It’s been nearly century since a certain rich kid—initially dismissed as a dilettante adrift on a ferris-wheel of too many options—made a foray into movies and proved them wrong. Fast-forward to today, and we have an heiress in the house indeed, one causing myriad allusions to the great Howard Hughes, a man who basically invented the hyphenate-career model (business magnate-investor-aviator-filmmaker) and, in turn, became one of the 20th century’s most intriguing characters.
It’s all very 2014, as we hurtle towards the Academy Awards. In the same manner Hughes was identified in the ’20s and the ’30s as just another pampered spawn who wanted to hang with celebrities, twice-nominated producer Megan Ellison, daughter of software tycoon Larry, has aroused plenty of the same suspicions. However, in the same way Hughes went on to make a string of ambitious films, including Hell’s Angels—at that point the most expensive movie ever made—Ellison has made a name for herself with movies both critically blessed (last year she brought us Zero Dark Thirty as well as The Master) and zeitgeist-striking (this year her projects included Her and American Hustle). She runs the spectrum, too, from Spring Breakers, which she backed, to Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. But it’s Her and American Hustle, which both nabbed Best Picture Oscar nominations, that have put the mysterious Ellison in a unique club: she’s the first woman, and only fourth person, to have two productions in the Best Picture race in the same year. The last person to have this number of films nominated for Best Picture while under the age of 30? Well, that would be Mr. Hughes.
All this without having yet given a single press interview, something which, of course, has only made Ellison a source of even greater conjecture in movie-land and beyond: that Ellison received a lump sum of $2-billion from her father when she turned 25 in 2011; that she personally wrote a cheque for $45-million to fully finance Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama Bin Laden film; that she’s “not big on Hollywood etiquette.”
I met her while on the festival circuit, and she struck me as someone who would much rather just hang with close friends, Led Zepplin-loving, and more partial to army boots than Louboutins. This was precisely the case when I crossed paths with her at a sneak-peek screening of Her in Toronto last fall. She was sitting outside on the terrace at the Shangri-La, Toronto enjoying some laughs with Spike Jonze and Jessica Chastain (one of her BFFs) when a buzzing something came zipping in and landed on Ellison’s middle finger. Everyone suddenly rose to their feet. Oohs erupted. Ellison stood still.
A butterfly? No, even rarer. “A dragonfly,” Chastain told me, when I leaned in to observe. Jonze, ever the auteur, grabbed his iPhone to document the creature in Ellison’s hand before she released it.