‘Awards Chatter’ Podcast: Janet Yang (Film Academy President)
Ahead of Sunday’s Oscars, the first person of Asian descent to lead Hollywood’s most powerful organization reflects on connecting the American and Chinese film industries before shifting to producing films like ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ how racist jokes told at the Oscars in 2016 motivated her to become active in the Academy and how she feels about Chris Rock, Will Smith and accusations that Academy members are racist.
BY SCOTT FEINBERG, MARCH 11, 2023
The guest on this episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast, which is posting the day before the 95th Oscars takes place in Hollywood and airs on ABC, is Janet Yang, the first-term president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Yang, the Queens-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, is only the 36th person — and just the fourth female, second person of color and first person of Asian descent — to lead Hollywood’s most powerful organization, following in the footsteps of luminaries like Douglas Fairbanks, Frank Capra, Bette Davis, George Stevens, Gregory Peck, Robert Wise and Karl Malden.
Over the course of a conversation at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, where Yang has been staying this week in order to oversee preparations for the Oscars at the adjacent Dolby Theatre, the 66-year-old reflected on a life and career that has defied the odds at every turn.
Yang speaks about the evolution of her relationship with China, where her parents were born but to which she felt little connection prior to a trip that she took with her family at the age of 16 in 1972, shortly after President Richard Nixon traveled there.
She discusses how she came to be involved in the film industry, generally, and to become the premier figure connecting the American and Chinese film industries in the 1980s — she was, for example, a liaison on Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun — before transitioning into producing films such as 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt and 2020’s Over the Moon.
And she speaks candidly about how racist jokes about Asians that were told during the Oscars ceremony in 2016 inspired her to become more active in the Academy (of which she had been a member since 2002), ultimately leading to her appointment to the organization’s board of governors in 2019 and to her election to the board’s top officer position in 2022.
She also engages on a host of hot-button topics, from accusations that this year’s Oscar nominations reflect racism on the part of Academy members to HBO’s decision to air the season finale of The Last of Us directly opposite the Oscars, the Academy’s decision to decline an offer to feature Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on this year’s telecast to whether or not the Academy should furnish Will Smith with the engraved nameplate that he failed to pick up a year ago after winning the best actor Oscar and throwing Hollywood’s biggest night into chaos.
It’s Academy Awards weekend, so cram in viewings of a few more of the nominees, fill out your Oscar pool entry and tune in to this conversation with the woman at the top of the organization behind it all.