The Academy Awards Welcomes a New CEO
by JEFfrey Lyons
Sally Field effusively accepted her Best Actress statuette for Places in the Heart in 1985
|Charlie Chaplin received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history in 1972|
|Gene Hackman and Anna Paquin with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Piano in 1994|
When asked if the Oscars should be taken more seriously, Hudson says, “It’s hard to imagine that they could be taken more seriously. After all, an Oscar symbolizes recognition from one’s peers, from the masters of one’s craft. I think the public understands and respects that.” Nevertheless, she realizes you may see something you’ve never seen before while watching the ceremony.
There was the posthumous Oscar for Peter Finch for Best Actor in Network in 1977, Jack Palance accepting his Best Supporting Actor award while doing one-handed push-ups in 1992, or Sally Field gushing: “You like me! Right now you like me!” in 1985. And who can forget 11-year-old Anna Paquin winning for Best Supporting Actress in 1994 for The Piano, leaving her speechless onstage for 20 seconds. Later, presenter Gene Hackman reportedly told her, “I’ll bet you’ll now have no trouble landing a role in your school play.”
Hudson understands the weight of all of this. “We—the public, the industry, and the Academy— understand the importance of the Oscars. But the show is a celebration and meant to be fun.”
Perhaps the most historic Oscar moment took place in 1972, when Charlie Chaplin returned to Los Angeles after first being denied entry into the country in 1952 during the McCarthyera witch hunts that devastated Hollywood (he later moved to Switzerland). The first and greatest screen star of his time—then the most famous man in the world—Chaplin stood onstage to accept an honorary statuette, receiving the longest standing ovation in Oscar history. Then he remarked, ironically: “Words seem so futile, so feeble.” Hudson counts that as one of her favorite Oscar moments as well. “Movie audiences were turning to new kinds of films and new voices in the ’70s,” she says. “So to see how much our history mattered, especially in an era of innovation—was incredibly moving.”
Hudson says preserving the history of the movies is “just one part of the wonderful things we do the other 364 days of the year: screenings, exhibitions, educational programs, and—very important— film preservation.” She continues, “We are called The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a reason. For us, that means keeping pace with next-generation technologies—for example, we are collaboratively developing a platform for highfidelity motion-picture images.”
Hudson adds that the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting launched the careers of dozens of screenwriters, including Ehren Kruger, who wrote The Ring screenplay and the last two of the enormously popular Transformers movies. Andrew W. Marlowe, another fellowship winner, is best known for the screenplay of Air Force One, while Susannah Grant wrote memorable screenplays including Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. The Academy also boasts a Student Academy Awards program, promoting “excellence in filmmaking at the collegiate level. Spike Lee and John Lasseter are among the past winners,” says Hudson.
But has Hudson ever stopped to think of herself—the first woman CEO of the Academy— as a trailblazer? “Thankfully,” she says, “female CEOs are no longer the rarity they once were, and the Academy has a long history of female leadership, beginning with Mary Pickford.” Pickford, the silent-screen star, was one of the founders of the Academy. Bette Davis served a brief tenure as president, followed later by Fay Kanin, who held the post from 1979 to 1983. And Margaret Herrick, for whom the Academy’s research library is named, was the executive director for more than 25 years. “Having a CEO of any gender is a new chapter for the Academy,” says Hudson. “But the first place I look for inspiration is the Academy leaders and artists—both men and women—who shaped our industry.”
As for the telecast itself, Hudson says, “Producing the Oscars is a famously difficult task because there are so many different constituencies to please. This year, we are very lucky to have two great showmen: Brian Grazer, a brilliant film producer, and Don Mischer, a legend in live-television production. My job is to make their jobs easier, so they can concentrate on making the show as engaging as possible,” she says.
Her new role of Academy CEO also includes future aspirations, “Our goal is to build on the great work that has been accomplished in the last 85 years and make that work—the restored films and the amazing library collections— more accessible to the public through our proposed new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures,” she says. “I want to help chart the course for the future of the organization as cinema and the ways we experience it continue to evolve.”
Indeed, the Academy has been at the forefront of promoting and rewarding the technical breakthroughs and achievement of its filmmakers. It has a strong presence in social media as well. Last year, for example, oscar.com debuted its All-Access Pass for computers and the Oscar Backstage Pass for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, affording paying users control of multiple 360-degree cameras and exclusive views backstage, on the red carpet, and even at the Governor’s Ball. As far back as 1987, the Oscars began using animated characters as presenters and in 2001 added the category of Best Animated Feature Film. Two years ago, the awards even had its first backstage Twitter correspondent.
Regarding the announcement of the return of Billy Crystal as host this year, the CEO says, “Billy Crystal is the ‘master’ master of ceremonies. The reaction across the board has been fantastic. I’m told he’s already working on a killer impression of [president of the Academy] Tom Sherak.”
photograph by melissa valladares (opener); everett collection (chaplin); steve granitz/getty images (berry); ron galella/getty images (littlefeather); ap photo/files (field); barry king/getty images (Hackman); michael caulfield/getty images (crystal)