New Academy Chief Defends Diversity Push to Remedy "Open Wound"

“Yes, I’m a 75-year-old white heterosexual male; that defines me, but it doesn’t limit me,” says John Bailey, the cinematographer elected chief Aug. 8.

On the morning of Aug. 9, cinematographer and Academy governor John Bailey called his agents at WME. “Please don’t send me any scripts,” he said. “I don’t even want to read anything.”

The 75-year-old lensman (Ordinary People, The Big Chill) wasn’t retiring; instead, he was preparing for what might be the toughest assignment of his life. The night before, he had been elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in something of a surprise, beating the only other contender, casting director David Rubin, to become the leader of the organization behind the Oscars. The two were competing to succeed Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the group’s first African-American and third female president, who termed out after one of the more active and controversial reigns in the institution’s 90-year history (and shortly after the fiasco of this year’s Oscar ending, which saw La La Land wrongly named best picture).

Now the Academy’s 8,000-plus members are anxious to see if Bailey embraces his predecessor’s policies, most notably a huge expansion of the membership in favor of increased racial, gender and geographic diversity.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on Aug. 14, Bailey, who’s spent 13 years on the board, rejected any suggestion that the Academy is back in the hands of the Old White Males. “Bullshit,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, I have been engaged personally on the issue of diversity and inclusion before it became a buzzword. Yes, I’m a 75-year-old white heterosexual male; that defines me, but it doesn’t limit me.” As for the grassroots diversity campaign that went under the label #OscarsSoWhite, he said: “Like a lot of things that spring up spontaneously, they are addressing a very visible open wound.”

Among the record 774 new members invited to join the Academy this summer, Bailey pushed for nontraditional members from the international community, such as Jose Luis Alcaine, 78, the DP on many Pedro Almodovar movies (though Alcaine hardly fits in the younger mold). “He should have been in the Academy 25 years ago,” noted Bailey.

Asked if the 2016 goal of doubling the number of women and minorities by 2020 was realistic, Bailey said he’s “not really in the weeds on that.” But, he said, “there is so much untapped talent out there, and there is always new talent coming on line. It’s just a question of where do we consider the baseline of artistic eligibility to be. Each of the branches is starting to define that for itself.” Yes, he acknowledged, the Academy is still 72 percent male and 87 percent white. “It’s a big needle to move, and you can’t just say we have this goal of such-and-such percentage. It’s not about mollifying anybody in terms of where they think the needle should be. It’s about engaging the idea of diversity and reaching out as much as we can.”

While his approach to policy probably will not be substantially different from his predecessor’s, his relationship with Academy CEO Dawn Hudson might be. Appointed in 2011, Hudson has proved a polarizing figure whose hard-charging style is said to have irked Bailey, according to colleagues. Hudson, who oversees a 350-person staff, was believed to favor actress Laura Dern for the presidency, only to see Dern decline the nomination. In April, according to sources, Bailey objected when the governors voted to extend Hudson’s contract for three years through 2020 before a review of her tenure had been completed.

“I really don’t want to talk about that,” he told THR. “It’s getting into [issues] of board governance and internal things I don’t want to address.” Bailey added that he had invited Hudson to his home for dinner later this week.

But anyone who thinks he might cave to Hudson or the board should think again. “He has very strong opinions, and he can be very articulate,” says one longtime friend. “That’s why he wanted the job, and he’s not shy about conveying them.”

Nor will Bailey, who has three films awaiting release, be shy about spending time at the organization’s Beverly Hills headquarters, at least in the near future. While the presidency is a non-salaried position and some presidents have treated it more as a ceremonial post, Boone Isaacs approached it as a full-time job. “I’m just starting, and I have a learning curve,” said Bailey. “Certainly in the initial weeks, I’ll be here as much as I can.”

He stressed that both Hudson and Boone Isaacs had supported initiatives he promoted as head of the Academy’s preservation and history committee, including a Films on Film screening program using assets from the Academy Film Archive and its Margaret Herrick Library. “Even though there was nothing in the budget for it,” he noted, “Cheryl and Dawn signed on immediately.” He also said that in the past he’s spoken to Hudson about involving all the board members in conversations about the content of the new $400million museum, which, after encountering delays in both construction and fundraising, is now going up on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and is set to open in 2019.

Insiders predict the two top Academy executives will create a good working relationship. “With John, it’s not about him, it’s about the Academy,” says a fellow board member. “He understands how the Academy functions and what it means to the industry.”

Hudson, for her part, has thrown her support behind Bailey. “I’ve known John for many years, and I’m delighted that we’ll be working together to lead the Academy,” she said. “The landmark films that John has shot tell the story of a brilliant career, but they don’t capture the complete picture of what he has done for our film community. He has boundless curiosity and an acute eye and has always supported innovative films that push boundaries — just the sort of work our Academy encourages.”

Bailey wants those films to find an audience, and one immediate goal, he said, is to see the Academy’s screening programs expand even further, both for members and the general public, especially when the Academy Museum opens, since it will contain a 1,000-seat theater.

His particular interest lies in international cinema: he recently served on the foreign-language film executive committee for four years, and since 2009 he has published a blog on the American Cinematographer website, where he regularly sings the praises of foreign filmmakers. “It’s his great love of cinema that sets him apart,” says Michael Goi, former president of the American Society of Cinematographers.

A graduate of Loyola Marymount University and USC film school, Bailey fell under the influence of the French New Wave and film theoretician Andre Bazin and originally hoped to write about movies before taking a course on the camera and getting hooked. He was 38 when he joined the Academy and has worked with directors from Paul Schrader to Lawrence Kasdan.

Schrader recalls that when he approached Bailey to shoot 1980’s American Gigolo, “He realized I hadn’t seen [Bernardo Bertolucci’s] The Conformist. He showed it to me, and the scales fell from my eyes. He now does a lot of commentary for the Criterion Collection.”

Bailey cited the late Spanish cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven) as a key influence. “Leaving aesthetics and art aside, Nestor was the ideal for me, a classic humanist,” he said.

Equally important — certainly from the Academy’s point of view — will be the influence of his wife, longtime editor Carol Littleton, who also serves on the Academy’s 54-member board. The two met as students while traveling in Europe. “We ended up walking the streets of Florence all night,” recalled Bailey. “The sun came up, and so did the wind. It caught her hair and blew it up and I looked at her and kissed her. And we’ve been married 45 years now.”

Bailey got lucky then. Now it remains to be seen if luck will strike twice.

Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.