John Bailey, Oscars President at a Time of Strife, Dies at 81

John Bailey, an accomplished cinematographer who was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2017 to 2019, a tumultuous period when Harvey Weinstein was excommunicated from the group and complaints mounted about the Academy Awards ceremony, died on Friday. He was 81.

His death was announced by the academy, which did not say where he died or specify the cause.

As a cinematographer, Mr. Bailey collaborated frequently with celebrated directors like Paul Schrader and worked on many well-known movies, including “Groundhog Day” (1993) and “The Big Chill” (1983).

Before he was chosen to head the academy, he had never held a prominent public role, and he was never nominated for an Oscar himself, though he helped others win the award. In an interview in 2020 with the publication American Cinematographer, Mr. Bailey said he generally tried to make his own work “invisible.”

After the academy announced in August 2017 that he would be its next president, The New York Times reported: “Hollywood scratched its head. Who?”

It took only two months for Mr. Bailey to find himself in the news. Shortly after The Times and The New Yorker published investigations revealing previously undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment against the producer Harvey Weinstein, the academy voted overwhelmingly to “immediately expel” him. It was only the second known instance of an expulsion from the academy.

(The first happened in 2004, when the character actor Carmine Caridi had his membership revoked after he broke rules about lending DVD screeners of contending films. Since then, the comedian and actor Bill Cosby, the director Roman Polanski and the cinematographer Adam Kimmel have also been expelled.)

In a letter Mr. Bailey sent to members of the academy days after the vote, he wrote that the organization could not become “an inquisitorial court.” But he also expressed passionate support for the decision.

“We are witnessing this venerable motion picture academy reinvent itself before our very eyes,” Mr. Bailey said to a luncheon of Oscar nominees several months later, according to Vanity Fair. “I may be a 75-year-old white male, but I’m every bit as gratified as the youngest of you here that the fossilized bedrock of many of Hollywood’s worst abuses are being jackhammered into oblivion.”

In the kind of head-spinning turn of events that became familiar during the height of the #MeToo moment, Mr. Bailey himself became the subject of a sexual harassment accusation only weeks later.

Variety reported that the academy had received three harassment complaints about Mr. Bailey. But the academy later announced that it had only one such accusation to look into, and within weeks it determined that there was no merit to the claim.

More turmoil for Mr. Bailey’s academy lay ahead. The 2018 Oscars telecast saw a drop-off in ratings that has never been fully reversed. The comedian Kevin Hart was hired to host the 2019 ceremony, then stepped down amid criticism of jokes he had made years earlier about not wanting his son to be gay, leaving that year’s event hostless.

Mr. Bailey made the case for two changes to the ceremony designed to maintain viewer interest in a new era: adding a “popular film” category, to include the kind of blockbuster movies that the Oscars otherwise overlook, and holding some award announcements during commercial breaks to shorten the broadcast. The academy encountered such severe blowback to those proposals that it scrapped both of them.

In 2019, when term limits compelled Mr. Bailey to step down from his position, The Times described his tenure as “chaotic,” but in hindsight, perhaps none of the scandals of Mr. Bailey’s era rose to the level of Will Smith giving Chris Rock an unscripted slap to the face midbroadcast. (Mr. Smith received a ban of 10 years from the Oscars.)

Getting embroiled in culture wars and power struggles was an unexpected career development for Mr. Bailey. He made it his modus operandi, he told American Cinematographer, to avoid “tawdry” films. Describing his youthful aspirations in a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Bailey said, referring to a long-dead French film critic, “I wanted to write — to be the American André Bazin.”

Mr. Bailey in 1983 with the director Lawrence Kasdan on the set of “The Big Chill.”Credit…Columbia Pictures, via Everett Collection

John Ira Bailey was born on Aug. 10, 1942, in Moberly, Mo. He grew up in Norwalk, a city in Los Angeles County, California. He told American Cinematographer that his father was a machinist who never went to high school.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in 1964, and several years later he earned a graduate degree in cinema from the University of Southern California. He entered that program to pursue film studies, a young cinephile hoping to become a critic, but found himself drawn instead to cinematography.

Early in his career, he had small jobs on several enduring films, like being the camera operator on Mr. Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” The beauty of Néstor Almendros’s cinematography in that movie remained an inspiration for Mr. Bailey.

When Mr. Schrader was preparing to shoot “American Gigolo” (1980), he planned to find a European cinematographer. But then, American Cinematographer reported, he was introduced to Mr. Bailey, found himself impressed by Mr. Bailey’s knowledge of foreign film and decided to hire him instead. The two men would go on to work together on five movies.

That same year, Mr. Bailey worked with Robert Redford on “Ordinary People,” Mr. Redford’s directorial debut, which won several Oscars, including for best director.

In later years Mr. Bailey repeatedly collaborated with the directors Michael Apted (on the 1996 movie “Extreme Measures” and other films) and Ken Kwapis (on films including “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” in 2005 and “He’s Just Not That Into You” in 2009). He also wrote a blog about film for American Cinematographer.

His accomplishments at the academy included expanding international membership, which he told The Times helped the South Korean film “Parasite” win the best-picture award in 2020.

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Carol Littleton, an Oscar-nominated film editor.

At the 2018 luncheon for Oscar nominees, Mr. Bailey had some useful advice for winners, The Times reported.

“Thank your mom,” he said, “not your personal trainer.”

Back to top button