Alexander Payne’s Speech at the Leadership 100 Conference
Almost exactly one year ago I was lucky enough to receive an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – my second, in fact — and in my acceptance speech I dedicated my win to the woman I’d invited as my date that night, my mother. I thanked her for supporting – indulging, in fact — my obsession with movies from an early age, and I told her publicly that I loved her, but I said it in Greek.
It was a calculated decision, one that I did it for three reasons. First, I aspired to some degree of elegance in my declaration. I didn’t want to sound like all those other people who every year blubber “I love you” to their spouses, parents, children, agents, and pets.
Second I wanted to tell her I loved her in the secret language of our people and of our relationship, repeating the very words she had whispered to me in the crib.
Third, I considered that during this extremely difficult era in Greece’s history, a crisis that has made our mother country the source of resentment and the butt of jokes in most references except to yogurt, it might be nice for a few syllables of the Greek language to be heard in an affirmative light and from a very public podium. I wasn’t grandiose enough to think that my gesture would change or influence anything, but I wanted to add, if I could, even one tiny drop of positive energy to an ocean of negative press and humiliation. By the way, in a press conference backstage, one reporter asked me what I’d said to my mother in Hawaiian.
Part of that thinking stemmed from my having been quite surprised and quite touched three months earlier when I’d presented “The Descendants” as the opening night selection at the Thessaloniki Film Festival.
The festival director had absolutely insisted that I bring the film and appear personally. “It’ll be a shot in the arm for the Greeks,” he told me. But I didn’t believe him. How can some Greek-American guy showing up with his little Hawaiian film make any difference at all? Who really cared? It’s just a movie. “We need every bit of positive energy we can get,” he said.
Sure enough, my appearance — and my heritage — and the fact that a dozen relatives of mine took the train up from Athens to see me — got coverage in all the major press, and all the interviews started with what did I think about the economic and political crisis? Me? I’m no economist. I’m no politician. I’m just a Greek from Omaha who makes movies. But I was struck and moved by the power of what we might consider small gestures.
For a few weeks after the Oscars, my mother, a very private person, became practically the most famous Greek mother since Medea and Jocasta. Journalists and relatives phoned her from Athens, friends sent her congratulatory notes, and even the high school she’d attended in Athens for a year reached out to find her – although, admittedly, it was the Development Office.
And in the year since, wherever I go where there are Greeks, the first thing I hear is about my Greek Oscar — and countless Greek mothers have complimented me. During this year I’ve received more invitations than ever to speak to Greek groups, usually ones that involve education for young people and my being a role model. A what? If only they knew. If fact I told my Mom that if I’d been able to predict the degree to which I’ve been embraced by Greeks for dedicating the Oscar to her in Greek, I never would have done it.
I guess the point of my saying all this has to do with what the name of your group – LEADERSHIP – makes me think about. And here I want to put an adjective before that noun – RELUCTANT. I say that not so much to be facetious but to suggest the degree to which I’ve been reminded yet again that one of the most powerful ways to lead is by example, even when you’re unaware that you’re doing so. We know how important it is for parents, teachers, older siblings and friends to serve as examples, but anyone even remotely in public life has, I feel, a duty to remember that, like it or not, you emit ripple effects to your community through actions, achievements and failure.
And what does leadership mean, anyway, than the ability to foment excellence in others by accessing their own power of observation and their own eagerness to excel? It’s by example that we teach others to access their own immense wells of ingenuity, creativity, compassion and character.
The small torrent unleashed in my life by my utterance of five syllables in Greek reminded me that these damn Greeks are watching me – they’re right there, everywhere in fact, always just behind the curtain. And they’re pointing at me for a glimmer of hope and pride, the very same way I point at Greek names in the credits of every movie I see.
A moment of family history: three of my four grandparents immigrated – one from Livadia, one from the island of Siros, and one, my father’s father, from Aigio. As a young man in Nebraska, and with few Greek women around, Nicolaos Papadopoulos married a young German woman – the daughter of immigrants — who converted to Orthodoxy and learned to cook Greek food – as we know some of the best Greek wives are not actually Greek.
It was he who at 20 with a new family and a new business, chose not Poulos or Pappas to disguise Papadopoulos but rather Payne, an Anglo-Saxon surname that I personally find harsh-sounding and unpoetic. But like many places around the country at that time, Nebraska could be harsh and unpoetic for immigrants. As you all know, one finds Greeks from Nebraska with names like Mitchell and Peterson. Week before last a friend texted me after reading the obituary of Patty Andrews. “Who knew the Andrews Sisters were Greek?” he asked. I texted back, “We did.”
Both grandfathers – the other was in Birmingham, Alabama — owned successful restaurants. My father went from Omaha to Dartmouth College, and my mother attended Birmingham Southern College, where she was valedictorian at a school whose sororities prohibited her from joining because of “Jewish or Southern European origin.”
During World War Two, both found themselves in Washington DC, where my father was an officer in the Navy and my mother was doing graduate work at American University. They met at a party given by prominent lawyer and socialite George Vournas, married three years later, and moved to Omaha, where my father eventually became partners with his father in our family restaurant. I am the youngest of three boys. My oldest brother is deceased, and my other brother is a physician in North Carolina.
Like all of you, I was encouraged from the start to receive the best possible education and at the fanciest possible university –by far the single most obvious and accessible ticket to success in the new country. Back in the 30s, when my father announced to his father that he wanted to attend Dartmouth, my grandfather, who had never gone to school, asked, “What’s Dartmouth?” My father said, “It’s like Harvard, but it’s Dartmouth,” and my grandfather said, “So why don’t you go to Harvard?”
And like many of you, I’m sure, I grew up in a household where we were encouraged – indeed, pressured — to pursue professions only in law, medicine, and business. So when I declared that I wanted a career in the arts – I wanted to be a film director — it was a hard sell. Years later, as I entered my mid-30s still waiting to direct my first feature film, my father offered again and again to send me to law school – “We didn’t put you through Stanford to wait tables,” he said — and each phone call with my mother ended with, “How much longer are you going to give it?” Nowadays, of course, it’s “My son, the director,” but for years it was challenging.
So whenever I accept an invitation to speak to young Greek people, I give them one piece of advice: For God’s sake, do not listen to your parents. They love you too much, but they equate financial security as early as possible with happiness in life. I tell them that the pioneering spirit did not stop with our immigrant parents and grandparents. They left their community behind in order to pursue a dream in the distance, and so must we all. We younger Greek Americans fulfill, not betray, our mission when we break with conformity and family pressure and try instead to listen to our own voices, and in planting our own personal flags on new mountains, we simultaneously plant the Greek flag.
Our parents and grandparents came to this country so that precisely by fulfilling our own personal destinies we bring honor to community. Back in Nebraska, for example, whenever I hear – and I hear it a lot – “Thank you for shooting in Nebraska. Thank you for all you do for our state,” I say, “Thanks for saying so, but my motivations are entirely selfish.”
I remember very distinctly the afternoon I left Jack Nicholson’s home after he’d just told he’d appear in my third feature film, About Schmidt. I was driving home overcome with gratitude to my grandparents, that they’d made the trip and worked that hard so that two generations later I could – like a miracle — become an American film director. It is precisely moments like those – moments of success in the new country – that bring us closer to our roots — not more assimilated, more forgetful.
If you have asked me to appear before you today as some sort of leader in the Greek-American community, it’s not because I’m leading anything other than my own life. It’s because I’ve observed excellent examples, and I strive very consciously not to influence others necessarily but to succeed in my own personal work, knowing that I too serve, even reluctantly, as an example. I was raised by good Greeks who showed me what is look like to be devoted to family and community and church and who taught me – as all of you are doing today as well — what it is to be a good Greek.