How I Fell for the Oscars' New Academy Museum

A skeptic spends the day exploring the new Saban building exhibits — and makes an emotional connection while staring into ET’s eyes

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To be honest, I fully expected to hate the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, just on principle. After all, $500 million is an obscene amount of money to blow on movie memorabilia, some of which has already been accessible to the public for ages. If I was really all that keen on gazing upon one of the five surviving pairs of ruby slippers Dorothy wore in “The Wizard of Oz,” I could have bought a ticket to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which has been displaying its own pair since 1979 (although, to be fair, those shoes did go missing for about a decade, after a footwear-loving Michigan cat burglar made off with them in 2003).

More to the point, everything I’d heard about the Academy Museum in the wind-up to its September 30 opening made it sound as mind-numbingly dull as last April’s Academy Awards. After being stung by the Oscars So White campaign of 2015, and then “woken” by the BLM protests of 2020, word was that the museum’s curators had bent so far backwards to atone for Hollywood’s sins that they’d turned the Saban building into a shrine to white liberal guilt, focusing so much attention on marginalized communities’ contributions to cinema that they forgot to include the cinema. Kudos to the Academy for enthusiastically embracing inclusivity and diversity — finally — but nobody goes to a movie museum to have their consciousness raised. You go to see the animatronic shark that ate Robert Shaw in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

But then I finally dragged myself to the museum and guess what I saw? The animatronic shark that ate Robert Shaw — or at least the last surviving fiberglass model of the fish (Spielberg named him Bruce, after his lawyer) that now hangs, suspended by wires, 30 feet above the museum’s third floor. And that’s just for starters. There was also Rosebud, the sled that explained everything about Charles Foster Kane at the end of “Citizen Kane.” And the bathrobe that Jeff Bridges wore in “The Big Lewbowski.” And the prosthetic beak Danny DeVito put on his nose in “Batman Returns.” And — this was fun — the Academy Awards card announcing “Moonlight” as the 2017 Best Picture winner that somehow Warren Beatty read as “La La Land” in the biggest blunder in Oscar history (there’s also a brief note from Beatty congratulating the producers of “Moonlight,” although he doesn’t apologize for his screw-up).

I have to admit that seeing all these remnants of cinematic history up close and in person — there it was, the actual two-story painted backdrop of Mt. Rushmore from Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” so close I could touch it, or at least pose for a selfie in front of it! — was a far more powerful experience than I’d expected. So many of my childhood memories — and grown-up ones too — have revolved around film that viewing pieces of them in real life turned out to be surprisingly moving, like encountering fragments of a dream made solid and tangible. I must have spent 10 whole minutes staring into the big green eyes of the animatronic alien from Spielberg’s “ET: The Extraterrestrial.” And I could swear he stared back at me. I felt just like Elliott, only 40 years older.

Yes, it’s true, there’s a bushel of political correctness on display at the museum. An entire glass case is devoted to shaming Hollywood for the racist Max Factor pan-cake makeup used on actors in the films of 1930s, with shades problematically named “Light Egyptian,” “Indian” and “Chinese.”

And some of the museum’s choices are so obviously intended to signal virtue it climbs right up to the edge of pandering; next to its exhibit of “Citizen Kane,” No. 1 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time list for decades, there’s an exhibit dedicated to “Real Women Have Curves,” a pleasant-enough 2002 Latinx comedy that’s never made it even to the bottom of that list. But then, so what? It’s a big museum — 50,000 square feet — with plenty of room for movies both historically grand and considerably more petite.

In fact, if I had any complaints about the museum, it’s that there wasn’t enough of it. Granted, it’s only been open less than two months, and its collection will presumably grow and change as new exhibits are rotated in and old ones out. But right now it feels a bit threadbare and its selections kind of random. Sure, Spike Lee’s movie posters are totally fun, as are Bruce Lee’s nunchucks, but where’s Indiana Jones’ whip and fedora? Where’s Spartacus’ codpiece? Where’s James Bond’s Aston Martin? Actually, that’s right across the street at the Petersen Automotive Museum, but still — there’s a ton of film history missing from this film museum, at least for now.

I thought about mentioning some of these grievances during my acceptance speech at the Oscar Experience, a $15 add-on to the $25 admission fee that lets you hold a real live Academy Award statuette in front of a cheering holographic audience. But I was too busy forgetting to mention my agent that I never got a chance. Maybe next time. Because I’ll definitely be going back. For now, though, I’m just glad Warren Beatty wasn’t there.

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