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Jane Campion quickly squanders good will from Sam Elliott response with misguided comment of her own

Jane Campion referenced tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams in her acceptance speech for best director at the Critics Choice Awards on March 13. (Video: TBS)
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The criticism arrived as swiftly as the praise.

Just a day after Jane Campion was applauded for the candor with which she pushed back on disparaging remarks made about her film “The Power of the Dog,” the filmmaker herself caught flak for a comment she made while accepting best director at Sunday’s Critics Choice Awards.

After pointing out that the other nominated directors in her category were all men, Campion turned to Serena and Venus Williams, who attended in support of the film “King Richard.” She said, “You know, Serena and Venus, you are such marvels. However, you do not play against the guys like I have to.”

The audience broke out into cheers and applause while the camera cut to Venus Williams, a seemingly uncomfortable smile on her face. The response online mirrored Williams’s (minus the smile). Many people expressed how unnecessary it was for Campion, a White woman, to compare her experiences of sexism with the uphill battles fought by the Williams sisters, two Black women who have faced unrelenting racism and sexism while working toward remarkable levels of success in tennis, a White-dominated sport.

“Jane Campion, daughter of famous New Zealand theatre director Richard Campion & actress Edith Campion MBE, explains the challenges of being a white woman from an established family to Venus and Serena Williams,” tweeted BBC reporter Megha Mohan.

“Anyone who knows anything about Venus and Serena’s careers wouldn’t think to utter something this stupid and insulting,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times editor Gene Farris.

Writer Saeed Jones noted, “That Jane Campion whiplash is a perfect distillation of white feminism.”

Campion issued a statement Monday afternoon apologizing for her words.

“I made a thoughtless comment equating what I do in the film world with all that Serena Williams and Venus Williams have achieved,” she said. “I did not intend to devalue these two legendary Black women and world class athletes. The fact is the Williams sisters have, actually, squared off against men on the court (and off), and they have both raised the bar and opened doors for what is possible for women in this world. The last thing I would ever want to do is minimize remarkable women.

“I love Serena and Venus. Their accomplishments are titanic and inspiring. Serena and Venus, I apologize and completely celebrate you.”

The situation was a classic “Milkshake Duck” of Hollywood proportions, a term coined by Australian cartoonist Ben Ward to describe the Internet phenomenon in which a beloved figure online is quickly revealed to be problematic. In 2016, Ward tweeted from his account, “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”

The day before accepting her Critics Choice trophy, Campion participated in the red carpet at Saturday’s Directors Guild Awards. Variety reporter Marc Malkin asked her about actor Sam Elliott recently referring to “The Power of the Dog,” a Western with a psychological thriller bent, as a “piece of s---.” Elliott criticized the film’s “allusions to homosexuality” in a podcast interview and zeroed in on the behavior of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Finally, he asked, “Where’s the Western in this Western?”

Campion rejected Elliott’s criticism. “I’m sorry, he was being a little bit of a b----,” she said, spelling out the word. “He’s not a cowboy; he’s an actor. The West is a mythic space and there’s a lot of room on the range. I think it’s a little bit sexist.”

Cumberbatch and co-star Jesse Plemons have also commented on Elliott’s words — the latter saying that he “laughed when I heard” — but many were especially impressed by the delivery of Campion’s devastating response. Linda Holmes of NPR tweeted that “it’s the genuine *regret* she manages to convey about the fact that he said something so embarrassing that makes it sing.”

Campion, the first woman to be nominated twice for the best director Oscar, became the Internet’s sharp-tongued heroine. For one day, that is.

“The Power of the Dog,” which also won big at Sunday’s BAFTAs (the British equivalent of the Academy Awards), is up for 12 Oscars. “King Richard” — a biopic of tennis coach Richard Williams produced by his daughters, Venus and Serena — will compete against Campion’s film in multiple categories, including best picture. Award season trudges on.

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