On Sunday morning Jane Campion rode high in the saddle. Her homoerotic western The Power of the Dog cleaned up at awards ceremonies ahead of the Oscars later this month, where it’s nominated in 12 categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. Of course there were also those who thought differently. Perhaps more so than usual: the film is a Netflix production, so it’s likely to infuriate the kind of audience that would never have ventured into a cinema to see it, but may have found it among their picks because they once loved Adam Have seen Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6.
Was Sam Elliott one of them? The actor, who has starred in westerns like Tombstone and The Quick and the Dead, recently dismissed Campion’s film as “a piece of shit” before questioning its authenticity: “What the hell does that woman down there know… about the Americans west, and why the hell did she shoot that movie in new zealand and call it montana?
Questioned after Elliott’s outburst at the Directors Guild of America awards on Saturday night, Campion coolly pointed out the sexist nature of his comments, calling him “a little bit a little bit” and now deliciously reminding the world that he’s not a cowboy, he is an actor”. That’s the kind of shadow Elliott could lay back in for days, or however long it takes for Campion to burn to stop stinging.
Had the director remained dignified, the headline for the DGA awards ceremony would have been, “The Power of the Dog Victories Again.” (Campion took home the award for Outstanding Feature Film Directorship.) But that was far juicier. The spectacle of a tough guy trying to undermine a woman, only to have her firmly planted in his place in the very territory he’s spent a lifetime staking out as his own was unimaginably satisfying. The Power of the Dog is the tale of a tormented macho cowboy who fatally underestimates those he considers weak or inferior – a story that’s really playing out now on the red carpet and social media.
Just 24 hours later, Campion didn’t sound like a champion. “What an honor to be in this room with you,” she told Venus and Serena Williams, who were in attendance at the Critics Choice Awards to represent King Richard, the film in which Will Smith plays her father. Campion received her Best Director award (one of four the film won) and called her “wonder” before pointing out that “you don’t play the guys like I have” — a nod to her others Nominees who were there were all men.
Serena was shown applauded by the audience; Pictures later showed Venus and Campion dancing together at the afterparty. If there were any awkward feelings after the filmmaker’s suggestion that two black women wouldn’t have had it as hard as she had, they were allayed by the end of the evening.
However, social media is a different ball game. The objections were best summed up by producer Drew Dixon, whose allegations of rape and sexual assault against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons were the subject of the 2020 documentary On the Record. (Simmons has vehemently denied all of the allegations made against him in the film.) Dixon took to Twitter to make their feelings clear: “Jane Campion’s courage in implying that her journey is more difficult than that of two black women who overcame racism, sexism and classism in one of the richest white sports in the world to become CHAMPIONS time and time again is why why I have trust issues with white feminists.”
Even author and podcaster Molly Lambert did tweeted a picture of Kirsten Dunst, who is an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress for The Power of the Dog, sat next to Lars von Trier at the 2011 press conference for her film Melancholia; his flippant comments expressing an affinity for Hitler were considered to have ruined Dunst’s chances of an Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance in that film. Lambert’s caption read, “Kirsten Dunst watches Jane Campion screw up her Oscar.”
Others posted links to a 1996 essay by Reshela DuPuis, which argued that Campion’s Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano was based on . There was also a reminder of the film’s grueling analysis by the late Bell Hooks, who described its “docile, happy-go-lucky black people … who don’t seem to have a care in the world.” The implication was clear: Campion is no beginner when it comes to downsizing people of color.
Heroes can be dangerous things in art, almost as questionable as consensus. The thought that anyone is incapable of showing bias, even a celebrated feminist author, should be discouraged. For her part, Campion apologized for Williams’ comment: “I had no intention of belittling these two legendary black women and world-class athletes,” she said, describing their accomplishments as “titanic and inspiring.”
Aside from the complexity of the specific arguments surrounding Campion’s comments, her experience of reputational whiplash last weekend proves once again that the road to the Oscars is paved like hell with good intentions. What looks like a red carpet is actually a banana peel – and Campion isn’t the first to make a mistake.
During the 2013-14 awards season, director David O. Russell was struggling with his crime drama American Hustle when they began to lament the schedule of one of its stars, Jennifer Lawrence, who was busy filming the Hunger Games series. “I’m going to tell you what this girl is all about,” Russell said. “Talk about 12 years of slavery — that’s the franchise.”
An apology followed. “Obviously I used a silly analogy in a bad attempt at humor,” he said. “I realized it the moment I got it and I’m really sorry.” American Hustle had never been the favorite to take home the best picture award this year, but Russell’s callousness meant they didn’t have to waste time writing an acceptance speech. (The winner this year was 12 Years a Slave.)
It seems unlikely that Campion’s comments will be enough to dethrone her as a favorite for the Best Director Oscar, although poorly chosen words can really cost a contestant the prize. It’s widely acknowledged that Charlotte Rampling blew her chances at the 2016 Best Actress Oscar for her performance in 45 years after implying that the #OscarsSoWhite fuss was “racist against whites” and that “the black actors might not deserve it”. to create the final list”. (She later apologized, “I just wanted to say that in an ideal world, every achievement gets equal chances for consideration.”)
Michael Caine, a two-time Academy Award winner, wasn’t running for an award that year — he was last nominated for The Quiet American in 2002 — but that didn’t stop him from playing the loud-mouthed Englishman who advised black actors to “Be.” Be patient” when it comes to receiving Oscar nominations.
Hollywood loves few things more than life lessons, though, and there’s a valuable extrapolation to be made from Campion’s whirlwind weekend: Talented people who’ve experienced prejudice sometimes make silly comments that expose their prejudices. People of Color routinely experience these microaggressions – tweeted author Kimberly Drew on Monday: “We’ve all worked with or for a Jane Campion.” For everyone else, the question is whether to learn from the filmmaker’s behavior and accept that we could easily have made the same mistake – or the Sam Elliott option Select.