“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a slice-of-life drama that grapples with abortion restrictions, has been in the awards conversation since it premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s gotten nods from the Indie Spirit Awards, National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle. Given the positive buzz, the film is seen as a possible Oscar contender.
Yet one Academy Award voter, filmmaker Kieth Merrill, says he won’t be watching the film due to its subject matter.
Merrill, who won an Oscar in 1973 for the documentary “The Great American Cowboy” and was nominated in 1997 for the short “Amazon,” said he has “zero interest in watching a woman cross state lines so someone can murder her unborn child.”
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!”
In the caption, Hittman called out the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the voting body behind the Oscars, for being “monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard” and questioned if other voters have intentionally avoided watching her film.
“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.”
Hittman declined multiple requests for comment.
In a lengthy email to Variety, Merrill elaborated on his pro-life stance and praised Hittman’s “obvious talent, passion and opinions.” He emphasized that he does “respect her right to express them however she likes.”
“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. “We are equally valid in our choices, what we do, and how we choose to live our lives.”
He also responded to Hittman’s claim that the Oscars are “painfully monopolized by an old white puritanical male guard.”
“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.”
The Academy has been criticized in the past for being dominated by older, white male voters. In recent years, it has made diversifying its membership a major priority. In 2016, the group announced that it would double the number of women and members of underrepresented ethnic/racial communities in its voting body by 2020. Last year, the organization said it had met that milestone in its most recent incoming class of members.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is among the 366 films in contention at the Oscars. The Academy has an estimated 9,921 members across 17 branches, all of whom are eligible to select the nominees for best picture. Though it’s not explicitly stated in the Oscars guidelines, members are not required to view every movie that’s qualified. However, they are encouraged to watch as many as possible.
Oscar nomination voting ends on March 10. The 2021 ceremony, which was delayed due to the pandemic, has been set for April 25.
A spokesperson from the Oscars awards office said voting conditions depend on the category. “Some of the categories require members to watch all shortlisted movies in order to participate,” an Academy representative said. “For best picture, there is not a requirement to watch all entered movies.”
Merrill said he doesn’t watch any horror films or movies with “graphic sex or gratuitous violence or radical social agendas.” And the synopsis of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” he notes, didn’t meet his criteria of entertainment — or coincide with his personal values. He reiterated the decision isn’t personal.
“For me, 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,” he wrote, adding, “I believe abortion is wrong in all but the most extreme circumstances. Not only wrong, I believe it is an evil, and incomprehensible atrocity.”
He concluded, “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.”