Academy President John Bailey Talks Museum Progress and Why He Won't Speak at the Oscars

John Bailey - Photographed by Michele Thomas - H 2018
Photographed by Michele Thomas

The cinematographer also opens up about a new code of conduct and the evolving meaning of movies in a disrupted Hollywood.

When the Academy's board of governors elected John Bailey president in August, he became the first cinematographer to hold that post. Bailey, 75, who's shot such iconic films as American Gigolo, Ordinary People and The Big Chill, stepped in as the 8,300-member Academy undergoes a soul-searching transformation, reaching out to a wide and diverse array of new members, establishing a new code of conduct to combat harassment after expelling Harvey Weinstein and wrestling with the very idea of what defines a movie in the midst of the digital revolution. At the same time, he's presiding over the Academy, with its $100-million-plus annual budget, as its $388 million Academy Museum nears completion.

Bailey lives with his wife, Carol Littleton, a film editor who also sits on the Academy board, in a California Mission Revival home in Los Feliz Oaks. The couple — who met in 1963 in the Biboli Gardens outside of Florence's Palazzo Pitti when they were college students spending their junior year abroad — collects photography and Native American art. And, of course, they have lots of conversations about movies.

How are you defining the job of Academy president for yourself?

I come from a very different starting point than most of the Academy presidents of the past 20 years. I'm really only the second president to come from the so-called crafts [following production designer Gene Allen in the '80s] and the first cinematographer, so I come from the position of being a filmmaker making films in the trenches, and that gives me a different vantage point. And so I feel I have a special connection with the board of governors because most of the 17 branches of the board of governors are made up of filmmakers. And so it's given me the ability to relate very credibly with them. It's also given me, in terms of going to festivals or to events sponsored by the Academy, an ability to actually talk about filmmaking and the history of film. And as a cinematographer, I can actually talk about film preservation in a way, say, that even a studio executive can't, because it's very close to the bone for us cinematographers.

In the past, there has been tension between the crafts branches and the above-the-line branches. What's the current situation?

I don't know if I would call it divisiveness, but there's been sensitivity. There's always been a sense that the crafts were perceived as kind of second tier, and one of the ongoing disputes has been centered and defined by the Oscar telecast itself. There have been periodic attempts to remove some of the categories from the telecast presentation, all under the guise of wanting to understandably present a very strong entertainment package, but my feeling is we are in an era now where there is intense interest in the crafts — in cinematography, editing, design, costume, music. So I certainly feel the 17 branches should all be represented. As for the short films and the short documentaries, I think they're incredibly important, and historically they've also been a breeding ground for careers in longform. It's important we support them with the same kind of acknowledgement. Some of the most emotional speeches historically have been around, say, the short documentaries. The acceptance speeches have been very powerful.

When you were elected, there were predictions that you and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson would have difficulty working together.

Dawn and I come from different places, but we both have a tremendous love for film. She and I have a very open line of communication, and I've worked hard to heal the rifts that there were among the board. We are in a very positive place now as we move forward. The board was able to not only adopt a code of conduct but then the following month find a process for implementing it. We have been reaching out to other organizations and are supporting the organization that Kathy Kennedy is doing along with Anita Hill [the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace]. I don't think that would have happened with the sort of unanimity that has happened if it hadn't been for the fact that the board is really in a very good place. 

Has the board received complaints about violations of the code?

The process has not started yet, no. We're in the process of setting up a secure website [to report claims]. But it will be a very thorough process. David Rubin and the membership and rules committee have worked very hard with the board of governors to clarify this. And we've had a considerable discussion at the board meeting, and we feel that the way it's presented now is that it's not so much an immediate adjudication as a real clear process, a step-by-step process. 

How will you handle controversial figures like Roman Polanski from the past? Can any Academy member lodge a complaint even if they don't have first-hand knowledge?

Well, in the case of Polanski, I believe there was a conviction involved, so it's not just an accusation. There are several names that, when it's all in place, will probably be presented for consideration. I can't speak to what will happen, but everybody wants to be responsible in addressing any of these accusations.

During the last two years, the Academy has invited record numbers of new members? Do you think it can continue to find qualified members to invite in those kind of numbers?

Because there had been such a difficult process of sponsorship, there were huge numbers of people with long careers who were not being admitted. And when we decided to open it up for consideration by committee review rather than strict sponsorship, it put us into a position to start asking, “Who are some of the really significant filmmakers here and especially around the world that are not Academy members?” I can speak very specifically from my own branch, because it's a smaller branch, and we don't accept a huge number of members. But last year we took in, not through sponsorship but through invitation, a Spanish cinematographer named José Luis Alcaine, whom I met when we met with the new members in Madrid. A terrifically literate and sophisticated man who has like 160 credits, at least three films with Pedro Almodovar. He just finished shooting Asghar Farhadi's new film. And he's 79 years old, still working and he's a new member. On the other hand, we took in a much younger Mexican cinematographer named Ernesto Pardo, who has not that many credits. He's a documentarian, and he photographed a documentary the ASC was very impressed with last year, and this year it became Mexico's entry for the best foreign-language film. It's called Tempestad, an extraordinarily poetic vision telling the story of several women on a bus ride back to their hometowns after being released from captivity at the American border. And so there you have a young documentary cinematographer who's been taken in. You have a 79-year-old cinematographer. So I think each branch is looking for people that maybe should've been members a long time ago. 

No one argues about that. But each year, there have been some cases, especially among the actors, where a new member’s credentials have been questioned. 

In every entity, not just in entertainment, there are always people that for one reason or another become included beyond the guidelines of strict merit. But I don’t think that’s an issue for us. People can always cherry-pick any kind of list and find a few people that they might take exception to rather than focusing on the huge number of people that are deservedly included. 

As you look at the Academy Museum, have you made any specific suggestions about the direction it should take?

Nothing specific, but given my own interest in history and preservation and the love I have for the silent era, we just want to be sure that there is a really strong representation of the teens and the '20s, not just as a kind of prologue but essentially as the foundation for what happened with cinema after sound was introduced. Kerry Brougher, our director, is very sympathetic with that as well. I'm personally very committed to the early history of film, not just in terms of the content but also in terms of the equipment. I think young people are absolutely mesmerized by mechanical devices, the sort of steampunk aspect of the early film era. So it won't just be things like Dorothy's slippers, but we'll also have cameras and lenses and real strong physical artifacts. In fact, at this year's Governors Ball, we're going to have a lot of physical artifacts in the Dolby ballroom. We're going to have cameras, including [cinematographer] Gregg Toland's BNC 2 that he used for Citizen Kane. It's going to be very different than the balls of the past.

Does the Academy have to start thinking about redefining what exactly a film is?

We have a future-of-film committee that [producer] Albert Berger is chairing. He's had three open meetings with large groups of people from all the branches, and he's been collating many different perspectives and is now bringing it down to a smaller working group that will represent a coalition of those different views. And as soon as the Oscars are over, he's going to move forward. What used to be separate disciplines in the analog era are now kind of overlapping, which is not yet defined in terms of our rules. For instance, Whoopi Goldberg, who is a new governor, brought up the importance of what Andy Serkis has done in a number of roles. What used to be called motion capture we're now calling performance capture. And animators now have techniques and programs for live-action rendering of faces and expressions.

Could you end up creating new awards categories?

No idea. Certainly, it's going to be on the table. The documentary committee is looking at its qualifications rules because most documentary films are now being distributed online or electronically. There are very few of them that get theatrical releases, and how are we going to deal with that? One of the unfortunate casualties, and I'll go on the record for this, was the difficult situation presented by [Errol Morris' six-episode documentary] Wormwood this year. There's been great sensitivity among the documentarians because of last year's O.J.: Made in America getting an Academy Award as well as an Emmy. In the case of Wormwood, it was released on Netflix and had a theatrical qualification, and it would have normally qualified except the documentary committee had met earlier, and by virtue of how Netflix presented it in terms of it being a multipart series, it made it difficult for the documentarians to consider it as a theatrical qualification. So Wormwood this year got caught in a pincer that needs further exploration. I saw Wormwood at Telluride, but it was clear to all of us sitting there in the sold-out Werner Herzog Theater that this was a coherent, single strand movie.

So will you be making the president's traditional appearance on the Oscar telecast?

Absolutely not. I told [show producers] Jen [Todd] and Mike [De Luca] that I didn't want to do it. I said, "This 90th show should really be a tribute to the history of the Academy," and the president's address often stops the show.

Jimmy Kimmel has been joking about the envelope mix-up. Will we see more of that on the show?

I don't want to reveal anything about the show, but how could he not? That's become a defining moment. Nobody's hiding the fact that it happened, though we are taking measures so that it doesn't happen again.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.