Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Academy Museum: Some Exhibits You Can’t Refuse

 So what’s new at the Academy Museum, that Wilshire Blvd. monument to the art and science of filmmaking? The museum has always promised to evolve over time. Now that it’s been open for more than a year, several exhibits have departed and been replaced by others. In the space formerly occupied by an in-depth look at The Wizard of Oz, there’s now an even more impressive focus on The Godfather. Writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, bless him, has apparently documented his every impulse regarding the first Godfather film in particular. For me, as a teacher of screenwriting, it was a thrill to see a notebook made up of the pages of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel, with Coppola’s scribblings marking his evolving plans for bringing Puzo’s text to the screen through dialogue and visual cues. 

 In the Godfather section, there are also film clips aplenty. Some of my favorites showcase the various actors auditioning for the roles of Michael, Kay, and Don Vito Corleone. I learned that Coppola had Al Pacino’s look in his head from the start, even though his studio backers tried to hint that a blond like Robert Redford could be perceived as northern Italian. I also learned the lengths to which Coppola had to go in assuring his bosses that the often difficult Marlon Brando would be worth hiring for the title role. And costume sketches show how the creative team tried to set Michael’s WASP-y lady love apart from those with Italian roots by way of costuming and hair color. The importance of ambient sound is highlighted by a long clip from a scene in a Bronx trattoria that starts out amiably and ends with a brutal double murder.

 A few steps from the large Godfather exhibit is the small gallery devoted to costume design. I was surprised and pleased to see that the costumes I had remembered being on display (like Marilyn Monroe’s glittery red gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the bizarre floral raiment from Midsommar) had been replaced by alternatives, like the black velvet young-boy suit worn by Mary Pickford as the star of Little Lord Fauntleroy. There are also new video interviews featuring costume designer Anne Roth, makeup department head Joel Harlow, and hair designer  Yolanda Toussieng. I liked Roth’s steely insistence that she doesn’t design to please celebrities. Even though a major star may hate the color yellow, Roth goes ahead with her artistic plans if it’s determined that yellow is the character’s favorite color. Meanwhile Harlow explains in detail how and why he created exotic head tattoos for Black Panther. And Toussieng reminisces about how, to suggest a sort of topiary look for Edward Scissorhands, she invented radical cuts (and wigs!) not only for human actors but also for the  pooches cast in the film.

 My main goal in visiting the museum was to see the massive new full-floor exhibit called “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971.” I learned a lot in the first few rooms about how Black cinema evolved out of Vaudeville, featuring such stars as Bert Williams. There’s info about the first Black actor to play Uncle Tom in an early version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (formerly the role had been taken by white actors in blackface.) And a stunning installation reminds us that in many local movie theatres, “colored” audiences were required to watch from the balcony. The heart of the exhibit is the period, much loved by my parents, when musically gifted Black performers were being featured. Who knew that there once were “soundies,” in which musicians like Fats Waller performed their latest hits in two-minute film clips?



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