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How ‘The Martian’ Predicted ‘Project Greenlight’s Diversity Problem

How 'The Martian' Predicted 'Project Greenlight's Diversity Problem

This article was produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. Read more on this year’s class here.

Even though Matt Damon came into prominence at the side of his bestie Ben Affleck, I think of him as a solo entity. Alone. Perhaps it is because Damon quickly distinguished himself as the more talented and insightful one. While Affleck starred in forgettable movies like “Gigli,” Damon developed an impressive filmography of award winners and box office hits. Yes, Affleck has enjoyed recent success with “Argo” and “Gone Girl,” however, Damon still holds the edge in perceived gravitas.

Perhaps Damon’s tendency to portray characters who are physically and/or emotionally isolated, yet exceptional in some way, is also why I often think of him as a loner. In “Good Will Hunting” he was a troubled mathematical genius/janitor singled out for mentoring and therapy. In “Saving Private Ryan,” he was the sole survivor of three brothers during World War II for whom lives were risked and lost to deliver safely home. In “The Departed,” as corrupt “Statie” Colin Sullivan, he tried to overcome past shame with career advancement. As Jason Bourne, he sought his identity while executing the skills of a well-trained agent/assassin flawlessly.

The trend of exceptional characters continues in Damon’s most recent film “The Martian,” which has proved an enduring hit, closing out its third weekend with over $300 million in worldwide box-office. Mark Watney is on his own in outer space. Presumed dead after a violent storm and stranded on Mars, Watney struggles to stay alive until the next mission returns in four years. Once again a character embodied by Damon is surviving by his wits and exceptional abilities, overcoming impossible odds, and worthy of lives being risked to be rescued. He is also once again by himself. Alone.

Damon seems to relish playing driven, exceptional characters who desperately fight to survive and succeed by their own merit. His roles and recent comments regarding diversity and sexuality indicate Damon’s belief in Hollywood as a meritocracy. During the selection process on the season opener of “Project Greenlight,” he insisted that the decision to select the contest winner be made “based on merit.” “I think the whole point of this thing is, you go for the best director. Period.”

First of all, who was in the position to determine the best director? I didn’t see an acclaimed director like Scorsese or Spielberg in the room. Damon doesn’t seem to realize there is an abundance of talent. Often the most talented are not chosen. He is also suffering from the delusion that objectivity is applied during the selection process. Standards are subjective. It can come down to whether or not someone feels comfortable around you, or if you remind them of someone they like. On the other hand, if you evoke bad memories, forget about it. That is a far cry from a merit-based system. Choices are made based on who’s familiar, who fits. Damon should understand that since white male directors were selected for all four seasons of “Project Greenlight.” But then again I suppose that was objective and merit-based. Often the difference between massive success and getting by is a big break or a stroke of luck. Talent and/or merit are the least common denominators in this equation. Yes, Damon is a gifted actor, but I bet there’s a guy working at the bank who can act circles around him. Where’s the merit in that?

“My comments were part of a much broader conversation about diversity in Hollywood and the fundamental nature of ‘Project Greenlight’ which did not make the show. I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood.”

I am so disappointed that a person who claims to admire the historian Howard Zinn would even make a statement like this.

“In terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”

Damon contradicts himself. If the system is based on merit, then what does sexual preference matter? Unfortunately, many actors find themselves typecast. In a merit-based system, an actor would have the opportunity to pursue whatever part they can perform. It would be based on how they’re perceived or whether or not the audience will accept them. I think what Damon is really saying here is that he doesn’t want to know.

Appearances aside, Matt Damon may seem to be alone; but he isn’t. There are many more like him.

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