On September 25, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures held its Opening Gala with a star-studded guest list that included Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Queen Latifah, Patty Jenkins, Tiffany Haddish, Kristen Stewart and Jurnee Smollet . It was a long time in the making, given that planning for the Renzo Piano-designed Mecca celebrating film history began in 2005 and was delayed by the rise of the Covid pandemic. Although eyebrows were raised that A-list revelers mingled without a mask inside the 33,000 square foot space on Wilshire Boulevard at a time when celebrities publicly berated those who ignored Covid precautions, a much bigger controversy was brewing. Donors and influential members of the Academy, many of whom had previously received private visits, were outraged that the Hollywood origin story – in which a group of mostly Jewish émigrés fled persecution in their home country to create what would become a multi-billion dollar American industry – was an absentee.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who was on hand for the gala, was immediately struck by the time lapse. “I would have hoped that any honest historical assessment of the film industry — its origins, its development, its growth — would include the role Jews played in building the industry from the ground up,” he says. “As I was walking, I literally turned to the person I was with and said, ‘Where are the Jews?’ The omission was glaring.
This sentiment carries over from Hollywood C-suites to college hallways. “It’s a bit like building a museum dedicated to Renaissance painting and ignoring the Italians,” says Thomas Doherty, Hollywood historian and professor at Brandeis University. “This generation of early tycoons – Carl Laemmle, Jack Warner, we all know their names – is a tremendous story of upward mobility, living the American dream. It is one of the great contributions of American Jews to American culture.
In lieu of tributes to these Old Hollywood pioneers, the dozen and more exhibits that would open to the public five days later included more contemporary dishes, such as Director Inspiration: Spike Lee and Editing: Pedro Almodóvar. And behind the scenes, an all-out revolt was brewing, sources said, with some patrons threatening to withdraw future support from the institution. Said a prominent Academy member who declined to be named: “You left the museum feeling like the film industry was created 10 years ago. They erased the past. And I find that appalling. »
Haim Saban, who donated $50 million to the museum with his wife Cheryl – the largest donation to the institution – was one of those who spoke. “Cheryl and I strongly believe that Jewish contributions to the film industry, from its founding to today, should be highlighted,” he said. rolling stone. “We have shared our views with the management of the Academy Museum and appreciate that they take our feedback seriously.”
Nearly four months after opening its doors, 290,000 people have bought tickets to the museum, far exceeding internal forecasts. But many of Hollywood’s older generation, who avoided the first Covid crush, have only recently begun to walk through the five-story building. And the feedback the Academy has received from that wider audience regarding the absence of many of Hollywood’s founding fathers continues to be less than glowing.
“I had interviews with four Academy members and two donors who wanted to better understand why they weren’t seeing an exhibit about Hollywood’s predominately Jewish founders, and we take that note very seriously,” the director says. and president of the museum. Bill Kramer. “Representation is so important to us, including our Jewish founders. If we don’t talk about it in enough detail or in a more obvious way, we want to hear it and we want to respond to it. We have heard these notes, and we understand. And we are really happy to be able to make a change and we will correct our trajectory.
In response, Kramer reveals to rolling stone that in a year, the museum will unveil a long-planned exhibit on the so-called founding fathers and the birth of the studio system, which will mark the collection’s first and only permanent exhibit. It was originally envisioned as a temporary installation, but the museum brass reversed course following the outcry.
Saban, for his part, was also encouraged by a six-week film series, launched on December 11, titled Vienna in Hollywood: Emigrants and Exiles in the Studio System, which features mostly Jewish filmmakers – from Erich von Stroheim to Max Steiner — who helped shape the classic era of the film industry. “We have no doubt that as the museum’s dynamic exhibits continue to rotate, Jewish contributions will continue to be represented among the many important stories about film history, art and artists,” adds Saban.
But some believe that the damage is already done.
“By not including the founding fathers, they were making a massive statement,” says Ryan Kavanaugh, Triller CEO and Academy Fellow. “As grandsons of Holocaust survivors, it’s just shocking that they erased contributions from a group facing severe anti-Semitism – they couldn’t get bank loans, they couldn’t own houses in Los Angeles, and yet they still created this industry it’s the foundation of the economy of Los Angeles and affects people all over the world Instead of “Look what they could do” c is simply erased. It goes against everything our industry claims to stand for.
Why the museum made such a polarizing move is a matter of debate and intrigue. Sources say a small contingent of influential members of the Academy pushed hard for non-white cinema to be highlighted and white contributions to be de-emphasized. A review of exhibits would seem to support this idea. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, for example, received a retrospective, while there was no similar treatment for genre godfather Walt Disney.
The relative obscurity of other stars, like Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, who received the museum’s first Vanguard Award, has left some patrons scratching their heads. The museum’s website notes that Gerima “mentored several generations of filmmakers such as cinematographers Malik Sayeed and Bradford Young as well as cinematographer and videographer Arthur Jafa”. But one client, noting that The Godfather is mentioned anywhere in the museum, says much more influential filmmakers seem to have been ignored: “I don’t think this man ever made a film that was distributed [widely]. It’s a kind of madness. I mean, Coppola is still alive. They couldn’t have it?
If identity was a priority in the programming, Jewish identity apparently was not. There are few mentions of Jewish pioneers, sunset boulevard director Billy Wilder being an exception. A small sign next to one of the six Oscars he won says he fled Nazi Germany because of his religion.
A source familiar with programming decisions says it was a battle no one was willing to fight, even if it meant a skewed look at film history: “A lot of people who could have fought harder for the representation of Jews was really low,” the source explains.
Although the current drama has mostly taken place under the radar, a few outlets have criticized the museum for neglecting the ancestors. Sharon Rosen Leib wrote in The attacker: ” At the Museum, [Jews] are ghosts. Their presence hovers over the corridors – there would literally be no museum, no industry, without them. Likewise, Sam Wasson criticism in Air Mail of the new tourist attraction was even more scathing, calling it “worse than a failure. It’s a fraud. ” A room by Peter Kiefer and Peter Savodnik in Bari Weiss’ Substack, Common Sense, also referenced the museum’s omissions of Jewish contributions in a larger report on modern culture clashes in Hollywood.
As more industry veterans visit the museum for the first time, resentment continues to simmer, with some expressing everything from confusion to utter disgust about the lineup. Many that rolling stone spoke to declined to be named given the third rail nature of the issue. “It’s a conspiracy of silence and it’s deeply moving,” says Greenblatt.
But others say the controversy is overblown. Sid Ganis, who was an early advocate for the museum and is an honorary trustee, began to hear rumblings of disappointment even before the gala and was “a bit taken aback”. In the end, he does not regret anything about the contents of the museum.
“We have a museum that covers over 100 years of this industry. And yes, we didn’t come to opening night with the origin story, but we came to opening night with what was relevant to the audience we were playing and needed to include,” he said. “I have friends who said to me, ‘Where are the Jews?’ It’s in the eyes of the beholder. They are here, and they will be there in a bigger and more visible way very soon. »
Ethan Millman contributed to this report.
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