When Geena Davis got a message on a Saturday morning that the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences needed to speak to her urgently, she thought “I hope I’m not in trouble.”
It was quite the opposite. The call was to inform Davis that she had been selected to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at this year’s Governors Awards for starting the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. On Sunday, she’ll join the ranks of past honorees like Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Oprah Winfrey at the 11th installment of the awards. Honorary Oscars will also be given to David Lynch, Wes Studi and Lina Wertmüller.
Unlike her fellow honorees, however, Davis, 63, has actually won an Academy Award – for her supporting performance in “The Accidental Tourist.” Although it’s now 30 years ago, she remembers that day vividly. It was her first Oscars and she was pretty nervous. She’d gotten made up and put on her evening gown very early in the day. As she waited, she thought: I should have a snack.
“So, I got a plate of spaghetti. I covered myself up with towels and sat down and I put on the TV,” she said.
“The Oprah Show” was on and a few movie critics were talking about who would win that night. As luck would have it, they were just about to start talking about her category.
“I thought: Oh, this will be interesting,” Davis said. “One by one, they’re talking about the nominees and saying various nice things about everybody. And then they get to me last and as they go down the line, each reviewer says in one way or another, absolutely zero chance.”
One said she was too pretty for the role. Another said she was too ugly. And Davis just sat there, in her towel-covered gown, mouth open and a fork full of spaghetti in hand. As if she wasn’t nervous enough already.
“I thought, well, ok. I mean, I’m all dressed. I might as well still go. But it was incredibly sobering,” she said. “It took a little bit of a shine off of going at first.”
Mercifully, she didn’t have to wait that much longer. Her category was first up at the ceremony and she won out over Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack (“Working Girl”), Frances McDormand (“Mississippi Burning”) and Michelle Pfeiffer (“Dangerous Liaisons”).
The award Sunday, however, is not for acting, but for her work as an advocate for gender equality, which began informally after she realized the effect that “Thelma & Louise” had on people.
“It dramatically changed my life,” Davis said. “The reaction to it made me realize that we give women so few opportunities to feel empowered and inspired by the female characters. That’s when I decided that from then on, I was going to make choices with women in the audience in mind.”
It led her to “A League of Their Own,” which not only bolstered her own self-esteem in learning to play a sport but seemed to have an effect on young girls who would tell her that they played sports because of her.
The ultimate push, however, came when she started watching kids’ television and movies with her then-toddler daughter and realized “profound gender inequality” started there and, she theorized, was inadvertently teaching children to have unconscious bias. She started informal conversations with executives in the industry, pointing out what she had noticed.
“I would say, ‘Have you ever noticed how few female characters are in movies and TV made for kids?'” Davis said. “And every single person said, ‘Oh, no, that’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.'”
That’s when she realized she was going to need data to back up her observations, leading her to found the nonprofit organization in 2004. Her experience has been encouraging, too.
“They are uniformly horrified to find out that they are leaving out that many female characters. And the data really is the magic key because they immediately want to change. We’ve yet to leave any meeting where they haven’t said you’ve just changed our project,” Davis said. “The thing about my approach is that there’s absolutely no shaming and blaming. In fact, I talk to them all privately. I never bust any particular movie or program. It’s all very friendly and supportive.”
And it’s led to real change. In 2012, gender parity was achieved for lead characters in children’s television programming and has only been improving since. Now they’re even able to measure screen and speaking time. Movies and supporting characters still have a ways to go, however, but Disney, she said, is a rare exception.
“Media images are incredibly powerful, both in potentially negative ways, but also in a positive way,” Davis said.
One of their recent studies found that 63% of women who are currently in STEM occupations said they were inspired to go into that field because of Gillian Anderson’s “X-Files” character Dana Scully.
But while the advocacy work is a big passion for Davis, she still considers acting her primary job and what she’d like to be remembered for.
“I just want to do it more,” she said.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr