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Laura Dern: The Actress Who Would Be President — of the Academy

If the Academy board elects Laura Dern their new president Tuesday night, she would follow Bette Davis as only the second actress to serve in the job. Davis lasted two months.

Bruce Dern and Laura Dern at The Governors Awards


The Academy Board of Governors convenes Tuesday night to pick their next president. Three major candidates have emerged from the 54-member body, although anything can happen.

Dern would be the first actress since Bette Davis’s notoriously short two-month 1941 tenure. (She quit when she realized the all-male board would give her no power.) While movie stars like Gregory Peck and Douglas Fairbanks have served as president, only two women have served since Davis: Screenwriter Fay Kanin presided effectively from 1979 to 1983, and publicity executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs (the first African-American to hold the post) is exiting at the end of a tumultuous four-year term. During that time, she and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson spearheaded a concerted drive to add more diversity to the Academy, urging the 17 branches to actively recruit a younger and more inclusive membership from all over the world.

Isaacs also presided over the infamous last Oscar show, with its viral Pricewaterhousecoopers snafu with the Best Picture envelope. Otherwise, the show was deemed enough of a success to bring back both producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd and host Jimmy Kimmel for the 90th Academy Awards March 4, 2018.

Bette Davis

The new AMPAS president will be picked by the Board, which like any other group, is led by several influential members who are more powerful than the others. First among equals is vice president Kathleen Kennedy, who runs Disney’s mighty Lucasfilm and its “Star Wars” empire; she’s close friends with fellow governors Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, two major talents still courted by the likes of Hollywood players Paramount motion picture executive and treasurer Jim Gianopulos and Fox Searchlight president and vice president Nancy Utley. So this group carries a lot of clout. Word is, they’re going for Dern.

George Lucas, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy.

George Lucas, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy.

Anne Thompson

The below-the-line board faction is led by first vice president, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and vice president and cinematographer John Bailey, who are mainly backing secretary and casting governor David Rubin. A third candidate, popular and respected Oscar-nominated Documentary governor Rory Kennedy (“Last Days in Vietnam”), despite her political family pedigree, is seen by many as too busy making movies to have the time to serve as president.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn HudsonOscar Nominee Luncheon, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 6 Feb 2017

Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson

Chelsea Lauren/REX/Shutterstock

But how much time does it require? Some presidents are more active than others, but Hawk Koch, Sid Ganis, Tom Sherak, and Isaacs turned the voluntary post into an active almost full-time job. Publicity branch member Isaacs showed up at the Academy offices most days and traveled widely on behalf of the organization. But truth is, while CEO Hudson and Isaacs put on a united front, aside from their diversity efforts, they did not always work in tandem.

Laura Dern, David Lynch and Kyle MaclachlanShowtime's TWIN PEAKS TV series premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 19 May 2017

Laura Dern, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan, Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” premiere

Showtime by/REX/Shutterstock

After six years, Hudson had to fight to be reinstated as CEO until 2020, as her efforts to build the $400 million Academy museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art faced considerable controversy. She’s lobbying hard for twice-nominated Dern, age 50 — with hopes she will be an attractive public face for the Academy who can also help with much-needed fundraising.

Another factor this year: Unusually, there are 10 new members of the Academy whose votes cannot be predicted.(That said, cinematographer Mandy Walker, actress Whoopi Goldberg and director Kimberly Peirce are likely to support a woman president.) On the other hand, new publicist’s branch governor Christina Kounelias quit her job working for Hudson at the Academy and might vote the other way.

Laura Dern at Women’s March on Main.

Anne Thompson

Can they deny her? Hollywood scion Dern (daughter of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd), who presented at the last Governors Awards and presented nomination certificates at the last Academy Nominee Luncheon, is a wily and smart veteran actress with considerable professional poise and friends all over the industry like director Alexander Payne, who directed her in 1996’s “Citizen Ruth,” and hung out with her with obvious enjoyment at a recent Telluride Film Festival, where she appeared in an Oscar-nominated role in “Wild” — and cast her in his upcoming “Downsizing.” Activist liberal feminist Dern also happily led the recent Sundance Film Festival Women’s March on Main.

And always-employed Dern is enjoying a career high at the moment, with an Emmy-nominated supporting performance on HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” a recurring part in David Lynch’s Showtime reboot “Twin Peaks,” and upcoming roles as author JT Leroy and in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — produced by Kathleen Kennedy.

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