One of Hollywood’s most respected casting directors cast himself in a thankless new role last week. As the new president of the Motion Picture Academy, David Rubin conveys a smooth self-confidence, but that likely will change. His predecessor, John Bailey, a cinematographer, became dour and defensive during his term in office, and Bailey’s problems were trivial compared with Rubin’s.
Simultaneous with Rubin’s election came the revelation that the over-budget, over-schedule Academy Museum now lacks either a director or assistant director, both of whom have walked. The vaunted museum, like a balky movie, now awaits a green light, and some new funding.
In days of yore, the Academy president was an eminence grise who shook hands and bestowed awards; Gregory Peck performed it admirably. Having been an Academy member for decades, I always respected the its apparent desire for invisibility, other than for its once-a-year Oscar orgy.
Then along came a newly re-invented Academy, which expanded its membership by 50% but also damaged its Oscar image by successively naming, then withdrawing, inept choices for host and producer. It further misdefined its purpose – remember “best popular film”? It also alienated the media, muddled its relationship to Netflix and unveiled poorly thought-out policies like its new Code of Conduct. Even its rules for Academy campaigning and screening need fresh scrutiny.
In his opening statement to members, Rubin emphasized the importance of defining anew “what is a movie.” I’d suggest he begin by asking, “What is the Academy?”
When Howard W. “Hawk” Koch Jr was elected president in 2003, he told friends that he felt like he’d just won an Oscar and, in his excitement, invited members to attend the Academy’s first open meeting. Today’s Academy members couldn’t fit into the same room and likely would start quarreling if they did so. Even Koch’s first initiative, digital balloting, promptly became so confused that President Obama’s top digital aide was summoned to help solve it.
The Academy was established 92 years ago as a band of collegial film artisans who would encourage one another and promote the art of cinema. Its leaders at the time also hoped to discourage the push for censorship and perhaps forestall the formation of labor unions.
Although women (Mary Pickford) and social activists (Charlie Chaplin) were important forces in the industry, few thought that the sedate Academy ever would take on social or moral issues as its rallying points.
Now that the Academy reflects a vastly more diverse and international membership, can the organization find a way of re-defining priorities and putting its house in order? Its intensely democratic structure of dividing policy leadership among many crafts and disciplines has all but crippled its ability to deal with changing realities. There’s a certain symbolism in the fact that, with the museum and its new screening rooms further delayed, its expanded Academy membership now must crowd into the elderly Samuel Goldwyn Theater with its creaky seats and mediocre sight lines.
But at least the Academy has a new master of ceremonies – one who decided he himself represented good casting.