In our first interview since his election last week, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President John Bailey has good things to say about the organization’s move toward diversity, the long-awaited museum, CEO Dawn Hudson, the Best Picture “screwup” at this year’s Oscars, and his wife, who also happens to be a longtime board member — just like her husband who now takes on the job as leader.
Bailey, who turned 75 last week, is the first from the Cinematographers branch to ever lead the Academy and is one of very few so-called “below the line” craft governors to ascend to the position (production designer Gene Allen is the only other I can think of). He wasn’t on the wavelength of bloggers who tried to predict who might be elected but says people shouldn’t be too surprised. Bailey has been serving as a Governor on and off for 21 years and is entering his 15th year on the Board. He might not be as well known by prognosticators, but he certainly is by his colleagues in the film business. “I was partly sort of drafted by a whole group of Governors from many different branches that I guess were strong supporters,” he told me Monday afternoon. “Some of them had been reading my blog [for the ASC website] and they knew I was very interested, not only in the historic film program and in archive and preservation, but that I had been very supportive on the many committees I have served on.”
Those committees included International Outreach, where he traveled with other Governors to refugee camps and film schools in Kenya and Rwanda; the Film Scholars Committee; the Nicholl Screenwriting Committee; and even the Sci Tech Council, which he said made him a “tasty appetizer for the techno nerds” in the Academy. “There aren’t too many Academy Presidents who have served on anything like the Sci Tech Council,” he laughed. If you get the idea the Academy is living up to the “Arts and Sciences” part of its title with this choice, you would be right. Talking to Bailey is like talking to someone who clearly is about as film savvy as they come, a man truly immersed in a love for the medium and all aspects of it. That is how he thinks he got this gig.
“It was a gradual layering-on of many different interests, and many Governors I have had close relationships with on and off the Board,” said Bailey, he’s also on the Foreign Language committee. “People have known me for a long time. They know I love international films. They know my blog. If you put these little bits and pieces together, I think you would understand how it could have happened. I hate the word, but it was kind of an organic thing that happened.”
I was well aware of Bailey’s blog for ASC, and actually had him as my post-screening guest when I showed The Salt of the Earth, the documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado, for my UCLA Sneak Preview class in 2015. The discussion was rich.
Following Cheryl Boone Isaacs into a job that has had some roller-coaster times in the past few years including issues of diversity — or the lack of it — in the Academy, and a membership drive designed to open the rolls up to new members of all stripes from around the world, Bailey may be emphasizing the core mission of the organization, which has always been to celebrate the art and science of movies with the best of the best admitted to this very exclusive club. He’s ready to do it. “There is a whole filmmaking community out there who have not necessarily felt they were part of the Academy, even if they were in it. They felt somewhat outside, and also those tens of thousands of people making movies that aren’t part of the Academy. I got 350 emails in less than the first 24 hours, and I have to tell you they weren’t from studio executives or distributors. They were from people making movies in the trenches. Very simply, there couldn’t have been a greater affirmation of why I was validated in trying to do this,” he said clearly proud of the fact he is the first cinematographer to have the honor.
He downplays the very distinguished career behind the camera he has been doing for 45 years including such films as Ordinary People, As Good as It Gets, Groundhog Day, American Gigolo, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, The Way Way Back (a personal favorite of mine), and many more (shamefully he has never been Oscar nominated himself even though he won the ASC Life Achievement Award a couple of years ago). He cites other movies like The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, the little-seen last film of Robin Williams, and a couple of new films still on the shelf hopefully awaiting release as typical of a lot of his output. “I have made a career out of doing more films under the radar than probably anyone else on the Board,” Bailey said. “I do films that I simply believe in.”
He also has put his money where his mouth is when it comes to the hot button issue of diversity that exploded at the Academy during two consecutive years when not a single actor of color was Oscar- nominated. He believes it has to start in the industry itself, that the Academy can only do so much in finding qualified members with a career befitting entry into the group. “I have been hiring men and women of different ethnic, socio economic and racial types ever since I have been shooting movies because it is important to me. This whole notion of the Academy moving toward diversity I completely support and laud, realizing there is only so much the Academy can do,” he said pointing out that it needs to start with the studios, and in particular the casting directors who not only have to be color blind, but ethnicity blind and gender blind going forward, even when the script calls for something else in many cases. Among those officers serving with him on the new Board as Secretary is indeed a casting director, David Rubin who unsuccessfully ran for the President’s job last week, losing to Bailey.
As for that controversy surrounding the Best Picture snafu on this year’s Oscar show when Warren Beatty was handed the wrong envelope, and co-presenter Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced La La Land instead of the real winner Moonlight, Bailey actually thought it was a good thing in some respects. “The screw-up at the end of the last Oscar show was kind of a mixed bag. It sure got a lot of people talking about the show, and what it meant to be on live television. What it did was humanize the show in the same way when David Niven was on stage (in 1974’s telecast) and that naked streaker ran across behind him,” he said. “The only thing I found really unfortunate about it is it took away some of the moment, the very precious moment that the filmmakers for Moonlight should have had for themselves. But at the same time it was a beautiful moment because it showed to the world that there is a community, that the people who made La La Land, and the people who made Moonlight, as different as these films are and different as they may represent of a socio, political, racial kind of makeup, we are all brothers and sisters just trying to make good movies. I found that kind of like the most inspiring thing in the whole show and it was a complete screwup, so there you go.” He went on to say he thought producers Mike DeLuca and Jennifer Todd did a great job with the entire show and he’s happy they are returning to produce the 90th Oscars next year. He also believes the method of choosing anywhere from five to ten Best Picture nominees has been a positive thing for the Academy, rather than an arbitrary number of just five or ten that had been tried in the past.
Perhaps the biggest initiative he will be facing is the ongoing construction of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures which is scheduled to open in the spring or summer of 2019, just before Bailey’s potential two year term (if re-elected next year) is up since he will be termed out of the Board at that point and can’t serve in any capacity again until taking a year off. He is a cheerleader for the Museum’s progress saying the tough seismic research and subterranean work is now finally coming above ground and will show real progress. It is called bringing up the grade. “It now is going very fast, very visible and very dramatic. The more it becomes visible it will accelerate and supercharge the fundraising,” he predicted. He will be working closely with CEO Dawn Hudson on all of this of course since her contract was recently renewed to 2020, despite some talk in the trades that perhaps it wouldn’t be. Bailey appears to be a supporter. “Dawn and I have always been talking, particularly because she has such a love for film history. And when I came up with the idea of taking the resources of the Academy Film Archive and this huge library of 35MM film prints, and showing them in conjunction supporting materials from the (Academy’s Margaret) Herrick Library and starting this program called Films On Film two years ago, Dawn stepped right up to it. It was not a budgeted item, there was no money for it, but she said ‘yes, we have to do this. It’s beautiful’. So that’s where Dawn and I had our first coming together on any kind of practical program. That’s how our relationship started. We are both very invested with anything in terms of moving the Academy and its programs forward – and backward – in terms of history. I am very excited and optimistic about that,” he said adding that he and his wife Carol have invited Hudson to dinner at their home on Sunday. “I am excited about spending an evening with Dawn just talking about her, and not about Academy business. Dawn is from Arkansas, Carol is from Oklahoma, and I was born in Central Missouri even though I was raised here. So you have three really neighborly mid-westerners here.”
And speaking of Carol, as in film editor Carol Littleton to whom Bailey has been married 45 years, they share a unique spot in Academy history which I had to ask him about, wondering if he and Littleton, who is also a Governor, were the first husband and wife to serve concurrently. “You could not have asked anything closer to my heart. When we had the nomination speeches last Tuesday the first thing I said was I talked about what the experience was for me when I first walked into the Board room 21 years ago in my first meeting as Governor. I said my wife Carol was already there, having been elected the year before. Our President then Arthur Hiller said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen I am very proud to tell you tonight that we have the first husband /wife Academy governors since founding members Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’. I turned into a puddle on the floor because you know my sense of history, and going back to 1927, 90 years ago, and somehow I had this visceral connection to these two founding members of the Academy,” he recalled with pride. And now he will be presiding over the seminal 90th Annual Academy Awards come March.
What goes around comes around.