AFI, Carol Burnett Kick Off 50th Anniversary Celebration at 2017 Commencement Ceremony

Courtesy of AFI
Clockwise, from top left: Bob Gazzale; Jean Picker Firstenberg; George Stevens, Jr.; Edward Zwick; Carol Burnett; Marshall Herskovitz

AFI alum Patty Jenkins was lauded at the Hollywood ceremony, following her historic weekend at the box office for 'Wonder Woman.'

“I love AFI!,” David Lynch said in a video that opened up the film conservatory’s 2017 commencement ceremony, which also acted as the kickoff to the American Film Institute’s larger 50th anniversary celebration.

“Today, we have a double feature,” said AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale as graduates filled into the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Monday morning for the graduation ceremony/anniversary celebration. 

The American Film Institute began in 1967 with the help of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the organization into existence at a White House Rose Garden ceremony. Founding chairman Gregory Peck was in attendance that day in Washington, along with George Stevens, Jr., AFI’s founding director, who took the podium at the commencement ceremony to recount AFI’s beginnings.

“[Our] mission was to advance and elevate the art of filming the United States," he related. "One central idea was to create a Center for Advanced Film Studies — a bridge from learning to make films to the profession of being filmmakers."

The 2017 graduating class — made up of 58 women and 66 men — were joined by honorary degree recipients Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick and Carol Burnett, who was introduced by Kristin Chenoweth as “one of her favorite all-time performers, friend and comedy idol."

Chenoweth recounted Burnett’s history: growing up in Hollywood, her job as an usherette at a movie theater, her getting fired from that job and her early career as an actress in New York leading to up to the landmark Carol Burnett Show, which also is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Burnett opened her address with her iconic Tarzan yell, after which she began, ”I cannot tell you how much this means to me … but I’m going to.”

Producing partners Herskovitz and Zwick, both graduates of the class of ’75, were also awarded honorary doctorates. Together they run the Bedford Falls production company and are responsible for such films as The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall and Blood Diamond as well as TV series including ThirtysomethingMy So-Called Life and Nashville.

"The business is changing so goddamn fast that no one knows where it is going,” said Hershkovitz to the grads, making the larger point that aspiring filmmakers need to stay true to themselves and embrace their inevitable failures. He added, "No one has any f—ing idea what they are doing."

While Burnett, Herskovitz, Zwick and the graduates all received their due, one person not in attendance received several tips of the hat from the speakers. As Gazelle listed off notable alumni — Lynch, Terrence Malick, David Fincher — he paused on Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, a graduate of the conservatory, who received loud applause from the audience. Jenkins just became the first female helmer to have a film gross over $100 million at the domestic box office during its opening weekend. 

Former AFI director Jean Picker Firstenberg, who introduced Zwick and Herskovitz, offered: “I just want to thank all of you for going to see Wonder Woman this past weekend. And I want all of you to go back and see it again, because it’s a wonderful movie and beautiful story.”

The 2017 commencement ceremony begins a three-yearlong celebration of AFI's anniversary, continuing through 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the conservatory's inaugural class in 1969.