“One of the worst days of my life was when Karen Carpenter died,” says Bonnie Curtis as she leans over the table at her favorite L.A. sushi joint. Improbable as it may seem that the pop singer’s death could be the nadir of Curtis’ life, you can’t help but believe her. If Hollywood is the place where only phonies get ahead, Curtis, who projects an unfeigned sincerity, bucks the trend. Now working on her first film as a head producer, the 34-year-old Dallas native climbed her way up the ranks from copy girl in just twelve years. Along with Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, she is producing what will certainly be one of next summer’s most anticipated releases, A.I., a sci-fi project directed by Spielberg that Stanley Kubrick was working on when he died last year. Curtis’ personality—she is affable yet disarmingly direct—has played a large role in getting her to where she is today, as have her communication skills. In Hollywood this translates to her uncanny ability to “speak Spielberg.” Beyond that talent, though, Curtis’ rise is attributable to all-American values, proving that ingenuity, a good attitude, and hard work will get you everywhere. Even in Hollywood.
Of course, a little luck doesn’t hurt either. Curtis will be the first to say that she has lived a charmed life. After spending only a short time talking to her, you begin to see life through her eyes. You understand how tragic Carpenter’s death really was. You think, how could life not roll out the red carpet for someone who so buoyantly claims to have had “absolutely the happiest, most fun, and interesting upbringing ever”? When she was ten, she remembers being glued to the TV as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest picked up five Oscars and thinking, “I want to win one of those so bad I can hardly stand it.” As a student at Dallas Christian High School, where she was an outstanding athlete and a cheerleader, and at Abilene Christian University, where she majored in journalism, Curtis never made lower than an A. She credits her lifetime 4.0 grade point average not to an amazing intellect—though she admits that she’s “damn smart”—but to being, as her brother, Hal, calls her, “a walking File-O-Fax.” “I am probably the most anal and organized human being that you will ever meet,” she says.
It is precisely this organizational compulsion that makes her perfect for what she does. After graduating from college and taking the traditional jaunt around Europe with a backpack, Curtis headed to Hollywood, where she knew exactly one person. He helped her get a job at Disney as a production assistant (basically a gofer), and a little over a year later she got the call to meet The Man, who offered her a job. Curtis soon became essential to Spielberg. Hal, who was sharing an apartment with her at the time, recalls checking the answering machine to find messages the director would leave, offering Curtis his critique of a storyboard to relay to the illustrators. “What was amazing,” says her brother, “is that he would place enough trust in an assistant to convey his criticism to someone else. “Working in such close contact with the blockbuster-making team of Spielberg and Kennedy prepared Curtis to lunge for opportunity when it came. “I’d been Steven’s assistant for four years,” she recalls, “and on Schindler’s List I got a real taste of the meat of production. We were in Poland, and Kathy had left Amblin Entertainment [Spielberg’s production company]. There was a lot of extra work that had to be done with casting and creative issues. Many things that I did were a bit ahead of my development, and it spoiled me.” On the final day on the set, Spielberg walked up to her and said, “Bonnie, you blew me away.”
After that experience, she recalls, she thought she couldn’t go back to doing his calendar and answering the phones. Ever the supportive boss, Spielberg released Curtis from being his assistant and gave her larger producing responsibilities on his next three films, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. Now as a producer of A.I., she and Kennedy—her producing mentor and the person Curtis calls “the most anal and organized person I have ever met”—work in tandem, handling the hiring, budgeting, logistics, and every other detail that comes up during the making of the film. “My job is not subject specific; Steven’s the subject,” says Curtis. She acts as the filter for everything coming to and issuing from Spielberg, and she is encouraged to take the initiative on any idea she might have. For example, Curtis says, suppose she hears an offhand comment Spielberg makes about liking some crew member’s shirt. She may then suggest to him that it would be perfect for a character in the film. If he expresses any enthusiasm about it, she’ll have an artist work up some sketches. “He knows a good idea when he hears it and encourages our input,” says Curtis. “And he always gives you credit for your contribution.”
It looks as if her contribution will be large. “Bonnie is a force to be reckoned with,” says Kennedy. “In the decade to come she will prove to be one of the industry’s most successful producers.” Still, Curtis is just now enjoying the life she has wanted since age ten. “The film business is perfect for me,” she muses, savoring her last sip of sake. “I love to work hard; I love to interact with creative, wonderful people; I love to control things; and I love to take big vacations. And then I like to do it all over again.”