Sunday night at the 89th Academy Awards.
Of course, if you won an Oscar for playing the victim of sexual assault, you might also feel ambivalent about giving an alleged sexual harasser an award.
Larson stood strong for victims of sexual violence last year, between her performance in Room and hugging every single survivor of sexual assault as they came off the stage after Lady Gaga's performance. But as the winner of the best actress Oscar the year before, she was, by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tradition, obligated to hand out the best actor award. She almost certainly would have preferred giving the prize to Denzel Washington.
In the process of handing Affleck his award — in watching her refuse to clap as he spoke — she summarized exactly how it felt to watch the actor win: gross.
There's a valuable debate to be had about separating art from artist. It's a topic that actress Constance Wu came down hard against earlier this Oscar season, Her argument, in short, was that an award is not just for a performance, but a person. To fete the individual despite their actions — in this case, despite Affleck settling two separate suits from women he worked with on his film I'm Still Here in which they accused him of sexual harassment — is to honor their whole persona.
The counter to Wu's point would be that, when honoring art, the work must trump the person, because otherwise the Oscars would turn into a judgment of every nominee on a personal level. But on a macro level, it's frustrating to continually see white men like Affleck, Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson and Woody Allen rewarded despite their alleged behavior.
Affleck's win is frustrating in multiple ways at once. It's hard to cheer one of the year's great performances being celebrated when the man behind it is so unlikable — and hasn't had to truly answer for himself.
That's why it's so satisfying to see Larson — and Viola Davis and Emma Stone, who looked deeply not thrilled to be taking photos with Affleck backstage — refuse to smile and disregard Affleck's alleged actions. It's small, and it may even be petty, but it's a protest against Hollywood's continued celebration of men like him despite what they're accused of.
Brie Larson refusing to smile or clap for Casey Affleck doesn't change anything. He's still an Oscar winner. He will continue to get work in this industry, and he will not have to answer for what he's accused of doing. She even had to hug him. But in this one moment, for those watching who were disgusted to see Affleck win, Larson reacted in protest. It's a small action, but a powerful one.
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