Is this an example of “choice,” or a demonstration from the “old white puritanical guard” of Hollywood? If you’re puzzled by this question, you may have missed the Tinseltown tiff between Never Rarely Sometimes Always director Eliza Hittman and Oscar-winning documentarian Kieth Merrill. Hittman’s publicist sent Merrill an Academy Award-season plea to watch the screener for her Oscar-nominated film, and the pro-life Mormon member of the Academy made it plain why he has no intention of watching her pro-abortion movie.
The response angered Hittman so much she posted it to Instagram, although has since deleted it:
In “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Sidney Flanagan plays 17-year-old Autumn, who travels from Pennsylvania to New York to obtain an abortion without parental consent.
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Hittman on Friday shared a screenshot of an email from Merrill. In response to an awards publicist who asked if he had a chance to see the film (which is why the email is addressed to Emma and not Eliza), Merrill wrote, “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.”
He continued, “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.” He concluded the email saying, “Think about it!”
Well, don’t hold back … tell us how you really feel. If this sounds a bit rude as a response to a professional invitation, it is — but at least Merrill kept it out of the public. Rather than remain private, Hittman went public with Merrill’s rebuke, arguing that it represented patriarchal oppression of sorts:
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
Er … wut? If you consider Hollywood “puritanical,” you must be at least a skosh to the far side of Bob Guccione. Studio films and indies all celebrate sexual excess, usually without much in the way of consequences. When was the last studio or even big-distributor indie film that approached abstinence with anything other than ridicule or novelty? That’s especially true on abortion, by the way. The last mainstream Hollywood film that even hinted at a pro-life take was Juno, whose principals all ran away from the implication. The plot line for Hittman’s film isn’t even terribly original; the 2015 film Grandma with Lily Tomlin was a road-trip escapade with abortion as its end goal, too.
As far as #OscarsSoPuritanical, may I remind readers that the Academy Award winner three years ago was “The Shape of Water,” which featured morning rub-outs and implied sex with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Does Hittman even watch Hollywood movies?
Or perhaps a better question might be whether Hittman really believes in “choice,” as opposed to abortion. That’s the question Merrill raised in response:
“Her film is an expression of who she is. My absence of interest in watching her film is an expression of who I am,” Merrill wrote in an email response to Variety.
“We are equally valid in our choices, what we do, and how we choose to live our lives.”
He noted that with over 360 films in contention for best picture in 2021, Academy voters have to be discerning about what they choose to watch, lest it consume all their time.
Merrill told Variety that he does not watch any horror films or movies with “graphic sex or gratuitous violence or radical social agendas.”
“For me, there is nothing entertaining or inspiring about killing unborn babies. I chose not to watch [Hittman]’s film because it legitimizes abortion…I believe abortion is wrong in all but the most extreme circumstances. Not only wrong, I believe it is an evil, and incomprehensible atrocity.”
It’s fair to say that Merrill isn’t Hittman’s target audience, but that there was an audience for that film. One can criticize Merrill for a lack of grace in his response as well. But the idea that his refusal to watch the film is evidence of oppressive white patriarchy is as nonsensical as the idea that Hollywood or the Academy is somehow controlled by puritans.