Friday, October 1, 2021

The New Academy Museum: Take One

I’m hardly a movie star, but earlier this week I felt like one, while attending an Opening Night reception to honor donors to L.A..’s new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. There was a red carpet with photographers galore, a plethora of open bars, and a dramatically lit open-air reception at the top of what local wags are calling the Death Star, the dome-like structure that houses one of the museum’s landmark theatres. This being L.A., the call for “cocktail attire” resulted in a weird mélange of fashion choices: mermaid gowns, muumuus, exposed cleavage, shorts, men in sequined jackets, women wearing combat boots with their cocktail dresses, funky interpretations of ethnic wear, and people straight out of some law office.

 But I’d rather talk about the museum’s contents than the guests’ style choices. Among the priceless attractions on display is Citizen Kane’s Rosebud (reportedly three identical sleds were created, with two burned up for the cameras and one surviving, unscathed). There’s also a primo pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Jeff Bridges’ bathrobe from The Big Lebowski,  the typewriter on which Psycho was written, and the barely-there spangled and feathered outfit worn by Cher at the 1986 Academy Awards. Speaking of Oscars, the museum has plenty of them, displayed in glass cases inscribed with the names of their recipients. The vitrine dedicated to Hattie McDaniel is conspicuously empty: though winning an Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, McDaniel (as a person of color) was given a plaque instead of a statuette. If museum visitors crave their own moment of Oscar glory, they can pay to be photographed hoisting the naked gold man while listening to the roar of appreciative crowds.

 But the museum is not just about Oscar night. Movie fans of all stripes can find something to intrigue them,  like artifacts from the early days of cinema and galleries devoted to such overseas favorites as Hayao Miyazaki and Pedro Almodóvar. (Exhibits will change over time.) Still, I suspect most visitors will be drawn to the third-floor galleries displaying iconic items from futuristic and fantasy films. That’s the Sound of Water aquaman suit right next to Edward Scissorhand’s blades and leathers, with R2-D2, C-3PO, and a spectral head from Alien not far off.

 Still, a motion picture museum needs to contain more than static objects. And I’ve realized the exhibits that tickle me most are those using film itself to make a point. There’s a wow of a 26-minute featurette cleverly combining footage of space-travel movies from Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) to Flash Gordon (beginning in 1936) to Interstellar. In an exhibit detailing how filmmakers enhance the sound recorded on-set, we see a sequence that features Indiana Jones escaping death in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It leads us from step to step, through the addition of Foley (a technician munching an apple to simulate the sound of breaking twigs), sophisticated recordings (the blast-off of a rocket makes a terrific stand-in for the rumble of an earthquake), dynamic music (you can’t beat a John Williams score), and “automatic dialogue replacement” to make sure those witty lines are clearly enunciated. I also loved a small area honoring veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker: clips from such films as Raging Bull and The Wolf of Wall Street are used to highlight classic editing techniques like the whip pan and the iris shot.

 Much more to come, but I’ll close here by mentioning a brilliant combination of the old and the new: a huge zoetrope illustrating the basic principle of film photography by way of Pixar’s Toy Story characters. OMG!


  1. Good overview, the NYTimes liked the place too. NOW, I had NO idea that the academy further insulted Hattie McDaniel by denying her a statue and instead of giving her a plaque for playing “Mammy;” ugly, disgusting and unforgivable. Me being Jewish makes me more irritatted by it more because so much o Hollywood, the movies, etc. were run by formerly East Coast Jewish guys. VERY disappointed. Awaiting more about the place. My best, Bob.

  2. Alas, like the rest of America, the Hollywood community (which itself had strong ethnic roots) didn't try very hard to be welcoming to members of other minority groups. I've forgotten if this comes up in Neal Gabler's essential book on Jews in Hollywood, but I suspect it does.

    1. An update: upon a second visit to the museum, I realized that EVERYONE in the supporting actor category got a plaque, not a statuette. So on that count, anyway, the Hollywood system can be absolved of overt racism. Sorry for my initial error.