At long last, after years of false starts, mysterious hiring and firing, abrupt changes of philosophy, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is here. Housed in a building once used by LACMA, with an addition designed by Renzo Piano, it is over-equipped to be the greatest film museum on earth—“a museum,” in the words of Academy C.E.O. Dawn Hudson, “worthy of the movies themselves.” And it is a failure.
To claim to be telling a viable history of film while failing to acknowledge the men and women who built the industry without which there would be no Motion Picture Academy (Louis B. Mayer, Fred Astaire, Barbara Stanwyck, Charlie Chaplin, Margaret Booth, Adolph Zukor, Frank Capra, Olivia de Havilland, Mabel Normand, Humphrey Bogart, Samuel Goldwyn, Ernst Lubitsch, to name only some of the visionary hundreds, many of them immigrants born of poverty); to pay no heed to the studio system itself (MGM, Paramount, Columbia, RKO, etc.), which produced, for several miraculous decades, the very movies the Academy has celebrated over the 94 years of its existence; to praise Citizen Kane for its “innovative approach to nonlinear narrative structure,” a statement both generic to the point of useless and which hardly accounts for the film’s monumental cultural prominence—it is worse than a failure. It is a fraud.
Equally fraudulent are the Academy’s attempts at “wokeness,” which is to say, the museum is a failure even on its own terms. Given the relentless emphasis on inclusion and diversity ideals across its five floors—the Citizen Kane display is adjacent to that of Real Women Have Curves, with its headshot of America Ferrera safely preserved under glass—it would seem its curators would make a convincing case, say, for the work of Spike Lee, who, the wall tells us, “exercises a high level of creative control over his projects” and “often employs techniques to break the fourth wall.”
An entire room (and a corner of the gift shop, dubbed “Spike’s Joint”) of the museum is devoted to Spike. Here we are treated to an assemblage of his inspirations, on loan from the director’s personal collection, which include giant representations of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, a portrait of Toni Morrison, and an outsize reproduction of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album. There is also a Jackie Robinson jersey, a tenor saxophone signed by Branford Marsalis, and a trumpet signed by Terence Blanchard.
Titans all, but taken en masse they don’t illuminate anything about a filmmaker who can be far more original than this greatest-hits sampling suggests. I could maybe see the rambunctious spirit of Ali in Do the Right Thing and the lusciousness of Coltrane in the black-and-white bedrooms of She’s Gotta Have It. But I’m guessing. I would like to know for sure. Does the Academy know?
Nor is the museum, whose imposing concrete lobby evokes the Fascist sterility of The Conformist, passable as an educational experience or even, incredibly—given that its board includes Tom Hanks and Laura Dern—as entertainment. The exhibition tribute to the work of Pedro Almodóvar, one of the world’s most exciting and enduring filmmakers, consists of a dark room of giant screens running clips of his movies, backed by a wall of posters. I, who remain spellbound by even Almodóvar’s weakest films, was again overcome by the hollow chill of fraudulence. This is not Almodóvar, long may he reign. It’s a Best Buy in Madrid.
In the display “Backdrop: An Invisible Art,” dominated by a wall-size backdrop from the climax of North by Northwest, we learn that Mount Rushmore, which serves no historical or political purpose in the movie, “has a controversial and painful history. It sits within the Paha Sapa, translated into English as the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho people. The Lakota call it Warnaka Ogna Ke Icante (The Heart of Everything That Is). The land was reserved for the Lakota Sioux under the 1896 Treaty of Fort Laramie, an agreement the US government violated in 1877 following the discovery of gold.” The next three paragraphs detail further crimes against the Lakota. Who is this museum for?
Nor is the museum, whose imposing concrete lobby evokes the Fascist sterility of The Conformist, passable as an educational experience or even, incredibly—given that its board includes Tom Hanks and Laura Dern—as entertainment.
It is, we know now, for the Academy.
Do you want to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers? They’re there. Jaws? Hanging over the escalator, like a piñata. Has the museum taught us anything about the movies, anything that we couldn’t have learned from Wikipedia or Planet Hollywood? Yes, actually. It’s taught us, inadvertently, about Hollywood.
Hollywood is a business. It always has been. In the late 20s, faced with charges that it was a place of scandal and sin, the industry countered with a self-governing production code to assure audiences of its wholesomeness. During the Red Scare, Hollywood initiated a blacklist for the same reason—to protect itself from public condemnation. In neither case did these initiatives, basically P.R. fronts, reflect the actual morality of the system or its leaders. The system has no morality, not then and not now.
Nor should it ever. No matter how worthy, when a moral position overcomes artistry, the result is propaganda, and, invariably, historical revisionism ensues. The sadness, for me, about this kind of revisionism is that it devalues artistry. To make its point, it has to. And as someone who loves the art form and its artists as much as I once loved the Academy, as someone who will surely return to the Academy Museum years or even months from now, after the exhibition changes, hoping to feel something of the love we all feel for the Hollywood century, that sadness is a great sadness indeed.
But the bright side—and a very bright side it is—is that right now, if you want to, you can skip the Academy Museum and watch North by Northwest at home. The movie stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. It was written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who invented through cinema a new way of seeing, one that aligns audiences with characters so intensely that we come as close as we ever do to seeing through another’s eyes—closer than you’re ever likely to come at the Academy Museum.
The irony is that the bottom-line business of Hollywood has so much to be proud of. A quarter-century before the civil-rights movement, actress Hattie McDaniel, a Black woman and the daughter of two former slaves, was living in West Adams. (“I’d rather play a maid than be a maid,” she sometimes said.) Twenty years before that, when women could not yet vote in this country, Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists—one of the greatest motion-picture companies the world has ever known—in Hollywood.
She was also a co-founding member of the Academy, and among the first to dream of the museum that now neglects her. But, as Pickford once wrote, “if you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.”
Sam Wasson is the author of several books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood