BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When Bette Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1941, it’s believed she was met with such opposition by the predominantly male organization that she resigned after two months.
The motion-picture academy has seen only two other women in the top post since then: writer-producer Fay Kanin in 1979 and now film executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who has also become the organization’s first black president.
Seven months into her new position, Isaacs is still adjusting to the excitement of her appointment and the weight it has within the film community.
“It’s different being a minority in a majority space,” said Isaacs in her office at the Beverly Hills headquarters of the academy, long known as being predominantly white, male and over 50.
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A poster of Oscar Micheaux’s 1931 film “The Exile” hangs on the red accent wall across from her desk. The words “Mighty Modern All Talking Epic of Negro Life” are emblazoned across the top of the placard. “My parents’ favorite phrase was ‘Just get above it’ and I must say that I have to put that into practice here,” she said. “But it doesn’t stop your personal self-doubts.”
As the face now representing the 6,100-member academy, Isaacs knows there’s a lot riding on her decisions and responses. “I really try to get to the reality of a situation and have a conversation with myself and ask ‘Are you being reactive? Are you being defensive?’” said the 64-year-old, who became a member of the academy in 1988 after launching her career as a publicist at Columbia Pictures in 1977.
“There are things you can’t do,” she added. “You can’t get angry because then you are just an angry black woman. As women we do have that and then being a minority, there is this extra layer.”
As a teenager growing up in western Massachusetts in the 1960s, Isaacs looked up to her older brother Ashley, who worked as an advertising and publicity executive at United Artists in New York. “He was hip and would come home with 16mm films and screen them in the dining room,” she recalled. When Ashley moved to Los Angeles, Isaacs followed.
“I was living in San Francisco working as a stewardess for Pan American and I needed to get serious,” recalled the Whittier College graduate. “I knocked on doors and started at Columbia.”
In 1984, she became the director of publicity at Paramount Pictures and in 1997 she transitioned to New Line Cinema, becoming the studio’s first black president of theatrical marketing.
“The thing I like most is strategy,” said Isaacs, who ran the publicity campaigns for “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and “Rush Hour.” “At New Line, I was involved with filmmakers that were diverse and it really gave a nice perspective.”
Diversity is at the heart of how she’ll make her mark at the academy. “I am active in our member engagement and am seeking diverse talent domestically as well as internationally,” said Isaacs, who was recently inducted into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Hall of Fame. She also plans to boost the academy’s mentoring programs, the student Academy Awards and the scientific and technical council.
“Having Cheryl as president shows that the opportunities are widening,” says Cori Murray, Essence magazine’s entertainment director. Essence honored Isaacs with the trailblazer award at the annual Women in Hollywood Luncheon last week.
Lately, the film world has seen growing diversity within its ranks, from the 2013 appointment of the first black and openly gay president of the Directors Guild, to the many artists of color up for Oscars this season. “When we get a chance to participate, we do really well,” said Isaacs. “This year is going to show that.”
In January, the academy’s hard-nosed decision to rescind the nomination of “Alone Yet Not Alone” because the composer lobbied fellow voting members via email, set the tone for Isaac’s tenure. “It was a difficult situation, but needed,” she said. “We must stay vigilant and stand firm with our principles. That matters in voting and in life.”
Other key decisions by Isaacs have included steering plans for the $300 million movie museum the academy is scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2017 and hiring Ellen DeGeneres as the host of the Academy Awards this year.
After critics berated Seth MacFarlane, the host of the 85th Oscars, it seemed like DeGeneres was the safe choice. “She is really great at staying on her toes,” noted Isaacs. “But I love all of the conversation about the awards, even when it’s critical.”
Stepping on stage on Hollywood’s most celebrated evening will be “a little scary,” Isaacs admitted. She had practice speaking in front of millions when announcing the Oscar nominations alongside actor Chris Hemsworth last month. “I had Thor there, so I felt at home,” she joked. “But the Oscars, that’s going to be big!”