Conversations about diversity and representation in recent years have led to questions about voting bodies in the film industry, and who exactly has the power to dictate the movies that win the prestigious awards at the end of every year.
While the Golden Globes are currently under fire with the reveal that the HFPA hasn’t had a single Black member in 20 years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has gotten its own controversy courtesy of an email from a member that went viral.
The email was sent by Academy Award voter, Kieth Merrill, a filmmaker who won an Oscar in 1973 for his documentary The Great American Cowboy, and concerned this year’s critically acclaimed indie drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
An awards publicist named Emma reached out in an email to Kieth (standard practice for publicists during awards season) to ask if he had seen the Eliza Hittman film. Kieth hadn’t, apparently due to his beliefs conflicting with the movie’s subject matter revolving around a 17-year-old girl attempting to get an abortion. However, instead of simply ignoring the email about the movie that he didn’t see and didn’t plan to, Kieth decided to go on a tirade in response, saying to Emma, “I received the screener but as a Christian, the father of 8 children and 39 grandchildren. AND pro-life advocate, I have ZERO interest in watching a woman cross state lines so someone can murder her unborn child. 75,000,000 of us recognize abortion for the atrocity it is. There is nothing heroic about a mother working so hard to kill her child. Think about it!”
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Hittman shared a screenshot from the email while calling out AMPAS for being, “monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard”. She further stated, “I have dedicated the last year of my life to promoting [“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”] and doing teen talks/ outreach with Planned Parenthood. As we reach the homestretch of awards season, I am very aware that the film is still on the edges of being a true contender. This email came in last night and was a harsh reminder that the Academy is still so painfully monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard. I wonder how many other voters out there won’t watch the film. #oscarssopuritanical.”
Variety reached out to Hittman for a comment, and while she declined to speak to the publication, there’s one person who was more than happy to speak their mind some more: Kieth Merrill.
Variety shared words from a “lengthy email” from Merrill, where he responded to Hittman’s comments by saying, “Her film is an expression of who she is. My absence of interest in watching her film is an expression of who I am. We are equally valid in our choices, what we do, and how we choose to live our lives.”
He also took great offense to Hittman’s comments regarding the “old white puritanical male guard”, by saying, ““Wow! Ok Eliza, I am ‘old.’ You got that right. I have been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 46 years,” he wrote. “‘Puritanical?’ I go to church, pray to God and believe in Jesus Christ. I embrace traditional values and believe in moral agency. I try to love my neighbors—hard as that is sometimes. Does that make me “puritanical”? Maybe, but if you knew me, you would need to take away the adjectives that give the word the negative connotation you intended. I am not prudish, austere, stuffy, stiff, rigid, narrow-minded, bigoted or fanatical. I am in fact, quite the opposite.”
Merrill didn’t stop there, continuing on to say that he doesn’t watch movies with graphic sex, gratuitous violence, or radical social agendas, and that Never Rarely Sometimes Alwaysdidn’t meet his criteria of entertainment. According to him, ““There is nothing entertaining or inspiring about killing unborn babies. I chose not to watch Eliza’s film because it legitimizes abortion. I don’t watch horror films or movies with graphic sex or gratuitous violence or radical social agendas, less Eliza feels singled out. I believe abortion is wrong in all but the most extreme circumstances. Not only wrong, I believe it is an evil, and incomprehensible atrocity… I trust she understands that besides the right to spend my time watching films that meet my personal criteria, members of the Academy face a daunting practical issue. We have 366 feature films in contention for best picture Oscar, plus documentaries and shorts. I cannot watch them all.”
It’s no surprise that someone in Merrill’s position would be unable to understand the double standards in everything he’s saying, as he so sharply turns a corner from, “We are equally valid in our choices”, to, “I believe that it is an evil, and incomprehensible atrocity”. The idea that he wouldn’t watch one of the most acclaimed films of the year due to his personal beliefs being different from what is depicted in the film is one thing. The fact that he felt the need to write a thesis statement on why he believes abortion is evil is another idea entirely, a seemingly desperate grab for a man to cling onto any sense of relevance he lost long ago.
Of course, Merrill deciding to include that he also doesn’t watch movies with, “radical social agendas”, opens up even more questions about what this Academy member is willing to watch when it comes to the most acclaimed movies of the year. Out of the 366 films eligible for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, there are only so many films that seem to meet the criteria that the director of The 12 Dogs of Christmas has set out to be valid, non-evil entertainment.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always will remain in the history books as one of the most lauded films of 2020, with its fair share of critics awards, and the most Independent Spirit Award nominations of any film this year. It’s clear that those who are open to seeing the film recognize its brilliance, and recognize how the film goes well beyond any idea of advocating for abortion. Perhaps if Merrill were to watch the film, he would see that the circumstances of a 17-year-old girl becoming pregnant through no desire of her own might meet his “most extreme circumstances” that he considers necessary for someone to get an abortion. Of course, how would he know?
While Merrill will quickly fade back into irrelevance, the fact remains that this is one voting member of the Academy Awards, the group selected to decide what are considered the finest achievements in film every year. Merrill certainly isn’t the only one with these kinds of views, he is simply the one with the loudest voice in the room at the moment, as he has plenty of time to send out vitriolic emails while waiting for the next Dinesh D’Souza film to be released.
Hittman sharing his overly aggressive, entirely unnecessary tirade from a man who could just choose to mind his own business is yet another demonstration of a wide-reaching problem in this industry that needs to be addressed.