The Academy Museum Arrives

Hollywood finally opens the ultimate film shrine

Customers packed the gift shop on opening weekend at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. A week after its star-crammed premier gala, masked patrons were fondling Totoro plushies, Spike Lee mugs and arthouse cinema books, flush with reward chemicals from touring Los Angeles’s first-ever movie museum. Several stories above, Bruce, the 25-foot shark replica from Jaws, hangs motionless over everything.

Academy Museum
Photo: Rachel Llewellyn

The new museum boasts a huge dome theater with a bubble-top terrace and three floors of blockbuster movie memorabilia; the top level hosts a retrospective of Hiyao Miyazaki’s animated works in a rare collaboration with Studio Ghibli. The core displays tell “Stories of Cinema” through costumes, scripts, props and photos, tied together with wraparound video displays and immersive media installations.

Academy Museum
Some of the many items on display at the Academy Museum (photo by Rachel Llewellyn).

The massive collection features E.T. himself, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Cher’s 1986 Oscar gown. (The dazzling Bob Mackie number was delicious spotlight-stealing revenge after she was snubbed for her dramatic role in Mask.) Visitors can also eyeball the May Queen flower dress from Midsommar, Bruce Lee’s nunchucks, the Dude’s bathrobe, and puppets from The Dark Crystal.

Classic movie buffs will recognize the matching red gowns worn by Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the unforgettable costumes are more than just eye candy to Russell’s granddaughters, who spoke with me about the outfit’s significance. “It didn’t click how iconic she was until I was older,” says Mercy Clark. “She was just an amazing grandma who let us play dress-up in her closets! I remember wanting to wear [that dress] when I grew up. I still wear her purple bathrobe every morning.”

“Those red sequin costumes were absolutely stunning,” agrees Mundy Rimmer. “She loved fashion! She would dress my sister and I up in her clothes, put makeup on us, and put us in wigs. To experience the admiration and love her fans had for her was indescribable.”

Rotating installations highlight diverse moviemakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Patricia Cardoso and Spike Lee, while other displays expose the film industry’s racist, sexist underbelly and pay tribute to trailblazing actors and directors of color like Oscar Micheaux. In the Awards History room, stars’ Oscar statues line a golden alcove that leads to a larger room where clips of Academy Award speeches play end-to-end on opposite walls. Michael Moore hollers about the Iraq war in stereo over a chorus of boos. For an extra 15 bucks guests can hold a real award and deliver their own Oscar rant to a virtual audience, complete with a social media-ready video of the moment. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you!

The priciest dreampage1image1673664

Los Angeles first set its sights on a film museum in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 2012 that architect Renzo Piano was commissioned to build a space grand enough to show off the Academy’s treasures. Funding poured in as Tom Hanks, Bob Iger, Anna Kendrick and Annette Bening led fundraising efforts; golden-era stars like Rita Moreno and Sophia Loren sponsored a cement pillar for a million dollars each, Steven Spielberg got his own gallery for a 10 million dollar gift, and 50 million bought the building’s literal name for philanthropists Cheryl and Haim Saban.

Hanks rationalized the brainmelting budget at a recent press event: “There are other cities with film museums…but with all due respect this museum has got to be the Parthenon of such places.” Nine years and nearly half a billion dollars later, after development delays, financial hurdles, backstage turmoil and a global pandemic, the Academy Museum is finally showcasing the history, culture and science of film to crowds of eager cinephiles.

The transformed Art Deco structure is its own cinematic exhibit: an open glass wall on the north side frames the Hollywood hills and exposes the soaring stairwell, a transparent elevator shaft running up its spine like a film strip. The attached restaurant Fanny’s channels old Hollywood glamour, its plush retro touches a creative nod to the building’s original 1939 Streamline Moderne style. Each gallery lies behind a door swept open by a black-clad staff member, playing up the filmic qualities of a venue already set for drama: the spotlights, mirrors and dark curtains blur the line between theater stage, art gallery, film set and museum.

So was it worth the century-long wait for a film museum in the capital city of filmmaking?

Sure, there are a few loose threads: they’ve curtained shut the original department store display windows on the ground floor, presenting faded, empty display spaces to the street. Inside there are TV screens everywhere, and it’s hard not to feel like I’m blocking someone’s view no matter where I stand. And while the alcoves isolate each sensory experience to a degree, the sheer volume of commingling images can feel overwhelming after a while.

The museum has sprawled some gallery themes across different floors while cramming others into a one-room hodgepodge. The fourth-floor Toy Story zoetrope is fabulous, but crippling nausea drove me away within minutes. Pixar should sell this tech to the military.

But parking is a snap and museum staff are as friendly and efficient as a Chick-fil-A drive-thru. The interior staging is on point: visitors can tour literally millions of priceless artifacts and watch a parade of touchstone clips, then explore panels, workshops, and screenings. Strict Covid policy enforcement, check. Virginal restrooms, check. Jetsons cafe, check. Shadow puppet station, double check.

Down in the 10,000-square-foot lobby named in honor of Sir Sidney Poitier, people sit on red ottomans and gaze up at the exposed beams or down at their phones. We wander downstairs to a second, deserted Starbucks-like lounge area that leads to the Ted Mann theater, now vacant between viewings. The space is also dedicated to teaching students the art of filmmaking thanks to a 5 million dollar gift from Shirley Temple’s family. But today, on opening weekend, the chairs are unfilled, the room is empty, and the child star’s garishly repainted school desks sits alone in the open space. It might be my favorite exhibit.

Visit academymuseum.org for tickets and info.

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Rachel Llewellyn

Rachel Llewellyn is a saucy media mercenary who's worked at Curve Magazine and Girlfriends Magazine in San Francisco, and ghost-edited two noir novels. She's also translated academic material, written corporate website content, taught adult school, and produced morning television news. Rachel lives in Bakersfield, California, where she hikes with her dog and pushes paper in the government sector.

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