The Writers Guild Of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences held a tribute Monday night for Fay Kanin, past Academy and WGA Screen Branch President among many other accomplishments. Kanin died in March at the age of 95. How fitting that the tribute was held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre on a day when the Academy announced a record 14 women are now serving on the Board Of Governors. When she became only the 2nd female President in Academy history in 1979 (Bette Davis served for two weeks in 1941 but enraged committee members and had to resign), Kanin was the sole woman on the entire Board. The 4-term Acad Pres was a true groundbreaker and a real giver as was clearly evident in the many speeches praising her life and career Monday night for an audience that included several past and present Academy Presidents and Board members.
Kanin, a multiple Emmy winner for such teleplays as Friendly Fire and Tell Me Where It Hurts, as well as an Oscar nominee for 1958’s Teacher’s Pet co-written with her husband Michael Kanin, not only was a distinguished writer but also someone who believed in serving the industry of which she was such a big part. And how!
Oscar winnng writer Marc Norman (Shakespeare In Love) made that point in his opening remarks on behalf of the WGA where she was on so many committees it was exhausting just listening to the list that he read, a list that included just about every committee and guild office in existence. He also noted her tough nature as a writer and her hope that movies would present strong women. “What I hated so much about the big screen”, Kanin once said, “was that women were wallpaper. Men were so macho, but you could not have interesting men without interesting women.” And most importantly he said she was just fun to be around, something echoed in many comments including her friend Dorothea Petrie. “Fay was a force of nature. The room was enlivened by her wit and warmth but she could also be fierce. She was a feminist long before people knew what a feminist was,” she said.
Former AFI head, Jean Picker Firstenberg recalled that when Kanin made her first appearance as Academy President on the 1980 Oscar show wearing a knockout red Bob Mackie gown, the announcer said , “Ladies and Gentlemen Mr. Fay Kanin”. Her response later was “well he got it right at the rehearsal”.
Former Academy Chief Executive Bruce Davis noted her ability to solve complicated issues, and many Board members were only half-joking when they said she should become Academy President for life. That’s how effective she was in the job. “I don’t know if the Academy has ever had a more devoted fan, cheerleader or leader,” he said before reading a message from Martin Scorsese praising Fay’s devotion and effectiveness in supporting film preservation. There was also a video message from Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress saluting her for her tireless 19 years as Chair of the National Film Preservation Board before author and film historian Cari Beauchamp closed with her personal memories which included repeating a joke Kanin’s mother used to say about cows. “Does a cow give milk? No. You have to squeeze it out of them”. Beauchamp said Kanin used to say the same thing about the major studios.
Before showing that clip of her first Oscar show appearance as President where the announcer identified her as a man Beauchamp shared the indefatigable Kanin’s confident attitude on being the rare woman to hold the prestigious position. “Let other people be surprised a woman was President of the Academy. It was natural to me.”