By Solvej Schou
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is hipper than you think.
Later this week, the nearly 80-year-old organization will announce it's inviting one of the youngest people ever into membership — 12-year-old blonde, blue-eyed and impossibly cute Dakota Fanning.
It's the latest sign the academy is trying to break a long-held perception that it's a stodgy film institution in need of fresh, edgy blood.
"Most people who aren't really aware of the academy think it's probably a bunch of elderly people," says AMPAS Director Bruce Davis. "They're not thinking Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal, they're thinking really old guys. That's a hard perception to overcome."
But the academy is certainly trying — and not just with its membership.
Consider Three 6 Mafia's 2006 Oscar win for rap song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," complete with an onstage performance of dancers gyrating as prostitutes and pimps.
Not to mention the last two Oscar hosts — hipsters Chris Rock and Jon Stewart.
Then there's the smattering of year-round academy events appealing to cooler, younger audiences — from a presentation by surrealist underground animators the Brothers Quay in their first speaking engagement in the U.S. to anniversary screenings of the campy commercial comedy "Airplane" and cult fantasy favorite "Labyrinth."
It could have been a scene straight out of a gritty downtown art house at the recent Brothers Quay talk at the academy's plush Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Fan boys dressed in gothic black watched in awe the pair's darkly lit stop-motion film "Street of Crocodiles" featuring blank-eyed dolls twisting and shuffling to a dramatic soundtrack. A mohawked academy staffer served drinks in the lobby.
And even honored guests Stephen and Timothy Quay — London-based identical twins who have been creating strange, beautiful films for 20 years — seemed just as startled to be at the academy as some audience members.
Unlike fellow idiosyncratic animator Tim Burton, the Brothers Quay have mostly stuck to making shorts versus commercial features. Their independent mind-set and non-narrative, Kafka-esque movies make them industry anomalies.
"Something like this is nice, but it's a bit of a surprise," Stephen Quay said, laughing. "We were convinced there would be about 19 people here."
Last month's Student Academy Awards also pointed to a burgeoning diversity of winners and creativity.
The annual event at the Goldwyn Theater, hosted this year by director Kevin Smith and comedic actress Nia Vardalos, featured honorees from as far away as Korea and South Africa and as close as Berkeley, Calif.
South African foreign student film award winner Tristan Holmes, whose movie "Elalini" delved into the incestuous back story between a father and daughter, spoke passionately about the academy changing with the times, and representing world audiences.
"World cinema is changing. The people watching films are changing. People in control of the money are changing. Now they're 12-to-18-year-olds. They're not getting older, they're getting younger," Holmes said.
"Institutions like this really want to consolidate what is art, and what is beautiful, and they have to balance expectations in order to do that, they have to change, and that's great," he said. "It shows adaptability, it shows film as being a functional tool in terms of representing society."
Moon Molson, whose gritty urban drama "Pop Foul" snagged a bronze award in the narrative film category, reflected on his own changed perception of the elite 6,000-member institution.
"I guess I held some stereotypes of the academy for not supporting challenging films," he said during his acceptance speech. "But they've broken that stereotype tonight."
Davis would probably agree.
"I've been here a quarter of a century, and we've been doing edgy programming that whole time," he said. "You can look back through the nominations through the years, and see that. Granted you might look through some of the nominations in the '50s with fingers over your eyes."
The executive director also said that while the academy won't resort to screening porn, or showing "camcorded 8-year-old birthday parties," it isn't as shocked by certain behavior as many would think.
"Kevin Smith came to one of our annual lectures, and he used an off-color word," Davis said, chuckling. "He stopped and he said, 'Oh my God, I've said (insert word) at the Academy. This is probably the first time this has already happened.' It wasn't, of course."
And though the academy's non-award events are difficult to execute — they're mostly restricted to Los Angeles or New York — Davis says the institution is committed to going "where the industry is going, where the art form is going."
"We'll never abandon our goal to acquaint people with the medium," he said. "We're not going to abandon the past, but we also have an obligation to the present and we're going to honor that."
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