Academy of Art University Honors Biographer of the Stars
[Alison Pierce] Academy of Art University’s 79 New Montgomery Theater was packed October 15th as the audience listened to a heartfelt discussion between “biographer of the stars” Donald Spoto, documentarian Jennifer Siebel Newsom and the Academy’s own Diane Baker, Executive Director of the Schools of Motion Pictures & Television and Acting.
The conversation, moderated by Academy Film History Instructor Jesse Ficks, touched on subjects ranging from feminism and Hollywood’s good old days to the meaning of life itself.
“I just remember seeing Strangers on a Train in 1951 when I was 10 years old, and I was shaken to the roots,” said Spoto, who has written 27 books, including biographies of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Hitchcock and many more Hollywood greats. “When I saw Vertigo, it put me to bed in a state of shock.”
When asked what he wished his legacy to be, Spoto’s answer had nothing to do with his most recent book, The Redgraves, or with his ties to Hollywood greats.
“What I want to be remembered by is what I try to be,” he said, “a good husband … a good friend. You muddle along each day, you do your best and the rest is up to God.”
Much of the conversation then focused on the “ugly place” in which we find today’s media. “It’s a race to the bottom,” said Jennifer Siebel Newsom. “The reality-show conundrum is horrid.”
Newsom directed the documentary Miss Representation, which explores how mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in leadership roles by circulating often-negative portrayals of women.
“We women have so much consumption power. Yet we buy into it,” she said. “Housewives XYZ, the Kardashians, the tabloids. We have to stop. It’s not contributing to the betterment of our society.”
Newsom admits that a lot of people, including women, doubted her when she started making Miss Representation. She explained it was a very challenging project, but people are now using her film to elevate conversations to make culture better. Miss Representation has been screened in over 70 countries and is often used in school curriculums abroad.
“I’m about cultural change, consciousness change,” said Newsom, who feels she has found her calling as a director. She is now working on two new films: The Mask You Live In, which is about the cultural norms of masculinity, “dominance, power, aggression and control” and The Great American Lie, about consumerism.
“There is power in numbers,” said Newsom, who believes that if we tap into our power as consumers we can reverse some of the damage done by mainstream media. “I’m hopeful.”
On October 16th, again at New Montgomery Theater, Academy President Elisa Stephens presented Donald Spoto with an honorary doctorate for his lifetime accomplishments. Spoto remarked that he was “deeply impressed” with the university’s students, faculty and courses. The Academy, he said, “is an extraordinary school with an extraordinary group of students.”
Alison Pierce is the events reporter for the Academy of Art University newspaper.
All photos by Bob Toy.