As a child, English assistant professor Donna Kornhaber would sneak downstairs late at night to watch the black and white movies shown on public television. Scared by horror techniques in “Nosferatu” and immediately struck by the directorial magic of Chaplin films, young Kornhaber never imagined that she would one day receive letters from the Academy itself.
This summer, Kornhaber was named a 2016 Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for her project “Women’s Work: The Female Screenwriter and the Development of Early American Film,” which will be the first book-length study of female screenwriters’ contributions in the silent film era. The Academy Film Scholars program was founded in 1999 and has since named 28 scholars. Kornhaber and her fellow awardee are the sixth and seventh women to be granted this recognition and will each receive a $25,000 grant to develop their projects.
“Having been a screenwriter, I feel a kinship to these women in my own way,” Kornhaber said. “Bringing [their] stories to the floor and diving deep into who they were and how their backgrounds helped create the basic characteristics of Hollywood is a tremendous honor.”
As an undergraduate student at New York University, Kornhaber learned the anatomy of film as well as the theory behind it. While completing her MFA in dramatic writing, Kornhaber said she realized she wanted to return to analyzing cinema. She attended Columbia University’s doctoral program where she discovered her niche in teaching and explored her interest in literature, theater and cinema.
“I really enjoyed the practical track of filmmaking, [but] I was kind of seduced by the energy of thinking about the cinema in a more academic way,” Kornhaber said. “I longed to be able to talk about film and not just put it together, but to think about what that means.”
Earlier this year, Kornhaber was also awarded the 2016 University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, the highest teaching honor at UT. English professor Douglas Bruster, one of the people who recommended her for the award, visited her class when she taught Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Even though he’d seen the film multiple times, he said he felt like he’d known nothing about it before her lecture.
“We are ecstatic about her Academy fellowship, but in some ways not surprised,” Bruster said. “It’s like the Pulitzer Prize for film study and for her to be recognized for this award at such a young age tells us the University of Texas has one of the leading film scholars in the world right here on the 40 Acres.”
Kornhaber will attend an award ceremony in January and once her research is completed, she will give a talk at the Academy. She will also conduct archival research into original copies of screenplays and films that remain from the silent film era.
English freshman Rebekah Whitehead, a student in Kornhaber’s literature, film and other arts course, said she thinks her professor’s Academy recognition is further proof of how knowledgeable she is.
“She’s taught us how to look deeper into films and books,” Whitehead said. “We’re not pressured to get everything right, but to develop our own interpretations.”
Kornhaber also believes the effects of women’s contribution to early film can be seen in present day productions.
“It’s always exciting to get a letter from the Academy with a little picture of the Oscar on the front of it,” Kornhaber said. “It really drives home the idea that this project is being supported by the people interested in the making of film and helping to shape the cinematic landscape today.”