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Reviews | What does Hollywood owe to its Jewish founders?

Reviews |  What does Hollywood owe to its Jewish founders?


The Jews who founded Hollywood and, make no mistake, the leaders of the major studios were overwhelmingly Jewish, shared several things: ambition, creative vision and a deadly business instinct.

But more than anything else, the men who were the driving forces behind Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal, Columbia, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shared a very typical 20th century sense of being Jewish in America. They were assimilationists who considered themselves American first and foremost and who shaped Hollywood to reflect and shape their American ideals.

Above all, they wanted to be seen as Americans, not Jews, Neal Gabler wrote in his definitive 1988 history, An Empire Apart: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM, went so far as to claim that his birth papers were lost during immigration and now declares his birthday as July 4.

It was then disturbing to note that when the Cinema Academy Museum Opening in 2021, it neglected to include Jews in its depiction of Hollywood's beginnings and later successes, despite obvious attention to other ethnic and racial groups. Beyond a few brief mentions, including Billy Wilder fleeing Nazi Germany, a photo of MGM mogul and academy founder Louis B. Mayer looming over Judy Garland, and some scoundrels in an exhibit on #MeToo, The Jews were absent. Jewish studio heads, business executives and actors were almost entirely excluded, an oversight that led to a lot of outcry.

It's a bit like building a museum dedicated to Renaissance painting and ignoring the Italians, Hollywood historian and Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty. told Rolling Stone at the time.

When I asked the museum's former director and president, Bill Kramer, now CEO of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, what he thought of this omission, he did not acknowledge the error but said museum officials took the criticism seriously. It was clear this was something some stakeholders expected, he said. In the minds of some visitors, this was an omission that needed to be corrected. Did he think the criticism was justified? That was how people felt. And those feelings were real and they are valid.

The museum made up for its neglect by creating what it calls its first permanent exhibit, Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Cinematic Capital, which opened Sunday.

The exhibition has three parts. The first offers a panoramic view of how the city of Los Angeles evolved to accommodate an influx of immigrants, including Jews, the development of the film industry, and the needs of its diverse population, from the Oglala Lakota people to the Chinese immigrants, reflected in the archives. images and an interactive table map. The second part traces the history of the city's studios and the third screens an original documentary, From the Shtetl to the Studio: The Jewish Story of Hollywood. The space is intimate yet expansive in its vision and is well executed.

So how were the Jews left behind in the first place? Some sources told Rolling Stone after the opening, those who could have exerted more pressure earlier chose to keep a low profile during the museum's development. Some of this reluctance surely emerged from the trend of the moment, with its emphasis on racial representation and what Kramer called prosocial causes, gay rights, women's equality, the labor movement that the museum details in a dedicated section and integrated throughout the process. .

It can also be attributed to an uneasy tension among Jews around their place in America, wanting to be integrated, included, and successful, while wary of possible exclusion or, alternatively, too much attention, prompting to a violent reaction and reviving the underlying anti-Semitism. The recent explosion of anti-Semitism we have seen on college campuses and during anti-Israel protests had a long time I simmered within the academic world and through cultural establishments.

Throughout the development of the Academy Museums, much of which occurred after the rise of campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite, officials made it clear that it would emphasize diversity and inclusion. The museum highlights non-white and other marginalized contributors to the industry to help address the industry's long record of exclusion.

I don't think you open a cultural institution at this historic moment without reflecting a diversity of stories and perspectives, Jacqueline Stewart, the museum's current director and president, told me when I asked about museums' emphasis on representation. She rebuffed the criticism. There were references to Jewish filmmakers early on, she said, mentioning a clip from an Oscar acceptance speech by Steven Spielberg. This seems to be lost.

But by going out of its way to highlight different identity groups at every turn, the museum unintentionally leaves out part of what makes cinema such a unifying and fundamentally popular medium: the ability to transcend these differences. In a pluralistic, immigrant nation, Hollywood has helped create a distinctly American culture that appeals to a wide audience. This is part of what we call the magic of cinema.

If nothing else, Hollywood is evolving relentlessly, perhaps more than ever under the threat of AI, increased economic pressures, and consolidation. The Academy Museum also continues to evolve. Much of what I saw in the museum, which, it must be said, is a marvel and a must-see for any film buff, has been replaced by new material since my first visit in June 2022. The elements of the The main exhibit is in constant rotation, in part because of the fragility of its artifacts, like the costumes; partly to reflect the vastness of his collection; and in other cases, in a then-apparent effort to touch all bases between competing interests.

If this flow is indicative of the Academy Museums' stated intention to represent the changing priorities of the American public, then it also holds the potential to reach beyond the current moment, with its intentional and unintentional divisions.




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