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Casey Affleck and the limits of Hollywood's tolerance

LOS ANGELES, Jan 7, 2017 (BSS/AFP) - Showered in accolades and tipped for Golden Globes and Oscars glory, Casey Affleck is finally leaving behind two decades at the fringes of movie stardom to become a major player.

Acclaimed for his performance in Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea," the 41-year-old seems poised to join his more famous brother Ben and childhood friend Matt Damon in the rarified air of Hollywood superstardom.

But the buzz around this year's awards season has brought renewed attention to an episode in his past that could yet derail what initially appeared to be an inexorable march to Tinseltown's top table.

In 2010, Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka, the producer and cinematographer on his poorly-received directorial debut, mockumentary "I'm Still Here," sued Affleck for what they described as repeated sexual harassment.

Affleck, who has always vehemently denied any wrongdoing, employed the services of celebrity lawyer Marty Singer -- known as "Hollywood's guard dog" -- and settled for an undisclosed amount in both cases.

The twin $2 million lawsuits painted the actor at best as a manipulative ringmaster, an image at odds with his own self-projection as a fame-shy artist toiling away on the edges of an industry that has long overlooked his talent.

Among the most egregious of the allegations -- all of which Affleck rejects -- White says the star got an assistant cameraman to expose himself, despite her protestations, during a flight.

On one occasion during filming in Costa Rica, White couldn't get into her room, her lawsuit alleged, because Affleck and the film's star, Joaquin Phoenix, were having sex with two women on the other side of the locked door.

Affleck was married at the time to Phoenix's sister, Summer, with whom he has two children, although the couple have since split.

- 'Shocked and repulsed' -

Gorka left the project after treatment described in her lawsuit as "the most traumatizing of her career," accusing Affleck and other crew members of openly talking about engaging in sexual acts with her.

She said on one occasion when the crew stayed at an apartment in New York, she was "shocked and repulsed" when she awoke to find Affleck, whose breath "reeked of alcohol," in bed with her, arms around her.

Affleck's publicist Mara Buxbaum told AFP there would be no new statement on the case, but Affleck's side of the story has long been public knowledge.

Responding to White's lawsuit back in 2010, his attorney filed documents claiming she had launched her legal action as part of "extortionate tactics in her effort to obtain more compensation than she was legally entitled to."

Entertainment media have compared the case with the woes of Nate Parker, a breakout star alongside Affleck of last year's Sundance Film Festival, whose directorial debut "The Birth of a Nation" sold for a record $17.5 million.

Parker, 37, was acquitted of raping a fellow student in 2001 while at Penn State and managed to get on with life, but the case exploded across the front pages last summer -- torpedoing his Oscar hopes -- when it emerged that the alleged victim had killed herself.

"Considering the fact that Parker's career has taken a fatal hit, we have to ask why Affleck's history continues to be hidden paragraphs deep, or swept under the rug entirely," entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman, one of the first to delve back into Affleck's case, wrote in the Daily Beast in November.

- Second chances -

While at pains to point out the more serious nature of the accusations against Parker, Zimmerman suggests that race may be a factor in the easier ride Affleck has enjoyed.

"I think being a white man grants you a lot of second chances, whether you're a Hollywood star or just, say, a college athlete," she told AFP.

The Hollywood Hills are littered with the carcasses of careers that have ended in scandal, but for every Bill Cosby or Charlie Sheen, a Roman Polanski, Woody Allen or Mel Gibson -- nominated at this year's Globes -- has fallen, only to eventually end up back on his feet.

Chris Beachum, managing director of awards prediction website Gold Derby, believes Parker's lower profile, rather than his race, might have sealed his fate among Hollywood's VIPs.

"It was more that they don't know him. He's brand new, first film (as director), whereas Casey they've known a lot longer. They've known Ben and they've known his buddy Matt Damon, and he's been working since he was a teenager," he told AFP.

Anne Helen Petersen, a culture writer at Buzzfeed, described "Manchester by the Sea" as "a devastating meditation on the way that some mistakes can never be left behind."

Whether Affleck finds life imitating art may depend on his response to the resurfacing of the allegations.

"People say whatever they want. Sometimes it doesn't matter how you respond," Affleck told Variety in a November interview.