Oscars’ bold (or blah?) future
On the face of it, a boring choice for film academy. But there’s more to John Bailey.
John Bailey is the newly elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (after Tuesday night’s vote), prompting two immediate questions.
1) What happened to Laura Dern, presumed to be everyone’s choice (and academy chief executive Dawn Hudson’s pick) for the job?
2) Who on Earth is John Bailey?
The answer to the first question is pretty simple. Despite rumors to the contrary, Dern didn’t want the job and declined to accept the nomination when her name was put forward.
More specifically, the 50year-old actress, didn’t believe she’d have time to fulfill the demands of the unpaid position. Dern, who just earned an Emmy nomination for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and who can currently be seen in Showtime’s “Twin Peaks,” has roles in the upcoming high-profile movies “Downsizing” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”; even as the academy board of governors gathered to vote, it was announced that she would be starring in the Ed Zwick drama “Trial by Fire,”
which begins shooting in October.
So, yes, she has enough on her plate without having to deal with the over-budget, behind-schedule effort to build an academy movie museum in Los Angeles, not to mention the organization’s continued push to diversify its membership ranks.
Enter Bailey, a veteran cinematographer with a lengthy résumé (“American Gigolo,” “Groundhog Day,” “As Good as It Gets”) and a strong record of academy service, including 14 years on the board of governors.
Bailey prevailed over the only other candidate, prominent casting director David Rubin, whose credits include “Wild,” the 2014 drama in which Dern played Reese Witherspoon’s mother. They were the only two governors who wanted the job. The vote wasn’t contentious. Bailey won.
The choice is, on the face of it, anyway, boring. Dern would have been the first actress since Bette Davis to head the academy, bringing her star power, Hollywood lineage (she’s the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd) and general cool vibe to the thankless job of being the organization’s public face.
Instead, the gig went to a relatively unknown older white male (Bailey turns 75 on Thursday), part of the demographic majority for which the academy has taken heat. (The academy has added 1,457 members in the last two years, bringing its representation of women to 28% from 27% and minorities to 13% from 11%.)
But that take is a superficial reading. You want to know Bailey? Read the blog he keeps on the American Society of Cinematographers website, which he introduced in 2009, writing: “I can’t promise you that any of what I say will conform to the tenets of Cartesian logic, or much less, have any immediate relevance to your daily concerns as cinematographers. What I will try to do is draw out what I know as a person interested in the arts and how it intersects my work as a cinematographer.”
The man is conversant with the tenets of Cartesian logic. Think he can’t deal with cost overruns on a movie museum?
Significantly, Bailey expresses a deep and abiding love for foreign cinema, dovetailing nicely with the academy’s recent outreach, which has dramatically increased its international ranks. Bailey has served on the academy’s foreign language film executive committee, helping steer the nominees for that Oscar category. He writes often about his passion for these movies, saying they offer “unexpected windows into worlds far removed from our privileged American perspective.”
“On the surface, foreign movies do not have the cachet they once had on U.S. screens,” Bailey writes, “but each year the entries in the AMPAS foreign-language-film competition give evidence of a vibrant cinematic continuity in a global market that is increasingly dominated by comic-book mayhem and exploding body parts.”
Bailey has also written about the music of avantegarde artist John Cage, the sculptures of Jean Tinguely and the writings of Carl Jung. He’s conversant in Godard and Woody Guthrie, Buddy Guy and Nigerian cinema. He’s no square. Will Bailey be the kind of leader to embrace and continue pushing forward the academy’s recent initiatives toward a more inclusive membership and better working opportunities for women and people of color in Hollywood? Only he can answer that.
But as one of only two people who wanted the job, he has the opportunity to govern the group into a future that can be bold or blah.
If he’s at all influenced by the artists he writes about, Bailey should opt for the daring.
JOHN BAILEY is a veteran cinematographer with a lengthy academy service record. Now, he’s president.