Women leading in a brave new world
Poignant messages for future at annual WIE breakfastIt has become a December tradition: a sizzling red carpet at 8 a.m., poached eggs and a room full of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
Friday's 17th annual Women in Entertainment breakfast, done in conjunction with the release of The Hollywood Reporter's annual Power 100 List, mixed talk about politics and economic woes with poignant speeches and messages about empowering women.
The event honored Glenn Close and featured a Q&A with the top three women on the list: Oprah Winfrey, Disney's Anne Sweeney and Sony Pictures' Amy Pascal as well as a speech by Sigourney Weaver.
"Companies do better with more women in management," Andrea Wong, president and CEO of Lifetime, the breakfast's sponsor, said in her opening remarks, urging everyone in the room to launch "an informal Women in Entertainment mentorship program."
Weaver -- referencing her upcoming Lifetime movie "Prayers for Bobby," based on the true story of Mary Griffith, who becomes a gay rights crusader after her teenage son Bobby commits suicide -- gave a passionate speech applauding the election of Barack Obama and slamming the passage of California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage.
"This is not a social issue, this is a human rights issue; it's not about tolerance, it's about justice and equality," she said. "(What) Barack Obama taught is that 'Yes, we can'. For Bobby's sake, I hope that yes, we will."
Presenting Close with the Leadership Award, Sherry Lansing recalled how the two first got to work together more than 20 years ago on "Fatal Attraction," which Lansing produced. Despite being turned down multiple times by the producers for being "the total opposite" of what they were looking for for the lead role of the manipulative Alex Forrest, Close eventually persuaded them to read for the role, a move considered humiliating for someone of her caliber.
"She was a fearless, gutsy broad," Lansing said of Close, who went on to earn one of her five Oscar nominations for the role.
"She proved that talent has no age and that talent gets better with age," Lansing added, noting Close's most recent Emmy-winning role on FX's "Damages." "In the words of Alex Forrest, Glenn Close refuses to be ignored."
Close paid tribute to her directors, "the brilliant people constantly whispering in my ear" as well as her acting mentors for her success . Also getting a shout-out were her costume and makeup people.
"I have the luxury of going to work looking like a bag lady and coming out an hour-and-a-half later looking fabulous," she said.
Close, who also talked about her experience on "Damages" -- "Television is not for sissies," she noted -- concluded her speech with a heartfelt appreciation of her job.
"To be given an award for something that always makes me very happy is truly an embarrassment of riches," a choked-up Close said to a standing ovation.
Thriving in challenging and changing times, the importance of activism and even the folly of high-priced postal services were among the themes of the free-spirited keynote panel with Winfrey, Sweeney and Pascal that was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's editor Elizabeth Guider.
"Something happens when we come together that doesn't happen when men run the show," Winfrey said about the advantages of women-centered companies and events. "The truth comes out."
Pascal added jokingly that what she liked about working with men is that "they're easy to figure out."
Much of the discussion centered on maintaining success in difficult economic times. Pascal said that communication is essential -- "When you run a company, you need to make sure your employees feel they're going to be taken care of" -- while Sweeney noted that "it's important not to be an isolationist and to spend a lot of time with your team."
Winfrey chimed in with a more concrete solution: "Cut out the Federal Express bills because you can save a lot. People start using Federal Express and then they treat it like a postage stamp," she said.
There also were calls for activism among the panel.
Asked what they would most like to change about the media world or the world at large, Sweeney noted that, while she was proud of the election of Obama, "the next step is ours," adding, "this is not the time to write the check to the charity. This is the time to go out and be that charity. We can't wait for him to take steps. We have to go out and walk with him."
Pascal offered an unusually candid assessment of the film business and Sony's place in it. "I wish all of us would be a little braver," she said. "I wish all of us would make the movies that made us get in the business. I don't think I always do that. And that's what I'd like to do."
The execs also were straightforward about their response to failure should it happen to strike. Pascal said she thinks one preferred way to cope is to "get in bed, pull the covers over your head until someone forces you to get up." Winfrey quipped, "Mac and cheese always helps."
There were lighter and more personal moments to the conversation as well. To a question about what they would do if they weren't media execs, Winfrey and Sweeney both said they'd like to teach, while Pascal said, to laughter, that "if I wasn't me, I'd want to be Madonna."
The group injected some realism into the discussion when asked how evolving technology would change their business.
"I actually think there are going to be some survivors and some shows and brands that go away," Sweeney said. "If we stay relevant and keep using these great brands, I think we make it. If we sit back and say, "I'm here because of who I am,' then people will discard you."
But there also were notes of optimism on the subject.
"The world of digital allows us to connect in a way we only imagined possible five years ago," Winfrey said, noting that an ideal night for her entails curling up with the Kindle electronic reader. "We grew up watching 'The Jetsons.' Now we are the Jetsons."