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Fay Kanin, An Appreciation

Fay Kanin, An Appreciation

Fay Kanin died yesterday at the age of 95, and I suspect
that her accomplishments have long since faded from the memory of most
people.  But, beyond her career as a
movie and television writer and playwright, she was a remarkable woman –
graceful, gracious, and determined that women should steer their own
lives. 

A
lifelong feminist, she was only the second woman to head the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences.  (Bette Davis
had been president for a few weeks in 1941.) 
And no woman has been elected president since Fay served for the maximum
four years on a board that had 34 men and one other woman.

I
interviewed her many times and, when she was in her eighties, I wrote her
advance obituary for the New York Times. Two stories that she told me seem to me to illuminate her. 

As a
seventh grader in Elmira, New York, she was a finalist in the state spelling
bee.  When she didn’t win, she spent the
next 12 months studying vocabulary words. 
The next year she won the contest, and Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who
presented Fay with her trophy, was so charmed by the 12-year-old girl that he
invited her to visit him in Albany.  When
she graduated from high school, President and Mrs. Roosevelt sent roses.

Years
later, when no one would hire her as a screenwriter, she got a job at RKO as a
reader of other peoples’ scripts.  “I
stayed for two years and learned everything about the studio there was to
learn,” she said.  “I walked on dead and
live sets, invaded the cutting room, snooped in the music department.  I worked all day and stayed on at night.”

She
also found a husband at RKO, a writer of B movies named Michael Kanin.  They spent their honeymoon in a rented house
in Malibu writing scripts together. 
Perhaps the most successful of those scripts was “Teacher’s Pet” about
the collision between a strong-willed journalism teacher played by Doris Day
and a hard-boiled city editor, Clark Gable. 
Their most successful play was “Rashomon,” based on Riuunosuke
Akutagawa’s short stories about a rape and a murder –or was it a seduction and a
suicide?– in the forest outside Kyoto.  The
1959 play became their annuity, turned into a Paul Newman western, “Outrage,”
and performed by more than 60 amateur and regional theaters.

Then Kanin found a niche of her own, writing by herself Emmy and other award-winning
television movies about a blue collar housewife who wants more from life than
cooking and cleaning for a husband (“Tell Me Where It Hurts”); a candid look at
prostitution in Manhattan (“Hustling”); and, the most controversial of the lot,
“Friendly Fire,” based on New Yorker articles about a Vietnam War soldier,
killed accidentally by his own troops.

During her four years as president, she
dragged the Academy into film preservation. 
Warner Bros. had taken an ax to George Cukor’s 1954 “A Star is Born,”
starring Judy Garland, after the movie opened poorly.  In 1981, she decided that the Academy should
spearhead a treasure hunt to put Cukor’s original version back together.  A masterful diplomat with a pixie smile, Fay
even got Warner Bros. to finance the eight-month hunt through film laboratories
and Warner warehouses.

I had
written a book about the making of “Casablanca” and had become an admirer of
one of its writers, Julius Epstein. 
Julie was a good friend of Fay’s. 
When he suffered the stroke that caused his death in 1990, she summed up
bittersweet endings with her usual elegance.

“They’re
calling our class,” she said.

On
March 27, 2013, class ended.

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Comments

doclover

Fay was a class act and a wonderful story-teller. The Academy would be lucky to have another president who did as much for the organization as she did.

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