Peter Bart: Academy Museum Hopes To Illuminate Hollywood’s Story – And Dramatize Its Founders’ Role

It was an imposing opening, and Hollywood loves openings that are grand in concept, star-studded and famously over budget. The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures finally is complete, and key industry players have paid homage and faithfully scrutinized its exhibits.

But they’ve also pondered the key question that has hovered over the museum from its inception: What story should it tell?

Up front, the museum’s auteurs let it be known they did not want to present a chronological history of the movie industry, with its fables and foibles. The museum would not be a re-creation of, say, Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

The upshot: The industry’s assessments seem to be playing out on two levels. Official Hollywood is grateful that diverse and creative voices such as Spike Lee and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki are awarded important billing. But unofficial Hollywood has questions: Where are the great entertainers like Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin? Or Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg? Or MGM?

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For that matter, where are “the founders” that Gabler wrote about?

Where are “the Jews”?

The smart and savvy president of the museum, Bill Kramer, is keenly aware of the nuances at play here but has resisted involvement in debate about them them. Having steered the institution through the troubled tides of wokeness, he and his staff quietly are designing an array of rotating exhibits and programs aimed at solving what many believe to be its selective amnesia. There will be more than 100 screenings and programs by January that, as Kramer notes, will include films from It’s a Wonderful Life to Black Panther. “The Hollywood blockbuster is an essential part of our history,” Kramer observes. “We are as much about education and moments of discovery as we are about showcasing all aspects of the entertainment industry.”

Planned are new rotating exhibits representing what the museum’s staff call the “classical era” – major studio films. It is understood (but not yet announced) that there will be important programs built around the careers of Thalberg and Lew Wasserman — in short, the seemingly neglected power players. Other programs might be built around disciplines like dance, featuring Astaire and Gene Kelly.

There also will be in-depth examinations of Mexican cinema and of Afghan filmmakers. Female composers’ contributions to film will be analyzed. USC’s film program will get a major representation with producer-editor Mary Sweeney and Jonas Kaplan, a neuroscientist, expanding on their inter-disciplinary work (he runs the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC).

Will all this calm the doubters? The museum’s heavy academic presence and diversity impressed some in the community but also baffled some younger visitors. Sam Wasson, who wrote The Big Goodbye, about the making of Chinatown, points skeptically to the content and stationing of the Citizen Kane display adjacent to Real Women Have Curves, with its looming shot of America Ferrera. And there’s concern about the woke lectures: The animation exhibits are more about racism than about the Disney universe, while the treatment of North by Northwest embraces lessons about oppression of Native Americans.

“Why were important Hollywood pioneers left on the cutting-room floor,” asks Sharon Rosen Leib, a former deputy attorney general of California and a descendant of Sol M. Wurtzel, one of the Fox pioneers.

“Is the museum more about guilt than history?” asks one former studio chief who prefers to remain anonymous.

The museum’s policy of posthumous cancellation is evident in the absence of many legendary personalities. Louis B. Mayer is cited only as a founder of the Academy, with a quick reference to allegations about his treatment of Judy Garland.

Mary Pickford once wrote about Hollywood, ”If you make mistakes, there is always another chance for you.” The co-founder of United Artists wasn’t afforded that chance at the museum.

The directing fraternity has a vivid if confusing presence at the museum. Lee’s career achievement of “creative control” is heralded, but not Alfred Hitchcock’s. Lee also “owns” a corner of the gift shop called Spike’s Joint, embracing a Jackie Robinson jersey and a Toni Morrison portrait.

Since the museum is the creation of the Motion Picture Academy, how do its members feel about their creation? Key leaders, famously garrulous, have observed the cone of silence — perhaps understandably in view of the uninvited noise that has periodically enveloped the Academy. “The museum is worthy of the movies themselves,” declared Dawn Hudson, its CEO, though that assertion itself might spark controversy given the Oscars’ well-advertised conflict between the art and commerce of cinema, reflected in record-low TV ratings.

As a long-term Academy member, I personally applaud Kramer’s deft navigation through the perilous pathways. On the other hand, I inevitably am a semi-prisoner of the industry’s past. When I initially came to California as a New York Times reporter, I relished my in-depth encounters with the likes of Jack Warner, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney as well as filmmakers and entertainers like Hitchcock, Stanley Donen, Mel Brooks and Astaire.

They were brilliant storytellers and vivid rascals. The museum formally recognizes their achievements but not their showmanship.

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