“Minstrel,” reads the label on the canister of pancake makeup. The provocative object sits in a glass case next to another tin marked “Chinese,” in the costume, hair and makeup section of the new Academy Museum. Curators placed the 80-year-old jars — used so white actors could play characters of color, often in glaringly stereotypical ways — in the gallery alongside film history pieces with far breezier legacies, like the comfy beige bathrobe Jeff Bridges wore in The Big Lebowski.
“Those histories are combined,” says Jacqueline Stewart, the Chicago film scholar and TCM host who is the museum’s chief artistic and programming officer. “We talk about what it means when [blackface and yellowface] is a prevalent industry practice, and we do that in dialogue with pointing out all of the tremendous technical innovations in hair and makeup and costumes.”
With the opening of the new Academy Museum on Sept. 30, the conversation about Hollywood history in all its complexity is officially on after nearly a century of efforts. The $484 million museum is arriving after decades of false starts in fundraising, years of construction and pandemic-related delays. The timing, the museum’s leaders hope, will benefit both the institution and the medium it celebrates and critiques.
“Opening our museum right now will remind people of the artistry and the power of moviemaking and why it means something to us,” says Bill Kramer, the Academy Museum’s director and president. “Perhaps that’s been slightly lost during the pandemic because people haven’t been going to movie theaters as much. Our galleries and programming and theaters will recapture that and remind people of the importance of this art form.”
As Kramer and Stewart speak in mid-September from a table at what will be the museum’s cafe, Fanny’s (named for Fanny Brice), the site’s two buildings are thrumming with activity. Restaurant staff are readying for the first meal service. A drone is zooming over the lobby taking footage for promotional videos. And workers’ ladders are ubiquitous around the galleries that feature exhibitions on filmmakers including Spike Lee, Hayao Miyazaki and Pedro Almodóvar.
In finding its identity, the Academy Museum has had to tread between entertainment and scholarship in a way most museums don’t — even the most beautiful Grecian urn at the Getty Villa has nothing on Dorothy’s ruby slippers when it comes to visitor awareness. Some exhibitions are designed to appeal squarely to the movie fan, like the Oscars Experience, where visitors are digitally transported into the Dolby Theatre to hear their names called, hold an Oscar and deliver a speech they can share on social media. The museum also displays such broadly appealing memorabilia as a fiberglass shark, known as Bruce, from Jaws and R2-D2 from Star Wars.
At the same time, there are deep cuts for serious students of cinema. One amusing artifact is a 1987 note Disney animator Frank Thomas mailed to future Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter in response to a letter Docter had sent him as a young fan heading off to art school. “The new management at Disney has made many strange decisions,” Thomas wrote. Ah, archival evidence showing that creatives complaining about Disney executives is a long and glorious tradition. In an area devoted to casting, there are the handwritten notes casting director Marion Dougherty wrote upon meeting a young Diane Keaton, whom she called “just a darling auburn-haired girl.” There are also immersive experiences, as in the Miyazaki exhibit, where visitors can not only see the Japanese animator’s original storyboards but also have the sensory experience of being inside his movies like My Neighbor Totoro, entering through a tree tunnel and laying on a patch of green carpet and looking up at a blue sky. In a space devoted to music, co-created with Joker composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, visitors can linger in a meditative dark room taking in orchestral sounds.
Part of what took the Academy Museum so long to open was finding this precise curatorial tone, a mixture of honoring cinema and interrogating it while navigating an Academy that now has more than 9,300 members and a commensurate number of opinions. “If you pick many, many different words to describe the Academy over many decades, ‘consensus’ doesn’t come up very often,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, who, with his wife, Marilyn, donated one of the first major gifts to the museum in 2013, $10 million, which went toward creating the gallery that currently houses the Miyazaki exhibit. “When you’re taking on something of this scale and magnitude, it takes a lot of consensus to get there.”
As early as the 1920s, Academy founders, including silent-film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, said the organization needed a museum. But the road to the 300,000-square-foot campus on the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue has been a long and bumpy one. In the 1950s, Walt Disney and Jack Warner spearheaded an effort to open a museum near the Hollywood Bowl, which foundered amid city politics and lawsuits over eminent domain. In 2007, the Academy hired French architect Christian de Portzamparc to design an 8-acre campus in Hollywood, but when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, the Academy ditched the plan and sold the land.
In 2012, the organization tried again, this time under new CEO Dawn Hudson and with a proposal for a museum adjacent to the LACMA campus that would be housed in the historic May Company building and designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The Academy’s original goal was to open in 2017, and from the start there were skeptics. In 2014, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne eviscerated Piano’s original design, calling the glass sphere to be added behind the May Company building, which would house the David Geffen Theater, a “giant albino Pac-Man.” (In a 2017 piece, Hawthorne wrote that Piano’s revised design now had “more weight and architectural presence.”)
The construction delays also seemed scripted by a Hollywood writers room — at one point, the discovery of Ice Age sloth fossils under the foundation slowed things down, and at another, builders faced the dilemma that movie screens are, in fact, square and that locating a theater inside an orb would require some nips and tucks. And as the museum lurched along, the culture around it was changing in dramatic ways that were central to the public’s understanding of film, from the #MeToo movement to a long-simmering racial reckoning.
“Every delay has led to a better product,” says Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who was elected chairman of the museum’s board of trustees in September 2020. “As frustrating as it was, it has opened up the opportunity to improve to what it ultimately turned out to be. Just as the industry has evolved, people’s view of this museum over 90 years has completely evolved. And I think for the better.”
Sarandos and his wife, Nicole Avant, have been key fundraisers, bringing donors together to back what is now the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby. Pre-pandemic, their fundraising events were elegant dinners at the couple’s Hancock Park home; by last October, they had convened an A-list Zoom, with Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand, Tyler Perry and about 40 others sharing stories about Poitier. Some were still working out their Zoom etiquette — at one point Dave Chappelle had to jump off the call to figure out how to change his explicit screen name for something more appropriate. Despite the hit the economy took from COVID, the crisis had an unexpected impact on giving, Avant says. “The fundraising for this really gave people, especially during a pandemic, real focus,” she says. “What COVID did was remind all of us it’s really not about any of us.”
In November 2020, the museum announced that it had reached its $388 million pre-opening fundraising goal, closing out a capital campaign that was headed by former Disney CEO Bob Iger. The largest gift, $50 million, came from Haim and Cheryl Saban, whose last name now appears on the restored gold-leaf facade of the building. When Iger first proposed the idea of Saban offering the gift over breakfast, the entertainment mogul thought he’d pass, choosing to direct his philanthropy to other causes, until he spoke with his wife. As he recalls, “She shouted at me, ‘Are you out of your mind? We made our living from this business. And much of what we did and what thousands and thousands of other people have done, needs to be immortalized. It’s your legacy.’ So she who must be obeyed said we must do it, and I called Bob Iger and said we are going to do it, and that was it.”
With so many high-profile Hollywood donors — who also include the Spielberg family, the Dolby family and Streisand, whose donation supported the construction of a bridge between the two buildings — you might think there would be pressure to depict their companies and films in a particular way. But Kramer insists there’s a church-state divide between fundraising and curatorial decisions. “We were very clear with all donors, including all of the studios, that your gift does not inform our content,” Kramer says. “And they got it. They’re aware that we’re telling very complicated histories as well as celebrating their work.” Asked what kind of input he had into the gallery that bears his name, Katzenberg says, “Zero.” In a sign of the studios’ apparently hands-off policy, the exhibit in the Warner Bros. gallery is actually items from archrival Disney, featuring a zoetrope from Pixar’s Toy Story.
If the Academy Museum’s path to opening were a script, the late-second-act, decisive turning-point moment might be the 2019 departure of the museum’s original director, Kerry Brougher, whose vision focused more on cinema’s early history, a topic some Academy board members had considered esoteric. Kramer, who was the managing director of development and external relations of the Academy Museum before taking a job at the Brooklyn Academy Museum, returned to L.A., this time in the top job. Kramer moved the exhibition designs away from a plan for a chronological tour of film history, toward a more thematic approach. “You’ll learn about history in this really dynamic and engaging way, but it doesn’t feel like you’re sort of marching through the decades,” he says. Kramer also made a hard push to include a broader array of Academy members in the process, adding advisers from each of the organization’s 17 branches. He expanded an inclusion advisory committee begun under Brougher with members like Whoopi Goldberg, Marlee Matlin and 22 others from underrepresented groups to ensure that exhibitions and programs are equitable and accessible. “We got a lot of notes,” Kramer says. “Look, they’re all filmmakers. And they know that not every note is shown onscreen. So it was really the process of engaging them and bringing them in. And we learned a lot and changed a lot.”
With a 110-year lease on the May Company building, the Academy is in this for the long haul, which will mean future fundraising efforts to help pay back its bonds and to fund endowments that will keep the institution up and running. Due to COVID-19, the museum will initially be opening at 50 percent capacity. And, with the museum days from opening, the notes from Academy members are still coming, although they’re more enthusiastic now. Tweeting in all caps and with five star emojis recently, Cher delivered a little dose of jazz hands on the museum’s behalf. “NEW ACADEMY MUSEUM,” she wrote. “IVE BEEN THERE ITS HEAVEN EVERYONE MUST GO WHEN & IF THEY CAN.”
Must-see highlights, floor by floor.
Martin Scorsese’s longtime film editor since 1980’s Raging Bull is paid tribute to with a large wall image of her at work in the section “Stories of Cinema.” Says Academy Museum assistant curator Ana Santiago, “We wanted to explore all aspects of moviemaking.”
The iconic sled is housed in the opening galleries dedicated to the 1941 film Citizen Kane in “a section on significant movies and moviemakers,” says Santiago. By also including Bruce Lee costumes and Oscar Micheaux film clips, “we wanted to show that there’s not one narrative encompassing the history of moviemaking.”
On the second floor, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film are the “jewel of our collection, they’re why we have this gallery dedicated to The Wizard of Oz — a cultural touchstone,” says Santiago. “It felt right that this would be the opening movie because it came out the same year that our building, the Saban Building [formerly the May Company department store], was created.” The second floor also houses a guitar owned by Prince and donated by Spike Lee, Evillene’s dress from The Wiz and a two-floor-tall backdrop of Mount Rushmore from 1959’s North by Northwest.
Danai Gurira’s Okoye costume from Black Panther stands on the third floor, along with a painting of the Batcave from 1992’s Batman Returns and an H.R. Giger model of the creature’s head used in the Alien franchise.
In a circular room inside the Saban Building’s gold mosaic-tiled cylinder, there are Oscars on loan from the likes of Sidney Poitier and Barry Jenkins — plus an empty case with Hattie McDaniel’s name on a plaque. Contrary to popular view, McDaniel’s lack of a statuette is due to its having gone missing (its own mystery to unravel) and not because she wasn’t given one, despite the acknowledged racism surrounding the actress’ 1939 best supporting actress win for Gone With the Wind: McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar but forced to sit at a segregated table at the ceremony in L.A.
A wing dedicated to the Parallel Mothers director occupies the third floor, along with the robe that Jeff Bridges wore in 1998’s The Big Lebowski and an animation gallery that features Jack Skellington heads from 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Costumes from E.T. and movies like Black Panther comprise the “Story of Cinema” exhibit to showcase the artistry of sci-fi, fantasy and horror films. “You see this elaborate world-building through costumes, visual effects and sound,” Santiago says.
The Star Wars robot, along with the C-3PO costume, is on display on the third floor, among exhibits of a Disney Animation desk and other elements and props that exemplify the craftsmanship that goes into genre movies.
THE SHAPE OF WATER
A costume for the amphibian man from 2018’s best picture winner The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, joins other sci-fi, fantasy and horror designs and creations on the third floor.
CINEMATOGRAPHE FROM BALZER COLLECTION
Antique equipment used to create images from as early as the 19th century make up this exhibit, donated by Richard Balzer, “a late collector who really had a passion for pre-cinema,” says Santiago. “We wanted to make sure that people know that cinema didn’t come from nowhere. There’s a history that existed before movies thanks to objects like magic lanterns and zoetropes.” The prize, says the curator, is “the Cinematographe, one of the first early motion picture cameras: a camera, projector and printer all in one, in this little ornate wooden box.” The device is dated from around the late 1890s.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO
Here, the curators crafted a walk-through experience as a journey for visitors. “As soon as you enter the exhibition, you enter through a tree tunnel that transports you into the cinematic world of Hayao Miyazaki,” says Santiago. Other immersive elements include a forest featuring a Mother Tree light installation, referencing one in the 1988 animated feature. — EVAN NICOLE BROWN
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.