Why the Academy’s Will Smith decision is so hard to predict

The board of directors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences meets Wednesday night, and it’s easy to guess the main topic. Despite Will Smith apologized for hitting Chris Rock onstage at Sunday night’s Oscars, and the Academy released a statement condemning violence “in any form,” the organization has yet to complete its “formal review” of the incident. So what actually happens?

Sent in a letter to Academy members on Tuesday, Academy president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson stressed that the review process “will take several weeks”, and asked members to “respect the process if” [it] unfolds so that it can work in the deliberate way it was intended and required.” Wednesday’s meeting is unlikely to result in immediate action, but history suggests at least one option is available. Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, and Bill Cosby were all expelled from the Academy in 2017 and 2018 for alleged misconduct, while in 2004 The Godfather: Part II actor Carmine Caridi was kicked out for sharing screeners. It’s worth noting, though, that neither Weinstein’s nor Polanski’s Oscar was withdrawn.

The Academy said in its statement Monday that it would turn to its statutes and code of conduct for guidance, in addition to California state law. And it has a robust set of behavioral guidelines, drawn up in 2017 in response to the #MeToo scandals. But perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no specific rules about what happens when someone attacks someone else on the Oscar stage and minutes later wins Best Actor. A letter from early 2018 explaining how members can file behavioral complaints explains: “In addition to achieving excellence in the arts and sciences, members must also behave ethically by the Academy’s values ​​of respect for human beings.” dignity, inclusion and a supportive environment that fosters creativity There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their status, power or influence in a way that violates recognized standards of decency.”

The evictions of Weinstein, Polanski and Cosby came after enormous public pressure and widely publicized scandals. The Academy apparently made its decision not because of official court rulings or demonstrable conduct at Academy events, as the organization’s code of conduct emphasizes, but because of newspaper and magazine coverage and public outcry. All three were charged with atrocious behavior, but their cases were not clear due to a lack of established protocols, especially as the evictions were retroactive, based largely on possible wrongdoing from decades earlier. Put another way, accusations of assault against Polanski and Cosby were already very public by the time Weinstein was evicted, but their departure came after his, fueled by the #MeToo movement. Previously, the Academy had not taken such actions. The New York Times even called Weinstein’s eviction “largely symbolic.”

Smith’s behavior fits exactly with what is described in the standards of behavior that the Academy has sent Vanity Fair in conjunction with his statement announcing a review of the incident. The document lists four main areas of “unacceptable behavior,” including “physical contact that is unsolicited and, in the situation, inappropriate.” The Academy also specifies that it must take action if the misconduct occurs “in connection with the Academy’s activities,” including, of course, the Oscars. (Asking for “written responses or other documentation from…witnesses” shouldn’t be difficult this time around.) The standards of conduct end with a list of possible sanctions, “up to and including suspension of membership or removal of membership,” along with other options like withdrawing Oscars. (Again, neither Weinstein nor Polanski won an Oscar despite their evictions.)

So you have what appears to be a clear violation of the Academy’s standards of conduct at the biggest event of the year. But this situation feels more socially murky than the aforementioned cases of eviction, or at least more fraught; the decision to let Smith stay at the Dolby Theater and accept its Best Actor Oscar says the same thing. As the board meets to discuss the most appropriate response, the open question remains what members of the criminal board think an unprecedented incident like this deserves. In that regard, it is worth looking at the case of Caridi. His behavior may not have risen to the level of monstrousness that Polanski’s or Weinstein’s would have been. But for the purposes of the Academy it was nevertheless a remarkable offence. The same goes for the blow.

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