LOS ANGELES, CA, June 13, 2012 – The American Film Institute (AFI) today conferred Doctorate of Fine Arts degrees honoris causa upon American comedy icon Mel Brooks and celebrated surrealist David Lynch for “contribution of distinction to the art of the moving image” during AFI Conservatory 2012 commencement of 122 graduates at Hollywood’s landmark Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Both artists worked together on the Academy Award winning THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), with Lynch as director and screenwriter and Brooks as executive producer. Brooks and Lynch join previous AFI Honorary Degree recipients including Robert Altman, Maya Angelou, Clint Eastwood, Roger Ebert, James Earl Jones, Nora Ephron, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Kathleen Kennedy, John Lasseter, Spike Lee, Helen Mirren, Haskell Wexler and John Williams.
The AFI Conservatory – named the #1 film school in the world by The Hollywood Reporter – is renowned for its collaborative approach to hands-on filmmaking and its advanced training of the next generation of storytellers in six filmmaking disciplines: Cinematography, Directing, Editing, Producing, Production Design and Screenwriting. The AFI Conservatory is also respected for its diversity of emerging talent – this year’s class is comprised of 45 women and 77 men, with one-third of graduates coming from international countries. In addition to its two-year Master of Fine Arts program, AFI Conservatory also offers a highly selective workshop for emerging women directors through the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, a tuitionfree program comprised of classroom learning and hands-on production experience, and the opportunity to direct a narrative short film.
Mel Brooks, whose artistry ranges from writing, directing and producing to acting and composing, received his honorary degree from Carl Reiner (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW). The two comedy legends have been close friends since they first met on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS (1950) and worked together on the 1967 comedy-variety special THE SID CAESAR, IMAGENE COCA, CARL REINER, HOWARD MORRIS SPECIAL and the Grammy-honored ”The 2000 Year Old Man” 1960, 1961 and 1998 comedy albums. Reiner introduced Brooks by saying, “I consider him to be my best friend and he considers me to be his best friend.”
Brooks then took the stage and, pulling out a stethoscope from under his commencement robe, quipped, “When I was offered this degree, I thought I was going to be a doctor.” Brooks and Reiner then exchanged “The 2000 Year Old Man” jokes. Later, Brooks told graduates, “AFI has an emotional connection to me.
My dear wife, Anne Bancroft, started her career as a director-screenwriter at the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. Good things come out of AFI.” Describing himself as a writer he advised, “If you aren’t feeling it and laughing as you write comedy, then don’t write it – because they [the audience]won’t laugh either.”
David Lynch, the talented director, screenwriter, visual artist, composer/musical artist – and AFI Conservatory alumnus (AFI Class of 1970) – received his honorary degree from Laura Dern (JURASSIC PARK, RECOUNT). Dern was only in her late teens when Lynch cast her in her break though role in BLUE VELVET (1986). Lynch also directed Dern in WILD AT HEART (1990) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006). Dern introduced Lynch by saying, “It is truly my greatest honor to introduce David – my mentor, guru and best friend. I have heard about AFI from David for many years. AFI inspired his vision and gave him the opportunity to make ERASERHEAD. I am forever grateful to AFI for inspiring David, who then gave me my career.” Lynch called Dern his “favorite actress in the world” and added, “AFI put me on the map – Mel
Brooks put me on a beautiful mountain. Mel called me Jimmy Stewart from Mars, but he is the crazy one – he picked me to direct THE ELEPHANT MAN. It was my very good fortune that Mel had this insanity.” Lynch then took questions from the graduating class instead of providing a traditional commencement address. When asked how he found his voice, Lynch responded, “Learning by doing is critical in the action and reaction. Learn by doing and your voice will come out – and then stay true to that voice.” Lynch closed by saying to the graduates, “It’s a great big beautiful world and I’m so thrilled that Mel Brooks and Laura Dern and the AFI are part of it. May fate smile on you as well – you have a very interesting face.”
Brooks is known for his comedy films including BLAZING SADDLES (1974), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), SILENT MOVIE (1976), HIGH ANXIETY (1977), HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 (1981), TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1983), SPACEBALLS (1987), LIFE STINKS (1991), ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (1993) and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995). His films have been recognized by the American Film Institute as among the funniest American movies of all time, with three films in the top 15 of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list; BLAZING SADDLES ranked #6, THE PRODUCERS ranked #11 and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN ranked #13.
Lynch is known for his darker, dreamlike explorations of American life. His 1977 debut film, ERASERHEAD – which began as his thesis film while attending AFI Conservatory – premiered at Filmex, the precursor to the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest. Since then, the award-winning filmmaker has gained mainstream success and a reputation as an innovator with films including DUNE (1984), TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992), LOST HIGHWAY (1997), THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999), MULHOLLAND DR. (2001) as well as the
previously mentioned THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), BLUE VELVET (1986), WILD AT HEART (1990) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006). MULHOLLAND DR. was honored by the American Film Institute at AFI Awards 2001 as one of the most outstanding films of the year. BLUE VELVET has been honored by AFI as one of the greatest mysteries of all time and as one of America’s most heart-pounding movies in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills, and Frank Booth from BLUE VELVET was ranked among the greatest villains of all time on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains list.
AFI graduating class representative Vanara Taing spoke about the importance of films, acknowledging the American Film Institute’s tenet that movies matter by saying, “It’s not just a movie – it’s a time to transcend.” In her remarks, Taing referred to AFI as “graduate school on steroids – we make 110 films over two years together.”
For the first time, AFI Commencement was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which was declared a cultural landmark in 1968. The historic theater has been host to numerous premieres, from STAR WARS (1977) to INCEPTION (2010), and has also hosted three Academy Award ceremonies. Titans of the silver screen, from actors such as Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson and Elizabeth Taylor to directors including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, have their hand and foot prints memorialized in cement in its
courtyard. For the past three years, Grauman’s Chinese has been the exhibition home to AFI Fest – the American Film Institute’s annual celebration of excellence in global cinema – with Hollywood Boulevard lighting up over eight consecutive nights each November with red carpet premieres and screenings that have ranged from A SINGLE MAN (2009) to BLACK SWAN (2010) to J. EDGAR (2011