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Fay Kanin Throws a Party for Tout Hollywood and the World: She's Oscar Night's First Lady

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Of all the tribal rituals of Hollywood, the most predictable takes place on Oscar night. The town’s glitterati are draped in diamonds and anxiety, the floodlights and TV cameras sweep over breathlessly famous faces. After a suitable fanfare, a small figure strides to the podium. Then zillions of TV spectators in 61 countries mutter, in unison, “Who’s that?”

It is none other than the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose unappreciated chore is to make some high-flown remarks before turning the evening over to the real emcee. In previous years the role has been handled by the relatively unglamorous likes of Charles Brackett, George Seaton and Walter Mirisch. Others, to be sure, have included Gregory Peck and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. But this week, for the first time in Oscar history, a woman was scheduled to perform the duty. She is Fay Kanin, 62, an accomplished screenwriter who last January became the 22nd president and second woman to head the Academy. (Bette Davis served one month during World War II.) “This is a job I was eager to have,” exults Kanin of her unsalaried but prestigious post. “Sometimes I feel my life is like a movie script.”

It could be a Fay Kanin script. Though her booking as presiding officer would be her first Oscar appearance onstage, she and her collaborator-husband, Michael Kanin, were nominated as screenwriters for the Clark Gable-Doris Day delight Teacher’s Pet back in 1958. Her more recent credits are diverse. She has written plays and award-winning TV movies like Hustling and Tell Me Where It Hurts. As Kanin once put it, “When you’re good, you’re good in any medium; when you’re lousy, you’re lousy in all of them.”

In the last decade, ironically, Motion Picture Academy President Kanin has worked primarily in the rival medium, television, discouraged by the spate of “space, sharks, devils and vampires” that made it to the big screen. Her preference is the “small, personal” work like ABC’s 1979 Emmy winner Friendly Fire, which she adapted and co-produced from C.D.B. Bryan’s affecting book about a family that lost its son in Vietnam. Kanin was drawn to the story partly because of the loss of her own son Joel to leukemia. (Her second son, Josh, 29, is a film editor.) “It was the worst thing that can happen to you in life, to lose a child. I was furious at the doctors, mad at fate. But eventually I learned to be grateful for the 13 years we had with a wonderful, happy child who gave us so much joy.”

Fay Mitchell grew up in the thrall of films in Elmira, N.Y., the only child of a clothing store manager and his wife, a retired vaudeville actress (“I remember seeing pictures of her in voluptuous outfits looking very Lillian Russellish”). Fay knew that she wanted to be “an actress or writer or both. But I knew that actresses go off to New York to look for the big break, so I opted to be a writer. That way I could stay home and be a dutiful daughter and still become famous.” She won a New York State spelling bee at 14, wrote for the local Star-Gazette and edited the yearbook and batted out radio scripts at Elmira College. Just before her senior year, her dad received a job offer in L.A. When Fay got off the train, she decided “I knew I had arrived in the promised land.”

After finishing USC, she relates, “I just waltzed into the business fresh and announced I was a writer.” RKO made her a $25-a-week script reader, and she found herself, at 20, “walking on sets still warm from the presence of Kate Hepburn, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. I was in total awe.” Success was not automatic. “In those days,” she recalls, “youth was a dirty word. It was almost a reverse of today’s situation, when everyone is looking for the new young talent.”

Meanwhile a friend introduced her to Michael Kanin (brother of Ruth Gordon’s writer husband, Garson). “The first words Michael ever said to me were, ‘Hello, will you marry me?’ I laughed. A year later we were married.” Their collaboration lasted two decades, through such movies as The Opposite Sex and plays like Rashomon. But the partnership became stressful. “We decided we would have to keep the working collaboration or the marriage,” Fay explains. “We decided on the marriage.”

It has kept nicely, along with her career. On her first try in 1948, Fay wrote a Broadway hit, Goodbye, My Fancy. Respected by her peers, she became president of the Writers Guild’s screen branch en route to her present job. Fay has formed a production company with producer Lillian Gallo, making them the only female team under exclusive contract to a network. They will provide ABC with Fun and Games—a film starring Valerie Harper as a woman subjected to sexual harassment on the job—that will air in May. Says Kanin, who often works until 2 a.m. and rarely sleeps past 6: “No one ever told me that I couldn’t become anything I wanted to be.”