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This piece by David Kirkpatrick, a member of the Academy’s executives branch who has served as President of Production of Walt Disney Pictures and President of the Motion Picture Group of Paramount Pictures, is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy’s response to it.
Dear Academy Board Of Governors,
I have been a member of the executives branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1984. Academy President Robert Wise signed my lifelong Academy membership certificate. Interestingly, there is no date on it, as if membership was a timeless commodity.
Robert Wise directed the motion pictures of my youth — West Side Story and The Sound of Music. He made entertainments which carried a social justice theme. His beautifully-executed film stories fought against prejudice, bigotry and even genocide. That was a proud day for me, receiving that certificate from a childhood hero. To this day, the framed certificate hangs in my library.
In my time in motion pictures, I held positions as President of Weintraub Entertainment Group, President of Production of Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures and President of the Motion Picture Group of Paramount Pictures. But I have not made a film since 2002, which would mean I am no longer a voting Academy member under the new rules of the Academy.
During much of my life in California, I lived on the same street as Gene Kelly. For those in the Board of Governors who may not know who Gene Kelly was, he was a pathfinder in the American film musical. He was an actor, dancer, director, choreographer and the star of such celebrated American movies as An American in Paris and Singin‘ in the Rain. In 1952, he received an honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”
When his house burned down in 1983 after a Christmas tree caught on fire, Gene Kelly built an exact replica of the house on the property “with some updates in the kitchen and bathrooms,” he told me. I asked him why he built the same house. Wasn’t he tired of it? “Its foundations were good, and I liked the layout,” he replied. The original layout of the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences was to elevate film from being a business to an art form and “to improve the artistic quality of the film medium.”
In his last days, before he took to his bed, Gene, in his early 80s, and I would take walks around the neighborhood with his two annoying schnauzers. We even attended a few garage sales together. Gene negotiated hard over every dime. At that time, the great motion picture star, known for his athletic choreography, walked with a cane. His eyes were failing. He wore a driver’s cap to hide his balding pate. “I am not exactly hirable as a dancer or a director these days. My legs are shot,” he said, with his legendary twinkle in his eye, “but I am still a voting member of the Academy.”
Many of us in the Academy may have retired from working on motion pictures — age discrimination is a real factor in our industry — but we are devoted to choosing the best when it comes time to nominating films. Our legs may be shot, but we may know a thing or two about film language and its artistry. We did spend 20, 30 or 40 years devoted to the form.
This year, the Academy has nominated Mexican director Alejandro González Inarritu for best director and best picture with his effort, The Revenant. Last year Iñárritu won the Academy prize for his direction of Birdman. Is that not diverse?
Over the last decades I have seen wonderful and diverse actors win the actor Oscar, in lead role or supporting, including Javier Bardem, Whoopi Goldberg, Penelope Cruz, Jean Dujardin, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Benico Del Toro, Cuba Gooding Jr., Haing S. Ngor, Lou Gossett Jr., Lupita Nyong’o, Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique, Marlee Matlin and Halle Berry, among others.
This year there were no “diverse” actors nominated, nor were there last year. Suddenly, the media has turned the Academy into a illusionary burning house. We must be careful of the tyranny of the media. They are looking for eyeballs for their headlines. They love a good fight. They have declared this a crisis and they are pressuring the current President of the Academy, a woman of color, a good and noble person, as if she is responsible for this.
The Academy needs its updates as any house of long-standing does. By all means, the Academy needs to be more assertive and mindful in recruiting a young, diverse membership. We must be careful, however, of making hasty decisions driven by desperation. We don’t change the world by exchanging purported racism with ageism. We create an even larger crisis. We divide a house that was never burning in the first place — and by our own hands, erode the foundation and layout of the esteemed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
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