“It’s just speculation at the moment,” Laura Dern told the Los Angeles Times last month, describing talk that she has become a prospect for the presidency of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when new officers are elected on August 8. But it’s a hot summer afternoon, and all the serious people are at Comic-Con. So what the heck? Let’s peer at the leaves in our iced green tea and speculate, just a little.
If indeed she were to become the Academy’s 36th president, succeeding the termed-out Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Dern—a 50-year old actress-producer with screen-actor parents and more than a hundred film, television and video credits—would become the youngest person to hold that office in recent memory. The same, of course, is true of Rory Kennedy, a 48-year-old documentarian who is also mentioned as a possible contender. But a third prospect, casting director David Rubin, appears to be slightly older than was Gregory Peck when he became president at the age of 51 in 1967 (unless Rubin was only 14 or 15 when he worked as a casting assistant on Ragtime, released in 1981).
Age is a murky issue in Hollywood. When asked this morning, even those reference mavens at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick library couldn’t say how exactly old was marketing executive Richard Kahn when he briefly became president in 1988. But putting aside Kahn, the average age of incoming presidents since writer-producer Fay Kanin was elected in 1979 was something over 66. Kanin, on the young side, was 62 when voted in. Karl Malden, at the high end, was 77 when he succeeded Kahn in 1989.
Among the most recent presidents, Boone Isaacs was about 64 when elected; Hawk Koch was 66; Tom Sherak was 64; and Sidney Ganis was 65.
Somewhat paradoxically, this last group—though well over 60—proved to be among the most heavily engaged presidents in the Academy’s history. As the Academy’s budget and activities expanded, so did the scope of its presidency. Though unpaid, top office-holders began spending much of the week in the Academy headquarters, monitoring business that was once left to the group’s paid chief executive, or had simply taken care of itself.
This sometimes led to friction. In particular, Boone Isaacs and the current chief executive, Dawn Hudson, occasionally collided, leaving the board of governors to sort things out in recent years with a bylaws revision that clarified the roles of the chief executive and each elected officer.
But now comes a class of presumed contenders (though a wild card is always possible) who are younger, and still engaged with demanding careers. This is particularly true of Dern, who has repeatedly said she intends to work more, not less, as she ages. Earlier this year, she started a production company, Jaywalker Pictures, that is supposed to find projects to suit a mature actress like Laura Dern.
“I was an actor much like our friend Reese Witherspoon, seeing very few interesting roles for women and thinking, ‘Wow, we may have to develop our own stuff,’ ” Dern told Variety in May. Since at least 2011, Dern has talked publicly of studying French, the better to find European roles, should American films fail her as she ages. “I haven’t worked as much as I wanted to for many years,” Dern said in Wall Street Journal interview earlier this year.
This from an actress with three films in post-production including Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and one, Justin Kelly’s JT Leroy, now filming.
So here comes the speculation. If Dern were to become the Academy’s next president, the job would change, perhaps radically. Unlike that recent string of older office-holders, she is unlikely to put her career on hold while serving a group to which she is clearly devoted (and whose ambitious film museum has particularly enjoyed her support). Instead, she would almost certainly give Hudson more space than she has enjoyed under the watchful eye of Boone Isaacs. Or—and this is the more intriguing possibility—the presidency itself might conceivably be restructured, perhaps to create a co-presidency that would present a well-known figure like Dern as its public face, while leaving some of the details to a lesser-known operator like Rubin or Kennedy. Nobody’s talking. That’s just what’s been swirling around in the tea leaves.