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Kathleen Kennedy: Desert Island Producer


Since the Oscar race that started with Argo in Telluride is now finishing with Argo in Hollywood I have really no choice but to quote Bob Dylan — “You just kinda wasted my precious time but don’t think twice, it’s all right.” All of the in-between that happened there? That was the stuff that dreams are made of. One of the things that happened this year and will likely be remembered by whomever decides to write about the Oscars ten or twenty years hence, was that Kathleen Kennedy became the most nominated producer in Oscar history with zero wins. Together with Steven Spielberg the two of them now hold the record for most producing nominations. It is astonishing to me, and should be to you, that a woman — A WOMAN — holds that record, considering Hollywood and the Oscars are driven, year after year, up to and including this one by men. You will say, oh she’s just bitter. Shut up about sexism already. Well, honey, if I don’t say something who will?

Maybe you’re tired of reading about it, the near shut out of women and people of color now that the Oscars are hitting their 85th year. If I hope to leave all of you Oscar watchers with anything once I end this insufferable game for good it’s this: don’t be lazy about what you see happening before your very eyes. Speak up about it. Always. You are the future. At their best, Oscars can mean more doors being kicked down.

Last month I went up to the Santa Barbara Film Fest and attended the Producers Panel. A group of very prolific, ambitious and supportive producers were there: Bruce Cohen for Silver Linings Playbook, Debra Hayward for Les Miserables, Dan Janvey for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Stacey Sher for Django Unchained and David Womark for Life of Pi. In the middle sat Kathleen Kennedy — self-assured and mostly quiet, letting the others draw applause for their engaging stories of basically turning water into wine. Each time the question was brought up about how any of them got their start or who taught them to do what they’re doing now they all looked over and said “Kathleen Kennedy taught me everything I know.”

Kennedy didn’t speak often but everything she did say was worth remembering. She talked about how difficult it was to get Lincoln made, even with Spielberg’s name attached. A talky procedural about government? Why on earth would anyone want to watch that? Most people are too comfortable with getting what they expect. They couldn’t wrap their minds around a movie about Lincoln being about his politics. Moreover, they didn’t seem able to make the bigger association with that film — that the strains that ran through that 13th Amendment are still at play today in so many ways. Women are still fighting to be treated as human beings, gay men and women can’t get legally married by federal law, and take a look at this year’s Oscar race or any other to see what kind of progress we’ve made in the white dominated entertainment industry.

“The public always steps up,” Kennedy said when she was asked whether studios were right in thinking “adult” movies don’t make money. And the public has stepped up for Lincoln. A random public poll put Spielberg at the top of the most deserving director this year but the public doesn’t need to decide what rises to top the screener pile. They don’t have to worry about what David Carr at the New York Times or what Jeff Wells thinks about Lincoln. They don’t have to feel the burn of the Affleck snub. They don’t have to reject Zero Dark Thirty because of the “torture debate.” They are free to simply look at what they thought was the best film of the year and speak with their wallets. So you’ll say, well, if it were about box office The Avengers would win. But it isn’t just about that. The Avengers is completely branded formulaic pre-sold Hollywood product designed for public consumption. It is not surprising it made the kind of money it did. What IS surprising is that art film made about President Lincoln that didn’t have sweeping battle scenes and is mostly comprised of characters ruminating on ideas and manipulating racists and backwards politicians could turn around and make $175 million. Even Harvey Weinstein, who has a rival in the race this year, has called Lincoln a masterpiece and is astonished at its box-office take.

But by all means let’s instead pay attention to cute young successful Ben Affleck and forget all about Kathleen’s Kennedy’s success this year. Cause poor guy, missed out on a director’s nomination but will win Best Picture anyway. Meanwhile, 40 years in the business the record for most nominations of anyone, male or female, will walk away again empty-handed, even for the unqualified success that Lincoln was.

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After the informative, colorful panel, where two other women producers also participated, a stunning reminder of the pioneering efforts of Kennedy — a resident of Santa Barbara herself — ambled up the mic. Her question was about female directors. Why, if there were three female producers on the panel, weren’t there more females behind the camera?

Kennedy ruminated on it, behind her eyes you could see the wheels turning: do I give them a bullshit answer or do I tell them the truth? Well, at her age and with her success she doesn’t really have to kiss anyone’s ass so out came the truth. It’s harder, she said for female directors to just disappear from their lives to make a movie. Kids always come into it. Sure, some have worked it out okay — like Kathryn Bigelow who has never had children, or Sofia Coppola who is currently balancing it, or Lynn Ramsay who did take a lot of time off to raise kids. Mothers can’t really be that easily replaced. It takes a village to cover one mother and even then the mother needs help. It’s a matter of priorities.

The woman asking the question was not satisfied with that answer. The other women on the panel backed up Kennedy, none of them wanting to blame a sexist industry. Kennedy’s own ambition was one that just didn’t accept that she couldn’t become the most nominated producer in film history. So she said those doors weren’t closed to women so much as women have a clock ticking in their ovaries so they have to make that choice between one or the other. They can fit in a movie here or there but they can’t build a slow and steady career like so many of their male counterparts. The truth hurts.

It hurts especially for Kennedy, she made the sacrifice herself the one time she parted ways with Spielberg so that she could have a baby before it was too late, he made Schindler’s List and won the producing Oscar without her. She probably knows what many of us know who brought kids into the world. A career is one thing. It’s important, to be sure. But life is more than our work. It is too short to really notice it passing you by. The only thing that has made it worth living to me personally is having raised my own daughter.

I dropped out of film school myself after having studied long and hard to get to the Columbia graduate film program. I raised my daughter instead, starting up this website to keep us both afloat. I ended up doing what I consider to be decent enough work but the thing I look to when life rounds down to futility is that beautiful girl I raised. I remember the smell of her as a baby. I remember walking her a mile or two down Coldwater Canyon to get a snow cone and how all she wanted to do was get out of her stroller and walk so that she could put her bare feet on the green grass. I would never trade those precious memories for a trophy of any kind. Maybe Kennedy feels the same way.

When I think of how life goes I know that if you’re a woman it’s a balancing act, as cliche as that sounds. I look at Kennedy and I see a woman who did it the right way. She lost her Oscar as a result but I bet she’s not crying into pillow when she realizes what she did instead. She kicks ass up one side and down the other and maintains her cool while doing so.

That’s why Kathleen Kennedy is our desert island producer for sticking it out in a man’s world and coming out on top. For being gracious in the face of a desperate Oscar season, for continuing to back filmmakers both big and small, for teaching other producers how it’s supposed to be done, and for making the best film of 2012, sticking by Spielberg’s and Kushner’s vision. That’s the most you could hope for in a producer.

As she moves on to Lucasfilm she will once again stand behind another bright star in JJ Abrams. She will once again not take any of the credit for any of their success. Will she ever win an Oscar? It’s tough to say.

From the Hollywood Reporter profile, “‘I’d love to have the Oscar,’ she laughs. ‘I’d love to get this over with. It’s not fun to lose. I admit that.’ She has sat at the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, only to watch Ben Affleck and the Argo team stride to the stage. While she tries to assure others on the Lincoln crew that life will go on, she also is glad that she has a demanding new job. ‘I would hate to be in a situation where my entire focus was obsessing around the issue of whether we’re going to win best picture,’ she says.

Since Kennedy, in her record-breaking historical year, won’t win, she can take with her the memory of having done something remarkable. “Those are the most enriching, lasting experiences. It really represents an important part of your life, creatively,” she said.

Women don’t really get the credit they deserve in Hollywood — why, almost every Oscar strategist pushing the movies this year are women. They are the most hard-working and unrewarded players in the race. You want to know why Flight is nominated for original screenplay or why Silver Linings Playbook is a major Oscar player? And finally, why Argo is slaying the competition? Because behind all of these successes are women. And they will go unrewarded this year as Harvey Weinstein, Affleck and Clooney and everyone else steps up to take credit. They have a good payday and a pat on their backs from bosses but no shiny statues to put on their toilet tanks.

As we watch the triumphant win of Argo we will see three straight males once again take the stage. That’s showbiz. No one ever said it was fair.

Need I say again that winning an Oscar doesn’t make Kathleen Kennedy look good. Giving Kathleen Kennedy an Oscar makes the Academy look good.

Here Kathleen Kennedy sits atop the list of producer nominations. Notice that big fat zero by her name. I can totally get off on the idea that a woman has conquered all but if I were in the Academy I would be throwing awards at her — not just for her historical success but for what she did with Lincoln, bringing that movie to the big screen uncompromised. Despite the industry shunning it inexplicably, the public stepped up as it heads towards $175 million.

Kathleen Kennedy (7 nominations with 0 wins):
Steven Spielberg (7 nominations with 1 win): Schindler’s List (1993)
Stanley Kramer (6 nominations with 0 wins):
Francis Ford Coppola (5 nominations with 1 win): The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Scott Rudin (5 nominations and 1 win): No Country For Old Men (2007)
Frank Marshall (5 nominations with 0 wins):
Sam Spiegel (4 nominations with 3 wins): On The Waterfront (1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (3 awards within 8 years!)
Clint Eastwood (4 nominations with 2 wins): Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004)
James L. Brooks (4 nominations with 1 win): Terms of Endearment (1983)
Ethan Coen (4 nominations with 1 win): No Country For Old Men (2007)
Peter Jackson (4 nominations with 1 win): The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Sydney Pollack (4 nominations with 1 win): Out of Africa (1985)
David Puttnam (4 nominations with 1 win): Chariots of Fire (1981)
Irwin Winkler (4 nominations with 1 win): Rocky (1976)
Warren Beatty (4 nominations with 0 wins):
David Brown (4 nominations with 0 wins):
Norman Jewison (4 nominations with 0 wins):
George Stevens (4 nominations with 0 wins):
Saul Zaentz (3 nominations with 3 wins): One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) (co-produced with Michael Douglas), Amadeus (1984), The English Patient (1996)
Robert Wise (3 nominations with 2 wins): West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965)
Arthur Freed (2 nominations with 2 wins): An American in Paris (1951), Gigi (1958)
Branko Lustig (2 nominations with 2 wins): Schindler’s List (1993), Gladiator (2000)
Albert S. Ruddy (2 nominations with 2 wins): The Godfather (1972), Million Dollar Baby (2004)

And her list of producer credits. She can do it all — from Jurassic Park to the Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (associate producer)[17]
Poltergeist (1982) (associate producer)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) (producer)
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) (associate producer) (producer) (segment 2)
Gremlins (1984) (executive producer)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) (associate producer)
The Color Purple (1985) (producer)
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) (executive producer)
Back to the Future (1985) (executive producer)
The Goonies (1985) (executive producer)
Fandango (1985) (executive producer)
An American Tail (1986) (producer)
The Money Pit (1986) (producer)
*batteries not included (1987) (executive producer)
Empire of the Sun (1987) (producer)
Innerspace (1987) (co-executive producer)
The China Odyssey: ‘Empire of the Sun’, a Film by Steven Spielberg (1987) (associate producer)
The Land Before Time (1988) (co-executive producer)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) (executive producer)
Always (1989) (producer)
Back to the Future Part II (1989) (executive producer)
Dad (1989) (executive producer)
Tummy Trouble (1989) (executive producer)
Arachnophobia (1990) (producer)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) (executive producer)
Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) (executive producer)
Back to the Future Part III (1990) (executive producer)
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) (executive producer)
Hook (1991) (producer)
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) (executive producer)
Cape Fear (1991) (executive producer)
A Brief History of Time (1991) (executive producer) (uncredited)
A Wish for Wings That Work (1991) (TV) (executive producer)
Noises Off (1992) (executive producer)
Schindler’s List (1993) (executive producer)
We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1993) (executive producer)
A Dangerous Woman (1993) (executive producer)
Jurassic Park (1993) (producer)
A Far Off Place (1993) (executive producer)
Trail Mix-Up (1993) (executive producer)
Alive (1993) (producer)
Milk Money (1994) (producer)
The Flintstones (1994) (executive producer)
Balto (1995) (executive producer)
The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) (producer)
Congo (1995) (producer)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995) (producer)
Twister (1996) (producer)
The Best of Roger Rabbit (1996) (executive producer)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) (executive producer)
A Map of the World (1999) (producer)
Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) (producer)
The Sixth Sense (1999) (producer)
Olympic Glory (1999) (executive producer)
Jurassic Park III (2001) (producer)
Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) (producer)
The Sports Pages (2001) (TV) (executive producer)
Signs (2002) (executive producer)
The Young Black Stallion (2003) (producer)
Seabiscuit (2003) (producer)
Munich (2005) (producer)
War of the Worlds (2005) (producer)
Persepolis (2007) (executive producer)
Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) (2007) (producer)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) (producer)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) (producer)
Ponyo (2009) (U.S. version co-producer)
Crossing Over (2009) (producer)
The Last Airbender (2010) (producer)
Hereafter (co-producer with Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz & Steven Spielberg) (2010)
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) (producer)
War Horse (2011) (producer)
The Secret World of Arrietty (2012) (U.S. version executive producer)
Lincoln (2012) (producer)

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