Like the four friends approaching the Emerald City, we were bewildered by the sights and sounds engulfing us. We definitely weren’t in Kansas. We were barely at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles, just blocks from where I grew up. Instead we were somewhere over the rainbow, sailing the South Pacific with Moana, rumbling with Mad Max, dancing with Fred and Ginger, and playing ball on a field of dreams. It was exhilarating.
I was with my husband David, my niece Fredi and her husband Paul in our version of Oz, the brand new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which had opened in September 2021 in the old May Co. department store where I shopped as a child.
It took us a few minutes to acclimate to the dark movie-theater lighting as we wandered among the 12 life-size, high-def screens playing clips from 700 movies. Snippets from the Lumière Brothers’ 1890s French film experiments shared the screens with Rocket Man, Roger Rabbit, Goldfinger, Malcolm X and the ladies of the Joy Luck Club. We watched the wind catch Marilyn’s dress and heard Bugs chomp, “What’s up Doc?”
We could barely keep up as we name-checked the films we recognized and guessed at the rest. The sounds and images unlocked memory after memory, collective and personal. We all shivered when we heard the theme from Jaws and recalled where we first saw Star Wars.
Engaging as it is, the first floor introduction to the Stories of Cinema exhibit in the Spielberg Family Gallery is just the appetizing coming attraction for the cinematic deep dive that follows.
Stories of Cinema
The second floor drew us into close encounters with significant movie makers and their films. Connecting them are smaller exhibits with illuminating insights about craft and culture to explore along the way. First stop: filmmaker Orson Welles and his iconic Citizen Kane.
Welles produced, directed, cowrote and starred in Citizen Kane at just 25. That audacity alone is worth remembering. What were you doing at 25?
The movie’s most enduring memory trace is a single word: Rosebud. The clips on the screens show all those men in suits asking about Rosebud. “Rosebud?”
But the genius of the museum is how it plays with our collective memory. Because you know the answer, you get that little smile of knowing recognition. Rosebud. Then we turned the corner, and there she was: Rosebud.
It’s hard to believe that seeing a sled, one that my parents might have bought, could bring such a thrill of excitement. The backstory we didn’t know: Three sleds were made for the scene when Rosebud is thrown into the furnace. Welles loved the second take, so the third sled was spared—and survived.
Real Women Make Movies: The next gallery brought us to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles where we met director Patricia Cardoso in a Spanish-language interview and actors Lupe Ontiveros and America Ferrera, the combative mother and daughter in Real Women Have Curves.
The family drama, which pits daughter Ana’s college aspirations against the traditional views of her madre fuerte, challenged all kinds of stereotypes, from the vibe of an immigrant neighborhood to female body positivity.
One of the surprises for me, a native Angeleno, was the map detailing the East LA location-scouting for the movie. It was great to see Los Angeles depicted as more than La La Land, as a real city with real neighborhoods filled with real people.
Pioneer of Black Cinema: By far the greatest revelation was our introduction to writer, producer and director Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), the most prominent African American filmmaker of the early 20th century.
Born of parents who had been enslaved, he created more than forty films, many of which looked unflinchingly at Black life in America during the Jim Crow era.
His 1920 film Within Our Gates is considered his answer to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a film so nakedly racist that it is credited with reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan. I was interested to see how the museum would account for The Birth of a Nation, a silent epic full of cinematic innovations that we take for granted today. The movie’s depiction of African Americans, however, is so disturbing that my UCLA film history professor refused to show us more than a few clips.
The Brothers Lee
Of course Bruce Lee (1940-1973) and Spike Lee weren’t brothers. They didn’t live in the same place or work in the same genre. But they’re brilliant, iconic filmmakers with a total commitment to their personal cinematic visions. Imagine the collaboration they might have had if life permitted them to team up. That’s a movie I’d enjoy seeing.
Bruce Lee woke up the world with his amazing physicality and cinematic savvy. To his international fans, he is a superhero who brought Kung Fu to the West. The Academy exhibit honors his legacy with an extravaganza of fast-paced fight clips from his greatest hits, plus posters in Chinese and English, an Enter the Dragon costume and the nunchaku Lee used on-screen. Super fans can find a line of Bruce Lee memorabilia in the gift shop.
Spike Lee, on the other hand, demands that we “Wake up!” I came late to Spike Lee’s films. I thought his early films were a bit edgy, and maybe they were. But now they speak across the decades, telling us what we need to hear about race relations in America, jostling us out of our complacency.
The exhibit, Director’s Inspiration: Spike Lee, is a carnival of Lee’s influences: music (his dad was a jazz musician); sports (he’s an avid Knicks fan); iconic actors (he has signed posters from Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman); and a signed poster from Barack Obama.
Bits of dialog and the smooth jazz of Terence Blanchard’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” from Lee’s 1990 film, played in the background.
Leaving the vibrant Spike Lee exhibit behind, we found ourselves in a small, dark space focusing on the craft of story. We saw original scripts, storyboards, and the manual typewriter Joseph Stefano used to write Psycho. In a real surprise and a true hidden insight, clips from the Canadian movie Reel Injun (2009) confront the ways Hollywood westerns, beginning with Stagecoach (1939), have misrepresented and vilified indigenous peoples.
On the Yellow Brick Road
Lifting our eyes from that close-up of reality, Fredi, Paul, David and I found ourselves skipping down the Yellow Brick Road with four childhood friends: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and, of course, Dorothy.
Right in front of us, big as life, were Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, covered in two thousand sequins, bows glowing. Inside it says, #7 Judy Garland. Four pairs survived production, and this pair sits in a museum vitrine with lighting that sets it off like the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.
We were tickled to see other reminders from our childhoods: the Tin Woodman’s oil can, the Cowardly Lion’s mane and Dorothy’s blue-and-white checked pinafore. Fredi recalled sitting on the floor in my living room—we had the color TV—cheering as Dorothy made the leap from black-and-white Kansas to technicolor Oz. Isn’t that what we all wanted? To click our heels three times and make magic happen?
One last panel caught our attention. It describes Louis B. Mayer’s treatment of Judy Garland. It’s just a hint of what went on in Hollywood in those days, but after #MeToo, we can fill in the rest of the story. It’s subtle, but it’s there, bringing truth forward in this world of fantasy.
There’s no place like home ~ Dorothy
After our deep immersion in the art of cinema, Fredi and Paul moved on, and David and I took an intermission on the Dolby Family Terrace, an expansive deck that spans the full width of the thousand-seat, 70mm David Geffen Theater below, designed by architect Renzo Piano. I got a lump in my throat as I surveyed everything I ever knew as a child, spread out like a Google map satellite-view under the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign.
My childhood home is just a few blocks west, hidden among the trees. That’s where my father, then the head of the Universal Studios’ trailer department, pulled out his trusty Royal to write coming attractions for movies like Destry Rides Again (1939), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Frenzy (1972), Jaws (1975) and Deer Hunter (1979), with lots of Doris Day and Rock Hudson rom-coms in between.
When he retired, he donated his professional papers to the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. Who knows, maybe someday the museum will mount an exhibit of classic coming attractions. That would have thrilled him.
While I was lost in family memories, I overheard someone point out his first apartment up in the hills from the time that Joni Mitchell was one of the ladies of the canyon. That’s when the fellow next to me pointed out his junior high to his sister. We started chatting about our respective schools, when he blurted out, “I donated the shark.”
“What shark?” I asked.
“Bruce from Jaws,” answered Nathan Adlen. “The shark was in my father’s Aadlen Brothers Auto Wrecking yard when we sold the property in 2016, so I donated it to the museum.”
The backstory of Bruce’s journey from Universal to the Academy Museum is that the studio offloaded unneeded props and cars to the Sun Valley junkyard, including the last 25-foot, half-ton fiberglass model of Bruce, which for several years the studio displayed for tourist photo opps.
Nathan told me that his dad had mounted the model high in a stand of palm trees to attract customers to his salvage business. That’s pretty much what the museum has done. After an intensive seven-month makeover by special effects and makeup artist Greg Nicotero, Bruce was brought in through the museum windows to scare visitors as if they were on the beach at Amity Island.
After meeting Nathan, we made sure to pay our respects to Bruce. Check out those 161 teeth and that tongue that looks like hamburger!
Creatures we love … or love to hate
Now on the third floor, we popped into the scintillating and sexy Pedro Almodóvar exhibit, paid a passing visit to the animation gallery and delighted in the lush world of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (on view until June 5, 2022), before we settled into the exhibit entitled Encounters. That’s where we, well, encountered some of our favorite characters from invented worlds—science fiction, fantasy, horror and galaxies far, far away.
We saw R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars, and it felt like ET, with his huge eyes, was looking right back at us. Kira the Gelfling from the Dark Crystal evokes courage and goodness, while the Xenomorph from Alien reminds us of chilling moments in dark theaters.
The Sounds of Cinema
Although we think of film as a visual medium, sound is integral to our movie-going experience. Scores get under our skin, cueing us to the mood the director wants us to feel, from romantic anticipation to suspense, sorrow, melancholy or dread. The museum uses sound brilliantly, drawing our attention from one gallery to another without overwhelming us.
Two immersive exhibits demonstrate the power of sound. As David and I stepped into the almost pitch-dark space conceived by Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadottir, who won an Oscar for her score for Joker, we were surrounded by an otherworldly aural landscape that enabled us to “see” how sound sets the scene.
We also listened to Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt’s original site-specific space-odyssey score, accompanied by large-scale projections from some of our favorite cosmic voyages. In an information-rich museum, each of these audio environments was a respite.
What about that enormous boulder rolling toward Indiana Jones? Sound effects add critical nonvisual information to a soundtrack. That bring us to one of David’s favorite exhibits, Boulder Roll by Skywalker Sound, which demonstrates how the layering of sounds in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark created a rich sonic environment with dialog, music and sound effects. It reminded us that it takes a village to make a movie. Every job matters, and that’s why everyone gets a credit.
Clothes make the man, the woman … or the monster
It’s no surprise that one of the most popular exhibits is the wardrobe gallery with its rows of designer sketches and gems like the Elton John costume from Rocket Man, the witch’s dress from The Wiz, Claudette Colbert’s green fantasy from her 1930s-era Cleopatra, and the shimmering red gowns worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
It’s all about creating characters that resonate. To make a character—glamourous, otherworldly or true-to-life—that’s believable on screen takes research, imagination and the talents of costume designers, hair stylists and makeup artists.
And the Oscar goes to …
Although Oscar winners are noted throughout the galleries, three exhibits focus on the history of the Academy Awards from their beginnings in 1927.
A shimmering round room displays many categories of historic Oscar statues. The most poignant space, however, is the empty vitrine that pays tribute to Hattie McDaniel, the first Black person to win an award for her supporting performance as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. Her award, a plaque, which was customary for supporting roles at the time, has gone missing. But the biggest shock to modern visitors is learning that she was not allowed to be seated with the rest of the Gone With the Wind cast at the gala dinner.
The next gallery is all about the Oscars, with larger than life video displays of recent winners accepting their awards. A year-by-year timeline of notable events in Academy history fills the center of the room. It’s all there: photos, quotes, movie trivia and some seriously embarrassing moments. A real movie buff could spend an hour or more devouring all the details.
But the most fun of all was the Oscars Experience, a separate ticket for a simulated awards ceremony. Because of Covid rules, we had to wear our masks, but we did get to hold a real Oscar statue as we waved at our adoring and cheering crowd. It was a great way to write The End to our Academy Museum experience. Check out the souvenir video below.
Let the credits roll
Many thanks to Daniel Gomez and his PR team at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and to Warren Sherk and Matt Severson at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, who pulled together a wonderful collection of my father’s papers for the family and Hidden-inSite.
And as always, thanks to David for being a wonderful travel companion, editor and photographer.
Plan your visit
Museum Hours: Sunday – Thursday, 10 am-6 pm; Friday and Saturday, 10 am- 8 pm. Timed tickets, $25 for adults, $19 for seniors and $15 for college students, must be reserved in advance. Children under 17 are free. Reserve your tickets here. The Oscars Experience is $15 per person. Covid-safe protocols, requiring proof of vaccination, are still in place at the Academy Museum as of March 2022.
For a rousing Bollywood experience, check out Hidden-inSite’s Mumbai Movie Magic, another fun piece about a museum celebrating the international craft of cinema.