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In a Golden Era, Her Family Shined

A LACMA festival pays tribute to the influential Kanins, who wrote, produced or acted in 40 years of films.

September 02, 2001|SUSAN KING | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Fay Kanin has had a lifelong love affair with the movies. In fact, she and her parents moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles before her senior year in college so she could be closer to the dream factory. And it wasn't long before Hollywood fell in love with a charming, witty and unpretentious writer.

Kanin and her late husband, Michael Kanin, were responsible for writing such snappy comedies as "Teacher's Pet" (1958), one of the best films ever made about journalism. As a solo writer, Kanin penned the hit 1949 Broadway comedy "Goodbye, My Fancy" and numerous acclaimed TV movies such as "Hustling" (1975), "Friendly Fire" (1977) and "Heartsounds" (1984). She was only the second woman to be named president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Relaxing in the living room of her airy and light Santa Monica beach house, the sophisticated Kanin treats a visitor like an old friend. Her house is filled with exquisite bronze sculptures of the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx made by her husband, who died in 1993. Adorning the walls are Michael Kanin's equally accomplished paintings, including a study of the two of them walking along the beach.

As Kanin puts it, "I've had a charmed life."

Cari Beauchamp, a film writer and historian, says of her good friend Kanin: "There is not an ounce of pretension, but there is also no false modesty. She is very proud, thank you, of what she did. She refuses to be negative....We go to the academy and the parking attendants know her by name. I am in awe of her stamina.

Beginning Friday, the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art is paying tribute to the Kanins--Fay and Michael as well as Michael's younger brother, Garson, and his wife, Ruth Gordon. Garson Kanin died in 1999; Gordon died in 1985. For nearly 40 years, individually or as a team, these two couples wrote, directed, produced and/or acted in a vast array of films, including "Adam's Rib," "Woman of the Year" and "A Double Life." The two-week film festival, "The Kanins--A Remarkable Family," came out of left field, Kanin, 84, says. She hadn't a clue that LACMA's film department had scheduled the tribute until the department head, Ian Birnie, informed her earlier this year. "The academy did one about eight or nine years ago, both here and New York. That was lovely. I hope we get an audience."

Kanin helped pick the films for the festival, which also includes "Harold and Maude" and a screening of her TV movie about Vietnam, "Friendly Fire," at the Museum of Television & Radio. "We tried to pick the ones we thought had at least stars in them [audiences] would recognize and ones we thought they would maybe enjoying seeing."

Also in the festival is the 1954 drama "Rhapsody," which was written by Fay and Michael Kanin and directed by Charles Vidor. "'Rhapsody' rescued us from what they called the 'gray list,"' she says. Although being on this list wasn't as dire as being on the Hollywood blacklist, the Kanins couldn't find work in Hollywood for two years. "We went to Broadway and did a show," she says matter-of-factly. "We kept busy."

Although they were liberals with friends who had been Communist Party members, they didn't know why they had been shunned. A lawyer they hired discovered why. "He said, 'You won't believe this, but you are on this list because you, Fay, took acting lessons at the Actors Lab on Sunset, and the teachers were people from the Group Theatre."' Because several actors in the legendary theater group were blacklisted, Kanin was tainted. As she recalls, "There was no way to fight it."

Then Vidor came along and asked them to rewrite "Rhapsody" for him. The Kanins told him they couldn't because of the gray list.

"He said, 'Let me handle it,"' Kanin says. "I'll never get over this. He went to MGM and said to them, 'I want the Kanins on this movie. If you tell me I can't have them and you give me all of those phony excuses, I'm going to go to the press and bust this wide open.' We got 'Rhapsody."' Kanin went to USC for her senior year, and was editor of the yearbook and the literary magazine. "I always wrote, so I had a lot of stories," Kanin says. After her graduation in the late 1930s, she decided it was time to conquer Hollywood. "I had an uncle who was not in show business, but he knew a lot of people [in the business]. He got me interviews with story editors and I went around to show them my stories."

At MGM, she told story editor Sam Marx, who later became a great friend, that she thought she would be perfect to write the screenplay for "Gone With the Wind."

Kanin bursts out laughing. "I mean, think about it. I said to Sam years later, 'Sam, you kept such a straight face. You were terrific.' He said [at the meeting], 'My dear, I think they have in mind a more expensive writer.' I love the word--'expensive.' I told him I would take as much money as they wanted [to give me]."

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