The name Kathleen Kennedy should be a household one, and yet despite being third only to Steven Spielberg and Stan Lee in domestic box office receipts your average movie fan is not likely to have even heard of her.
In 2012, Kennedy became the president of Lucasfilm (at the recommendation of George Lucas himself) and the brand manager of the Star Wars franchise after it was acquired by The Walt Disney Company. The first film released under her authority was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which became a major domestic earner in North America. But Kennedy didn’t only recently rise out of obscurity to spearhead one of the most beloved franchises of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Over the past 36 years, Kennedy has had a hand in some of the most lucrative films in cinematic history, working on over 60 films with 120 Academy Award nominations, and over $11 billion worldwide, including three of the highest-grossing films in motion picture history.
So, why haven’t you heard of her?
One of Kennedy’s most challenging accomplishments was E.T.’s lifelike eyes in the film that bears his name. In 1982, when practical effects were still favoured over the use of CGI (looking at you, Lucas), it could still be a challenge to bring life to characters who weren’t living and breathing things. Kennedy solicited the help of a young woman working at the Jules Stein Institute, a centre for ophthalmology research in Los Angeles, to create the ocular prosthetics that would serve as the extraterrestrial eyes.
Though she is without a doubt the most prolific female filmmaker in Hollywood, Kennedy has spent her time largely in the shadows of the men who helped her career move forward. At 62, Kennedy is of an age when Hollywood generally stops taking notice of the women among their ranks, yet she defies this mindset by helming Lucasfilm.
Despite not being as well known as the likes of Spielberg or Lucas, Kennedy has spent decades working alongside these men in various producer roles. Her first film credit was that of associate to Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and she’s been on a roll ever since.
Her beginnings are the stuff of legends, a secretary turned studio boss. Why aren’t we making a movie about Kathleen Kennedy?
Unusual for Hollywood, Kennedy doesn’t really talk about her story, and enjoys being relatively unknown. She would rather people just watch her work and enjoy it. She doesn’t often talk about what it’s like to be a female executive in a male-dominated industry.
“She would rather people just watch her work and enjoy it.” -on Kathleen Kennedy’s lack of mainstream attention.
When named as president of Lucasfilm, some eyebrows were raised. Though she’d had experience working in Lucas’s world, she was more known for creating complex characters, such as Eric Bana’s Israeli assassin in Munich, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s take on Abraham Lincoln.
During development of scripts for The Force Awakens and Rogue One, along with future Star Wars films, Kennedy urged the writers to focus on the characters, to give the audience insight into who these people are.
This is something that has been a major improvement from my viewpoint in the latest two Star Wars films. The characters do not seem to come secondary to the story, which is something that was severely lacking in the prequels. The characters didn’t matter, only the story of Anakin Skywalker’s eventual move to the Dark Side. Without characters, there can’t really be a story, and this is something that Kennedy truly believes in. Lucasfilm has certainly benefitted from her presence in this regard.
We also have Kennedy to thank (at least in part) for the past two Star Wars films having female leads. Daisy Ridley’s Rey in The Force Awakens and Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso in Rogue One have held up a mirror for the female fan, to see ourselves reflected in heroic roles in a franchise that seemed to only do that for men.
Kennedy has spoken at length about supporting representation and inclusion in the Star Wars franchise, creating a world that better reflects the one that we see around us.
So, why haven’t you heard of her?
Before now, I think the answer is obvious. Hollywood is still very much a male dominated industry, and though Kathleen Kennedy’s contributions to some of the most iconic films of our generation, men involved in a project are more likely to receive accolades for their contributions, however meager, before any woman. Not to say that Spielberg, Lucas, or anyone else that Kennedy has worked with has been keen to steal the spotlight from her, if anything they’ve constantly tried to shift attention toward it.
I think Kennedy’s desire to remain behind the lens, to let her stories do the talking for her, has been one of the major factors in her not being a name on the tip of anyone’s tongue. Though Kennedy is revered in the industry, she’s not often talked about outside of it. It seems that she has prefered it that way.
But, you know her now.
Megan Cox is a freelance writer, habitual ruckus causer, and feminist tornado who currently lives on Canada’s west coast. You can find more of her writing and her emotional responses to hockey games on Twitter.