What Michael Eisner really said about Goldie Hawn, beauty, comedy and objectification of women

A lot has been clickbaited around the Internet about an hourlong conversation Michael Eisner conducted with Goldie Hawn last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where Eisner is on the board of trustees.

Everyone focused on a small part of what Eisner said while paying Hawn a compliment, when he claimed that the hardest artist to find in show business is/was a beautiful woman who’s also funny.

He did say that. And much more. Hawn, too.

Eisner, born into wealth in 1942 and raised on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, became a senior network TV executive by the early 1970s, then president of Paramount Pictures in 1976, and CEO of The Walt Disney Company from 1984 until 2005. One of the most powerful people in Hollywood and all of show business for four decades.

Their conversation last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival meant to talk about mindfulness — after all, Hawn is the 2015 Harman-Eisner Artist in Residence at the Aspen Institute.

Very well, then. Just more than a minute after they’re introduced, Eisner confesses: “I saw Goldie Hawn, she doesn’t even know this, but in 1964, she was a can-can dancer at the World’s Fair in the Texas Pavilion.” “I was there about 11 times and you were there.” He was 22. She was 19.

A few minutes later, Eisner mentions Hawn’s early beginnings this way: “But then you end up doing that hard part of getting established. You’re dancing in bars, you’re dancing in – I don’t mean topless bars, but bars!”
Hawn: “Some of them were topless, but I wasn’t!”
Eisner: “And you saw kind of the lower life of what a lot of artists have to go through in their evolution to become a real artist.”

A few minutes after that, Eisner says: “She’s smart as hell. Just to tell you this right away. And Woody Allen, in commenting on Goldie at the height of her silliness, Laugh-In, ‘sock it to me,’ said ‘Nobody can do that who’s not smart. You can’t pull off being a blonde giggly blonde and not be smart. Otherwise you’re just silly.”

A few minutes after that, Hawn mentions her parents seeing her on The Ed Sullivan Show and legitimizing her career choice. Eisner’s reply: “You did not run away from home. Which is a cliché story of actresses going to New York or going to Los Angeles. You actually would have preferred to stay home.”

A few minutes after that, Eisner describes working with Hawn in the late 1970s: “We were doing a movie at Paramount called Foul Play. And we were offered Goldie Hawn. This was a big deal at Paramount. She was at – probably nobody was, she was the biggest star in the world at this point – and I said to the agent (Stan), ‘I hear she’s heavy.’” Hawn giggled. “And he said, and I said, ‘Don’t say anything to her, but somebody told me she’s heavy. And he said, ‘Look. I’ll tell you what we’ll do.’ He thought that was really a bad question. He said, ‘We’ll have a meeting, and you can see for yourself, and then we don’t have to deal with that.’ So Goldie’s agent and Goldie show up at my office. She sits down and she said, ‘So you think I’m heavy!’ Maybe one of the worst moments of my career. And then you said, ‘Don’t you know what it’s like when a woman has a baby? C’mon!’ And I think I’d had a baby by then, so I knew.”

This is how not-heavy Goldie Hawn looked like while filming Foul Play with Chevy Chase.

“No, and the other time, as long as we’re reminiscing here – oh my God, this is, here – with Goldie, I made the biggest mistake of my career. So I read a script called Private Benjamin.” The audience claps. “This is not a happy story for me. It’s a happy story for her…So I read the script and there’s a great opening scene in which Albert Brooks is dying at the wedding, just a fantastic movie, and imagine Goldie Hawn, looking the way she does, and the way she did, in a uniform. I mean, how can you miss? But I read the script and I didn’t think there was a third act. Arrogant English major, thought there was no third act. I didn’t think, oh, Goldie Hawn in a uniform. You don’t need a third act. Who cares?”

On the objectification of women in general, Eisner mentions how Hawn made a “meteoric” rise from go-go dancing in cages, then asks: “Are men as disgusting in those places as they…”
Hawn: “Yeah.”
Eisner: “They are,” before adding, “And I, just for the record, never in 40 years, was I ever offered a bribe, a favor, a date or anything. So to me, I never saw any of that. But that exists in Hollywood, where you go for an interview and people have other ideas. Or is that just a fantasy?”
To which Hawn told a story about a producer attempting to discover her, only to lead her to the old (now long-deceased) cartoonist Al Capp, who she claimed exposed himself to her after making several passes. “So when you ask, I say yes.”
Eisner: “But you didn’t quit and go home.”
Hawn: “I think when you’re out there and an innocent, and you’re accosted, whether it’s in an elevator – whether it’s anywhere – you, it’s a challenge to look at men and trust them. But I do. I also forgive them.”
Eisner: “Not Al Capp.”
Hawn: “No. I think he was a sick guy.”

A half-hour into their conversation, Hawn described a Barbara Walters interview that flustered her right from the start by asking Hawn to describe people’s biggest misconception of her. This is when Eisner makes his theory known about how and why he thinks beautiful women never learn a sense of humor. Or at least one that he can find as an executive charged with doing that as part of his job.

“The fact of the matter is, from my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far. Usually – boy, am I going to get in trouble, and I know this goes online, and I’ve gotten in trouble for it when it goes online – but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny! And it’s very difficult – character women are funny, and I think that’s true with men, too. Character men are funny. But to find a woman who knows where the joke is, who is also unbelievably beautiful – and I’ve decided, I’ve figured it out.”

Hawn’s reply: “What?”
Eisner: “Because those women from the time they are 1 year old, are told they are the most beautiful person in the room. Five years old, they’re told that.”
Hawn: “I totally agree. In other words, you’re saying…Kurt (Russell) says to me, ‘It’s so great because you were an ugly duckling.’”
Eisner: “Well, you’re not, but OK.”
They agree that Hawn didn’t perceive herself as beautiful when she was young, and that’s why she didn’t buy into any hype.

Eisner: “But I know women and actresses who have been told they’re beautiful. They win Miss Arkansas. And they don’t ever have to get attention other than their looks. So they don’t tell a joke! So in the history of the motion picture business, the number of beautiful – really beautiful women – a Lucille Ball, who was a beautiful woman, that are funny, is impossible to find.”
Hawn: “It’s rare.”
Eisner: “Which is why…”
Hawn: “Carole Lombard was funny.”
Eisner: “Exactly. And that’s hard to find! Which is why you have so many gigantic movies, and one of which I screwed up by not doing, anyway.”

He then moves on to discussing Hawn’s philanthropic work, thoughts on mindfulness and a few questions from audience members.

Ann Friedman, writing an op-ed Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, boiled it down to the heart of the matter: “In essence, Eisner wasn’t saying beautiful, funny women don’t exist. He was admitting that he, along with many of his peers in Hollywood, have a problem finding funny women sufficiently beautiful and beautiful women sufficiently funny. Seen in this light, his comment was less a sweeping statement on the status of women in comedy than it was a cry for help. He should be dealing with this on a couch in his therapist’s office, not on a stage in Aspen with Goldie Hawn.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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