Meet the Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood
In 2012, after more than three decades producing hits such as E.T., Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List, Kathleen Kennedy was handpicked by George Lucas to head Lucasfilm. Now, with the smash success of The Force Awakens behind her, Kennedy sits down with Sarah Ellison to talk about her mentors, her sense of equality, and her vision for the Star Wars franchise.
Kathleen Kennedy’s husband, the producer Frank Marshall, told me a story. Kennedy had grown up on Lake Shasta, in Northern California, and she and her two sisters spent much of their childhood playing on the water. In 1985, when Kennedy and Marshall were co-producing the movie The Color Purple, shot in rural North Carolina, several of the grips working on the film found a lake nearby and decided to go water-skiing. “All the guys are showing off and falling and skiing and falling,” Marshall recalled. Finally, after the boat returned to the dock, somebody asked Kennedy if she’d like to take a turn. She said, “O.K., I’ll give it a try,” Marshall remembered. The crew members started the engine and invited her into the boat, to take her out. Kennedy said, “No, I’ll just start from the dock here.” The request threw the crew members for a loop, but they obliged. The boat started up again and pulled her onto the water. Her skis skimmed the surface of the lake as she took a flawless turn around it, throwing up spray on the curves. As the boat returned to the dock, Kennedy let go of the rope and the momentum carried her right onto the shore—she finished as gracefully as she had started. “She never even got wet,” Marshall said. “After that, the grips never got back in the water.”
After more than three decades making some of the most successful movies of our time, Kathleen Kennedy has become something of an icon. She is perhaps the most powerful woman in Hollywood, but she does not talk much about what it is like being a female executive in a male-dominated industry. That is not her style. Nor is she self-deprecating. She prefers just to have people watch what she does. She is exceedingly uneasy about promoting her own story—unusual for Hollywood, where people rarely take less credit than they deserve.
The list of movies Kennedy has produced is impressive in both box office and prestige. It starts in 1982, with Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Her partnership with Spielberg runs through most of the Indiana Jones series (which was the brainchild of George Lucas), Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and straight on to Lincoln, which was nominated for 12 Oscars and won 2. In collaboration with her husband or others, she has produced more than 60 movies, including Empire of the Sun, The Goonies, Alive, Young Sherlock Holmes, Cape Fear, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Bridges of Madison County. Together, her movies have earned more than 120 Oscar nominations. Now, with the release of The Force Awakens, which is already one of the most lucrative films in history, Kennedy has become the high priestess of the relaunched Star Wars enterprise. The new movie’s position as the first feminist Star Wars film—with Rey, the breakout female protagonist—only adds to the impression that Kennedy is, as the Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan put it, a “secret superhero in training.”
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