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Fay Kanin  Television Writer, Producer

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In the 1930s, after she graduated from college and before she had amassed any writing credits, Fay Kanin met with Sam Marx, an MGM executive, and offered to write a script for Gone With the Wind. Marx looked at Kanin and told her that MGM “ha[s] in mind a more expensive writer.” She replied that she would take as much money as they wanted to give her. Though she did not get the job, Gone With the Wind, with its strong female lead, was precisely the type of project Kanin would work on during her long and successful career as a writer for film, television, and theater. Since 1940, the year that she wrote her first script, Kanin has created a host of complex female characters. On television, her most famous works have explored the lives of a college professor, a farm woman turned anti-Vietnam activist, and a group of New York City prostitutes. In an effort to summarize her body of work, Kanin told the American Film Institute’s Dialogue on Film, “I am interested in growth. To me, that’s the most interesting thing, that people change, grow. I guess that’s been present, in some form or other, in almost every movie that I’ve done.”

 

“When I commit to a subject, I want to learn everything there is to know about it. I want to fill up the barrel till it’s overflowing,” Kanin told Dialogue on Film. This level of devotion does not seem surprising when one considers Kanin’s childhood. Growing up in Elmira, New York, Kanin loved movies so much that she spent every Saturday at the theater, regardless of what picture was playing. As a teenager, she journeyed into Manhattan by herself just to see a Broadway matinee. Kanin’s family shared her unusual level of commitment; the summer before her senior year of college, her family moved to Los Angeles so that Kanin could pursue a career in the motion picture industry. 

 

After moving to California, Kanin enrolled at USC. Upon graduating, she got a job reviewing scripts for RKO Studios. She took full advantage of her backstage access, using her lunch hour to meet directors, editors, and producers whom she found on the RKO sets. According to Kanin, this was the real source of her film education. It was during this period that Kanin met her husband, Michael. Fay was unwilling to let marriage get in the way of her career and she resisted Michael’s pursuit until, as she explained to award-winning author Cari Beauchamp, she realized that he “was that rare bird who would not only support my ambitions, but would enrich my life.” As it turned out, Michael shared Fay’s ambitions. The older brother of legendary writer/director/producer Garson Kanin, Michael was trying to pursue his own career, and he and Fay quickly formed a writing team. Just as Fay’s love of movies had led her family to California, so too did her passion shape her married life; she and Michael spent their honeymoon writing their first feature film, Sunday Punch

 

Reflecting on the early part of her career, Kanin told Beauchamp, “When I first started working in Hollywood, women were big stars . . . and they played complex, accomplished characters. And many of the writers were women. Then came the end of World War II; the men came home and took over to a larger degree than ever before. Female characters became either passive or sex objects, not much more than wallpaper around men’s lives.” Remarkably, this shift was not apparent in Kanin’s own work; to the contrary, it was during this period that she wrote some of her most memorable female characters, and her efforts were met with much critical success. Teacher’s Pet, the 1958 film that Kanin cowrote with her husband, for which the pair earned an Academy Award nomination, features Doris Day as Erica Stone, a professor from an elite university. Her first play, Goodbye, My Fancy, focuses on a congresswoman, Agatha Reed, who struggles when she realizes that her former love interest, who is also the president of her alma mater, is threatened by Reed’s liberal political beliefs. The play, which was so successful that it was made into a movie, has in more recent years, been recognized as “prematurely feminist.” 

 

During the forties, fifties, and sixties, Kanin wrote nine feature films and five Broadway plays and musicals. In the early seventies, she began to write regularly for television. She explained the move to Beauchamp: “[at the time] it seemed to me that movie subjects were changing—more about sharks and aliens, less about people. I like to write about relationships and people searching for answers to the complexities of their lives and television seemed more open to that.” Indeed, television was open to just about anything Fay Kanin wanted to do. Between 1972 and 1984 she wrote five films, produced one other, and was honored with three Emmy Awards, three additional Emmy nominations, three Writers Guild of America honors, and one Golden Globe nomination. 

 

Perhaps more impressive than Kanin’s accolades was the extent to which she immersed herself in the research process for each of these projects. For Hustling, her 1975 made-for-television movie about New York City prostitutes, Kanin spent months in a New York police precinct talking to women who had been booked on charges of prostitution. For Friendly Fire, Kanin’s 1979 docudrama about parents who became antiwar activists when their son died in Vietnam, she obtained a set of audiotapes on which the family spoke about their experiences and listened to them nonstop for five months. Not only did Kanin give her subjects an extensive amount of time, but she was willing to share herself with them. In preparation for Tell Me Where It Hurts, her 1972 movie about a group of housewives who gather to talk about their experiences, Kanin formed and participated in a real-life discussion group where she shared intimate details of her own life. Kanin’s efforts did not go unnoticed. The prostitutes were so happy with the way that Kanin portrayed them in Hustling that they sent her letters of praise; the antiwar activists told Kanin that her movie allowed them to “stop crying [over the loss of their son].” 

 

The same year that Kanin won an Emmy Award for her work on Friendly Fire, she received another honor: she was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though Kanin was only the second woman to fill the position, she proved a natural fit. In fact, the appointment ushered in a new era in Kanin’s career. After serving four terms as president of the Academy, Kanin moved on to fill other important positions, giving her time and efforts to committees and foundations dedicated to film writers and film preservation. She is a founding trustee of the Writers Guild Foundation, a trustee of the American Film Institute, a cochair of the American Film Institute Center for Film and Video Preservation, and a cochair of the National Film Preservation Board. As a result of these labors, Kanin has received almost as much recognition as her work. She has been honored by American Women for International Understanding, Women in Film, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the League of Women Voters. She is also a recipient of the Writer’s Guild of America’s Edmund H. North Award, and the Humanitas Prize Kieser Award. 

 

Throughout her terms of service, Kanin has helped draw attention to the role of women in entertainment industries. At times she has literally worn the role on her sleeve; when she decided to wear a red designer gown to her first Oscar appearance as president of the Academy, she thought, “Oh, boy, we are going to show them a woman is president.”

 

 


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