Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Academy Museum Charter Member Preview, Part 1

Monday, September 27th, I took a long-awaited Charter Member Preview Tour of the new Academy Museum.

I never dreamed when I became a museum member two and a half years ago that it would take so long for the museum to open, but a combination of construction delays and COVID pushed back the opening significantly. The museum will formally open its doors to the public on September 30, 2021.

The museum, which will be open 365 days a year, is located on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, in the former May Company Building. The building was originally constructed in 1938-39 and first opened in 1939.

There's a nice display of vintage photographs of the building inside the museum, including this great shot of Judy Garland outside the store.

I've spent considerable time thinking about the museum since my visit yesterday, trying to organize my thoughts. I had a very enjoyable morning, saw many interesting things, and look forward to returning in the future.

At the same time, I found the museum to be filled with contradictions, as well as quite unfocused.

In this post I'll present an overview and some of my thoughts, as well as a peek at the first exhibit I saw yesterday. In two subsequent posts I'll share photos of many of the interesting things on display.

The contradictions begin with the style of the museum building itself. The front of the museum has a lovely Art Deco design, but the back of the building is much more stark, including utilitarian-looking staircases and bridges.

The interiors are also quite plain. The concrete flooring and exposed ceilings and ductwork reminded me strongly of London's Tate Modern museum, which I visited in 2009. I wish the designers had gone with an Art Deco theme in keeping with the front of the building, but no one asked me!

I'll note here that we could not visit the Dolby Family Terrace and see its view of the Hollywood sign due to preparations underway for the grand opening. I'll check that out on a return visit.

Another contradiction was the choice to name the museum restaurant Fanny's, in honor of Fanny Brice. While Brice did appear in a small handful of films, her movie connections strike me as nebulous, at best. Out of all the potential film-related options, what an odd name choice for a movie museum.

The museum website says the restaurant was created with "support from philanthropist Wendy Stark." Stark is Brice's granddaughter, so it would seem that, as is often the case, money talks when it comes to naming things.

The museum store is described in the member magazine I recently received as carrying "the most comprehensive collection of cinema books and catalogues in Los Angeles."

I thus had high anticipation to visit the store, only to find the description was...not accurate. Has the writer of that puffery ever been to Larry Edmunds Bookshop or even the shop at the Hollywood Heritage Museum? Goals. Perhaps it will be better stocked in the future.

No one will be surprised in this day and age that there is a great deal of what is often termed "politically correct" commentary throughout the museum, to the point of even noting on the museum map which Indian tribe used to be settled in the area. For me it went past "thoughtful" to "excessive."

The desire to put everything in deep context led to a "kitchen sink" attitude which reminded me for all the world of the Barbara Stanwyck biography a few years ago which was massive in large part because of all the extraneous details included.

For instance, the feelings of Native Americans regarding Mount Rushmore may be an interesting issue in other contexts, but is the topic truly germane to a discussion of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) in a museum exhibit?

It was definitely clear that the museum was attempting to tell the story of Hollywood in a "different" way, including heavy attention focused on women and minorities. One can sympathize with a desire to shine a light on previously underrecognized talents while at the same time acknowledging that the museum is deliberately ignoring significant actual history simply because it doesn't fit the zeitgeist of the moment.

One will find exhibits on Spike Lee, Bruce Lee, or Pedro Almodovar, but there was a very obvious absence of discussion of the original titans of the industry; names like Warner, Mayer, Cohn, Laemmle, Zanuck, Goldwyn, and so on might be hiding in the corners here and there, but there was zero focus on their history.

For that matter, the studio system was referred to only tangentially; for example, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) exhibit offers a comprehensive look at the contributions of different studio departments to the final film.

Given this, I was also surprised by the lost opportunities to focus on women: What of the early female pioneers -- Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, Lois Weber? Or the numerous female artists, including Mary Blair, who worked for Walt Disney?

Future exhibits may, of course, cover some of this, but the absence on opening day seemed to make quite the statement. Some will agree with it; others will not.

I liked my husband's idea for how he would have organized the museum, built around the different jobs and departments at a studio, with constantly rotating exhibits on everything from producers to sound recording to sets and so on. That would certainly be more orderly than the current hodgepodge of disconnected displays. The exhibits which worked best were on animation, because there was a strong overarching theme.

Now, after the above critique one might think I didn't enjoy the museum, and I definitely did. How could a classic film fan not feel a thrill to walk in the room housing the giant Mount Rushmore backdrop from NORTH BY NORTHWEST?

The exhibit included other memorabilia, including a page of Eva Marie Saint's script...

...and storyboards for the Mount Rushmore chase scene.

The design of the room was top-drawer including a paint job calling to mind the film's memorable opening credits sequence. It makes a great photo backdrop for visitors!

It's also possible to view the mural from a higher level:

This was simply an outstanding presentation and a great way to begin our tour.

Coming in Part 2, a look at some famous costumes (Ruby Slippers!), "Rosebud," and more. Part 3 will focus on the large animation exhibit. In addition to the exhibit which is mainly focused on Warner Bros. and Disney animation, there is also a marvelous Hayao Miyazaki temporary exhibit which does not allow photography.


Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks Laura for your excellent overview of your first visit. I have read another review that echoed much of what you have said. Still, that North By Northwest exhibit sounds wonderful. I look forward to your further posts.

1:18 AM  
Anonymous Bert Greene said...

I always lamented that Hollywood/LA was so lackadaisical (to put it kindly) about historical preservation, and it also totally dumbfounded me how there wasn't a big museum devoted to its filmmaking heritage, catering to the ready-made tourist crowds. It would have been a magnet for me.

Of course, now it's finally happened, but I have a feeling this new museum would hold only minimal interest for me, if even that. I used to envision such a place as enticingly cluttered with early-era cameras, rare studio props, old posters and artwork, costumes, and well-delineated sections on the big studios and their pioneering founders. That's part of my problem. The earlier days hold a fascinating romance for me, in terms of the actual industry itself. But by the postmodern era, I find such an unrelenting banality to it all, separate from any merits regarding the films or creators. Adding dollops of PC-ness would undoubtedly make it even more indigestible. But anyway, I await more of your review, Laura!

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

Thank you for this review, Laura! From the photos you showed, I also wish the interior had been in the Art Deco style. More glamorous, more "Hollywood," or reflective of the best movie palace interiors. Looking forward to your future posts!

11:13 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Impressive. I look forward to your guidance through future tours.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for reading my overview of the Academy Museum and taking the time to comment.

Vienna, that's interesting you read another review with some of the same impressions. I sure had mixed feelings. The NORTH BY NORTHWEST exhibit is so good!

Bert, a lot of what interests you is in the museum -- just not all of it. I wonder if future exhibits will do a better job focusing on the founding of the industry and its early decades.

Jonathan, I agree, I would have really liked a design which was in keeping with the building's Art Deco exterior, which would also better reflect the glory days of movies. I have a feeling those behind the museum were trying to avoid that type of connection, which is odd, given that it's a museum.

Thank you, Caftan Woman!

Best wishes,

2:03 PM  

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