VIP VAULT: Cheryl Boone Isaacs

We always have our eyes on the Academy Awards, whether it’s playing the contenders during the run-up to the big night or examining the cultural significance of the Best Picture prize in a film course. In 2015, we got an insider perspective on the workings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) when then-president Cheryl Boone Isaacs stopped by BMFI for a chat. In her conversation with BMFI Board Member John Hersker, Boone Isaacs discussed her work in Hollywood public relations, becoming the first African American woman to lead AMPAS, and the Academy’s efforts to increase diversity in the film industry, as well as reminisced about the cinema that’s been important in her life and career. After you revisit the evening, check out a few of the great movies that came up during the discussion!

The Thomas Crown Affair
1968 · d. Norman Jewison

Thanks to her brother who worked in the business, Boone Isaacs was able to get a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process while still in college, leading to a memorable encounter on the set of the stylish heist-thriller The Thomas Crown Affair. “My sister and I visited a set in Hollywood to see a movie being filmed. It was, ‘Stand in the back, shut up, be quiet little mice.’ So we’re watching, and they’re filming this woman playing chess. During the break, this man —you know which man —came over and introduced himself. I don’t know how I stood up. I was afraid to look at him. My sister had to tell him what my name was. He was so sweet. He explained the story, and he actually put his arm around me. I still didn’t speak. But the minute we walked outside, it was ‘Oh my god! Did you see that! That was Steve McQueen! Stevie and I are best friends!’”

See where The Thomas Crown Affair is streaming.

Forrest Gump
1994 · d. Robert Zemeckis

As president of AMPAS, Boone Issacs oversaw the Oscar ceremony. But prior to that, she was on the other side, orchestrating awards campaigns for films she represented as a publicist. While working for Paramount in 1994, Boone Isaacs represented a major awards contender with Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks as a simple man whose quest to reunite with his childhood sweetheart takes him through some of America’s most iconic historical moments. But there was a formidable challenger in the field—Quentin Tarantino’s smash-hit Pulp Fiction, which was favored by critics. “It was a big competition that year. It was definitely between the two of us,” Boone Isaacs said. “How can you help the men and women [who worked on the film] be recognized by their own peers outside the Academy? For me, that’s always been the focus of a campaign for an Oscar. That was the first year that the Screen Actors Guild was going to start giving out awards. So I said to my staff, ‘We’ve got to get them all guys. The ensemble, the best actor’…knowing that the Academy’s largest branch —by far —is the actors branch.” Indeed, Forrest Gump proved the big winner, earning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

See where Forrest Gump is streaming.

2014 · d. Ava DuVernay

Dramatizing the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, AL led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ava DuVernay’s Selma was nominated for Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards. But to the surprise of many, DuVernay did not receive a directing nomination, prompting much conversation about diversity (or lack thereof) at the Oscars. Reflecting on the incident, Boone Isaacs touched on the Academy’s efforts to support up and coming female and minority filmmakers. “The conversation has really broadened. We’re looking at different ways of educating people to opportunities and getting them on their road to be filmmakers. It’s at the top of the list,” she commented. “And don’t worry about Ava. Ava probably still will get to be the first African American female nominated, and probably pretty darn soon.”

See where Selma is streaming.

Funny Face
1957 · d. Stanley Donen

The Bodyguard
1992 · d. Mick Jackson

Boone Isaacs also rattled off a few personal favorites, including the fashion-forward musical comedy Funny Face (starring a dazzling Audrey Hepburn), and romantic thriller The Bodyguard. “To look like Whitney Houston, sing like Whitney Houston, get an Oscar like her, Kevin Costner will take a bullet for me,” Boone Isaacs gushed. “I saw that movie twice in a thirty-six hour period.”

See where Funny Face and The Bodyguard are streaming.