Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Johnny California: Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

 by JB

Well, it took almost a year, but I finally got my Oscar!

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the official brick-and-mortar sanctuary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, opened two years ago. Perhaps because I am not as spry as I used to be, it took a little time for me to drag my sorry ass over to Wilshire Boulevard to check it out. I made up for this perceived time lag though, attending twice within a single month and becoming an annual passholder. Now I can pester the kind staff and their lovely squad of docents on a weekly basis.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I love valet parking. This building is formidable and impressive. This museum is completely ADA compliant. Wait, is that Sam’s piano from Casablanca?

Holy shit. “Indiana, we are simply passing through history... This piano IS history.”
Although the Academy holds more than 13 million objects, they can’t all be displayed at one time. I was amazed and impressed by what was on display, and look forward to seeing, say, Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula cape, at a later date. Hey, Academy! Can you say "Halloween display"?


1) Harold Russell’s Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946),
2) Vito Corleone’s chair and desk from The Godfather (1972),
3) Mary Pickford’s costume from Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921),
4) a “Bruce the Shark” made from the last surviving mold from Jaws (1975),
5) the vidphone Deckard uses at Taffy Lewis’s to call Rachel in Blade Runner (1982),
6) an original stop motion puppet of the Corpse Bride (2005),
7) an original Lumière Bros. Cinématographe camera (1895),
8) Warren Beatty’s crazy yellow trench coat from Dick Tracy (1990),
9) Frank Thomas’s animation desk, and
10) Doug Jones’ creature costume from The Shape of Water (2017).

That leaves 12, 999,990 objects hidden away somewhere in the Academy basement!
During my first visit, an unfortunate misinterpretation of some signage led to me skipping the exhibit to which I was most looking forward. The sign read, “The Path to Cinema,” and I thought it was... you know, a path, like a shortcut to some... cinema stuff.

AS IT TURNS OUT, there are no shortcuts in the Academy Museum! “The Path to Cinema” is actually an amazing collection of early motion toys from the Richard Balzer collection, and explains why you can purchase flipbooks, phenakistiscopes, and zoetropes in the museum gift shop. Visiting this one gallery is worth the price of admission alone. It’s quiet and dark, like a church devoted to the geniuses whose devices led to early movies.

A special two-story gallery displays painted backdrops from Hitchcock’s films. It currently houses the Mount Rushmore landscape seen outside the cafeteria window when Cary Grant is shot (Or is he?) in North by Northwest (1959). A docent informed me that they found a treasure trove of these backdrops at Paramount and that this gallery will host a sampling of them on a rotating basis.
One thing I noticed again and again while walking through exhibits is the stunning picture quality of every film clip shown on every monitor in the place. The AM's clips are generations closer to the source than the clips we are all used to seeing. I guess when you are the Academy, you have access to these sorts of things. It was a joy and pleasure to see pre-1930’s materials look truly pristine. The prints of the Lumières' “Workers Leaving the Factory” and “L'Arroseur Arrose” in the Balzer exhibit were breathtaking—the best I have ever seen, and I taught this stuff for thirty years.

The cherry on the sundae at the Academy Museum must be “The Oscar Experience” exhibit on the top floor. For an added fee, you get to hold a real Oscar, and “accept” it while being filmed for posterity. This seems like a gimmick or a cash grab, but it’s tremendous fun. Yes, the Oscar statue is heavier than it looks. No, you do not need to prepare an acceptance speech because no sound is being recorded. Frankly, I have spent $15 on boatloads of things that did not give me as much pleasure as this. I have decided that my pretend Oscar was presented to me in the honorary category of “Biggest Pain in the Ass.”
Academy Members, it was my privilege.

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