Inside the Politics of Oscar's First Female Black President -- and Ellen's Return (Analysis)

Ellen DeGeneres

"We saw your boobs"? Not this year, as Cheryl Boone Isaacs breaks a barrier and brings back DeGeneres as host.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, hailed Cheryl Boone Isaacs' election July 30 as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as "an historic moment," predicting "her selection will encourage the studios and networks to empower more women and minorities."

Boone Isaacs, 63, is the first African-American and only the third woman -- Bette Davis served for two months in 1941 before quitting in a huff, while screenwriter Fay Kanin held the post for four years in the early '80s -- to head the organization often characterized as being dominated by old, white guys. Boone Isaacs quickly approved the suggestion of returning Oscars show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron that Ellen DeGeneres, who hosted in 2007, be invited back to emcee the March 2 telecast.

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Hollywood applauded: "Ellen has her audience's pulse so perfectly," says director Rod Lurie. "She is inoffensive while still maintaining an edge, which is perfect for the Academy Awards." DeGeneres sets the stage for an Oscars that could be a lot more welcoming to women and minorities than the most recent one, which featured Seth MacFarlane and his "We Saw Your Boobs" song.

And while it's too early to make real predictions, there are more black-themed films than usual lining up at the awards-season starting gate, including Lee Daniels' The Butler, opening Aug. 16.

Does that mean the next Oscars could see more people of color among the major nominees? (Last year, there were just two among the 20 acting slots.) That would be fine with CEO Dawn Hudson and outgoing president Hawk Koch, who have made diversity one of the Academy's top goals. Koch proudly points to the fact that there are now 14 women among the Academy's 48-member board of governors -- the most ever.

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But while Boone Isaacs' election fit the program, there were other factors at play. A veteran marketing executive who's held top jobs at Paramount and New Line, she is in her 21st year on the board, and Boone Isaacs' insider knowledge of Academy protocol makes her a comfortable choice for traditionalists.

"I don't consider it a diversity decision," says Murray Weissman of the public relations branch. "It's a brilliant choice because of her vast experience within the organization. Plus, she's prepared to give 24/7 to the Academy, whereas other candidates in high-powered positions might not have been." Another member, afraid of ABC requesting changes to the show, says board members saw in Boone Isaacs an ally "who understands the Academy and the Oscars should be sacrosanct."