ORn Sunday morning, Jane Campion was riding high in the saddle. Her di lei homoerotic western di lei, The Power of the Dog, had been cleaning up at awards ceremonies before the Oscars at the end of the month, where it is nominated in 12 categories, including best picture and best director. Of course, there have been dissenters. More than usual, perhaps: the film is a Netflix production and therefore likely to infuriate the sorts of audiences who would never have ventured out to a cinema to see it, but may have found it among their recommendations because they once watched Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6.
Was Sam Elliott one of them? The actor, who has starred in westerns such as Tombstone and The Quick and the Dead, recently dismissed Campion’s film as “a piece of shit” before casting aspersions on its authenticity: “What the fuck does this woman from down there … know about the American west, and why the fuck did she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana? “
Questioned about Elliott’s outburst at the Directors Guild of America awards on Saturday night, Campion coolly pointed out the sexist nature of his remarks, called him “a little bit of a BITCH” and, most deliciously of all, reminded the world that “he’s not a cowboy, he’s an actor “. That is the sort of shade that Elliott could recline in for days, or however long it takes for Campion’s burn to stop stinging.
Had the director maintained a dignified silence, the headline from the DGA awards would have been: “The Power of the Dog wins again.” (Campion took home the prize for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film.) But this was far juicier. The spectacle of a tough guy trying to undermine a woman, only to be put firmly in his place di lei by her di lei on the very territory that he has spent a lifetime staking out di lei as his own di lei, was unimaginably satisfying. The Power of the Dog is the tale of a tormented macho cowboy fatally underestimating those he considers weak or inferior – a story now playing out for real on the red carpet and on social media.
Just 24 hours later, Campion wasn’t sounding like a champion. “What an honor to be in the 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 their father. Collecting her prize for best director (one of four that the film won), Campion called them “marvels”, before pointing out that “you do not play against the guys, like I have to” – a reference to her fellow nominees, who were all men.
Serena was shown applauding from the audience; pictures later showed Venus and Campion dancing together at the afterparty. If there were any hard feelings after the film-maker’s suggestion that two black women hadn’t had it as tough as her, they had been smoothed over before the evening was out.
Social media, however, is a different ballgame. The objections were best summed up there by the producer Drew Dixon, whose allegations of rape and sexual assault against the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons were the subject of the 2020 documentary On the Record. (Simmons has vehemently denied all the allegations made against him in the film.) Dixon took to Twitter to make her feelings clear: “The nerve of Jane Campion to suggest her journey is harder than that of two Black women who’ve overcome racism, sexism and classism in one of the whitest richest sports in the world to become CHAMPIONS again and again is why I have trust issues with white feminists. “
The writer and podcaster Molly Lambert even tweeted a picture of Kirsten Dunst, who is Oscar-nominated for best supporting actress for The Power of the Dog, sitting next to Lars von Trier in 2011 at the Cannes press conference for their film Melancholia; his flippant comments di lei expressing an affinity for Hitler were widely agreed to have dashed Dunst’s chances of an Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance di lei in that film. Lambert’s caption of her was: “Kirsten Dunst watching Jane Campion blow the Oscar for her di lei.”
Others posted links to a 1996 essay by Reshela DuPuis, which argued that Campion’s Oscar-winning 1993 film The Piano “relies heavily on profoundly racist depictions of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, and on culturally coded, deeply racialized representations of their land” . There was also a reminder of the excoriating analysis of the film by the late bell hooks, who described its “docile happy darkies… who appear to have not a care in the world”. The implication was clear: Campion is no beginner when it comes to diminishing people of color.
Heroes can be dangerous things in art, almost as dubious as a consensus. The thought that anyone is incapable of exhibiting bias, even a feted feminist auteur, should be discouraged. Campion, for her part di lei, issued an apology for the Williams comment: “I did not intend to devalue these two legendary Black women and world ‑ class athletes,” she said, describing their accomplishments as “titanic and inspiring”.
Putting aside the complexities of the specific arguments surrounding Campion’s comments, her experience of reputational whiplash last weekend proves yet again that the road to the Oscars, like hell, is paved with good intentions. What may appear to be a red carpet is in fact a banana skin – and Campion isn’t the first to put a foot wrong.
During the 2013-14 awards season, the director David O Russell was in contention for his crime caper American Hustle when he began bemoaning the schedule of one of his stars, Jennifer Lawrence, who was busy shooting the Hunger Games series. “I’ll tell you what it is about that girl,” Russell said. “Talk about 12 years of slavery – that’s what the franchise is.”
An apology followed. “Clearly, I used a stupid analogy in a poor attempt at humor,” he said. “I realized it the minute I said it and I am truly sorry.” American Hustle had never been the favorite to take home the best picture prize that year, but Russell’s insensitivity seemed to make certain that he wouldn’t need to waste time writing an acceptance speech. (The winner that year was 12 Years a Slave.)
It seems unlikely that Campion’s comments will be enough to unseat her as the favorite for the best director Oscar, although poorly chosen words really can cost a nominee the prize. It is widely accepted that Charlotte Rampling blew her chances of winning the best actress Oscar in 2016, for her performance in 45 Years, after she suggested that the #OscarsSoWhite furore was “racist to whites” and that “perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list “. (She later apologized: “I simply meant to say that, in an ideal world, every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.”)
Michael Caine, a two-time Oscar winner, wasn’t up for an award that year – he was last nominated in 2002 for The Quiet American – but that didn’t stop him playing the loud-mouthed Englishman, advising actors of color to “Be patient” when it comes to receiving Oscar nominations.
Hollywood loves few things better than life lessons, though, and there is a valuable one to be extrapolated from Campion’s whirlwind weekend: talented people who have experienced prejudice sometimes make foolish comments that expose their biases. People of color experience these micro-aggressions routinely – the writer Kimberly Drew tweeted on Monday: “We’ve all worked with or for a Jane Campion.” For everyone else, the question is whether to learn from the film-maker’s behavior and accept that we might easily have been guilty of the same error – or to take the Sam Elliott option.