IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After 30 years with film academy, Davis retires

It was 1981: MTV was born, Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, "Ordinary People" won the Oscar for best picture and Bruce Davis joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was 1981: MTV was born, Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, "Ordinary People" won the Oscar for best picture and Bruce Davis joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Since then, the academy has built the Margaret Herrick Library, launched its burgeoning film archive, and bought a block of land that will one day become Hollywood's first serious movie museum.

Davis' 30 years with the organization also included 30 Academy Awards ceremonies — three of which almost didn't happen, an expanded best-picture category, 30 new best-picture winners, a handful of academy presidents and hundreds of new academy members.

But, for Davis, it all ends Thursday. The 68-year-old, who has served as the academy's executive director for the past two decades, is retiring.

"It's been stimulating, it's been fun ... but it's time to let somebody else do it for a while," Davis said from his office at AMPAS headquarters, which will soon be taken over by successor Dawn Hudson. "I feel like I've left it in good hands, but I'm leaving with no regrets."

During his tenure at the top of one of the movie industry's most elite organizations, Davis has worked closely with scores of filmmakers, from Michael Moore and Kathryn Bigelow to Annette Bening and Tom Hanks. He helped create academy programs, shepherd the awards shows and solve emergencies — like the year when all the Oscar trophies were stolen.

"We were going around the offices here kind of counting which ones were on display, because honestly we were sure we didn't have enough on hand to do it," Davis recalled, his lips curling into a smile. "That was the same year that the post office lost all the ballots, so we just kind of started giggling at some point, because what are you going to do?"

The academy now keeps a two year's supply of statuettes on hand, just in case, and efforts began last month to bypass the post office and move to online voting for the awards.

Then there were the years when the show almost didn't go on.

In 1981, the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan prompted a delay of the Oscar ceremony from Monday night, when it used to be held, to the following Tuesday night.

In 2003, the Gulf War started days before the Oscars were to be presented, "and there was a feeling that something as frivolous as the Academy Awards was maybe not appropriate," Davis said. He and the academy brass wrestled with the idea of canceling the show, but ended up airing a more subdued version that was interrupted twice with war updates from ABC News.

"It was quite dramatic, but it was actually a pretty good show," Davis said. "I think the general consensus afterward was it had been right for us to go ahead and hold the ceremonies."

In 2008, the Writers Guild strike threatened to shutter the show. The Golden Globes ceremony was canceled, but the strike was settled 12 days before the Academy Awards.

But Davis didn't just deal with the shows.

"He's the engine that keeps the academy machine moving along," said former academy President Sid Ganis.

Davis oversaw all academy employees and voting for the Academy Awards. Ganis called him "a physically imposing, powerful man, in his heart and soul a scholar and intellectual." He had strong views about how the academy should be run, Ganis said, and the board of governors often took his advice.

Though Davis met and worked with many celebrities during his 30 years on the job, he was reluctant to share any superstar anecdotes: "I treasure the interactions, but they're kind of private and personal and whatnot," he said.

But, when pressed, a gleam came into Davis' eye as he talked about working with director Sidney Lumet on a committee focused on foreign-language films.

"I was thinking, 'I'm sitting here with a ballot, and there's Sidney Lumet with his ballot, and we're talking about the movies,'" Davis said. "I just thought this is a rare, rare privilege."

Working for the academy was actually Davis' second career. First he was a professor at a small college in Pennsylvania, where he ran the theater department. He started dabbling in screenwriting, then came to Los Angeles to look for success. He was at a party when he had "this very flukey experience" of meeting someone whose wife worked for the academy. A month or so later, Davis was hired to arrange seminars and lectures for the academy, and in a decade, he ascended to the top spot.

"I don't think I've been bored for a minute in 30 years here," he said. "I feel like such a rube sometimes. To this day, when I get out of the car on Oscar night and step up there onto that carpet, you get that rush of energy. The lights are popping — not that anybody's aiming at me — but still I think it's one of the great rushes, emotionally speaking, that a person can have. I have never gotten tired of that."