This week, my wife and I finally went where I’ve wanted to go since the place opened in September of 2021 (at the height of COVID, sadly); the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. The museum is by-appointment only, via their website or app, and parking is across the street near, of course, an automotive museum (need to see that one next time…). Driving the hour and change to L.A, we were fortunate that the recent downpours in SoCal stopped long enough for us to enjoy a cool, overcast day for a change (with relatively light traffic—light by LA standards, anyway).
Once there, we parked and made our way inside. Right from the corner, you see the gold-plated architecture of the building, along with a hint of the large Dolby Family Terrace dome. Walking into the building, the lobby has some human-sized Oscar statues (which may or may not have been used in past Oscar telecasts—not sure), as well as a quasi-industrial look and minimalist, red furniture that reminded me of something you’d see on the large Hilton Space Station in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (probably not a coincidence, either).
After you get your wristbands for the museum, you begin your self-guided tour. There’s a Q-code you can scan at the reception desk for an audio-guided tour via your phone, but we didn’t do that; we took the museum sight-by-sight, piece-by-piece, at our own pace. After you move through a darkened roomful of video monitors called Stories of Cinema (showing clips from past Oscar winners), you make your way into the first floor full of exhibits…
The First Floor
The first floor featured exhibits with actual, screen-used props, costumes, script pages and other artifacts from “Boyz in the Hood” (1991), “Casablanca” (1941) and “The Godfather,” Parts 1 & 2 (1972/1974). “The Godfather” memorabilia occupied several sections, including a lovingly restored set of Don Corleone’s study, along with life-casts of actors Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and even a surviving dental cast used to give Brando his famous “Vito Corleone” jowls. I won’t lie–I got more than a little starstruck being so close to Don Corleone’s actual desk from “The Godfather”; yes, I was starstruck by furniture.
Near the end of the first floor exhibits is a room filled with colorful costumes from various movies, along with wigs and life-casts of actors’ faces. There was also a colorful room filled with various costumes from a wide variety of movies, including “Dick Tracy” (1990), “Badlands” (1973) and “Labyrinth” (1985). Towards the back of the room, near the exit, was a case filled with various actors’ life-casts and wigs used in films such as “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).
The Second Floor
The second floor featured exhibits on stop-motion and hand drawn animation, with lots of exhibits from Laika Studios (“Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Missing Link”) as well as pieces from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (my all-time favorite holiday movie). A connecting corridor featured various exhibits on stop-motion animation legends such as Willis O’Brien (“King Kong” “Mighty Joe Young”) and Ray Harryhausen (“Jason and the Argonauts” “One Million Years B.C”), along with a look at the early days of computer-generated imagery (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” “Jurassic Park”).
From the FX evolution gallery, you enter a large darkened exhibit area featuring costumes, props, puppets, matte paintings and miniatures from various popular sci-fi/fantasy/horror films, such as “Star Wars” (1977), “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Black Panther” (2018), “The Shape Of Water” (2017), “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), “Donnie Darko” (2001) and “Batman Returns” (1992). The sci-fi geek part of me (the part that writes this column) could’ve stayed in this section all day long, so help me…
Between the Third and Fourth Floors
Outside the exhibit halls, suspended from the ceiling between floors, you’ll see a massive recreation of the original mechanical shark prop from “JAWS” (1975), named “Bruce” after director Steven Spielberg’s then-lawyer, Bruce Ramer. While the actual shark props from JAWS didn’t survive into the 21st century, makeup artist/producer/director Greg Nicotero (“The Walking Dead”) used the original blueprints to recreate a near 1:1 mannequin of the prop (without the original’s troublesome mechanical innards). The 25 ft shark (“three tons of him”) greets visitors with a wide, toothy grin and those infamous “black eyes, like a doll’s eyes…” to quote Robert Shaw’s “Quint.”
As longtime readers of this column might have guessed from my lengthy reviews of the four JAWS movies (yes, even the rotten fourth one), I am a JAWS maniac. And while I was aware this was not the actual prop from the movie, it still made my heart skip a beat when I first caught sight of this amazing leviathan from cinematic lore so lovingly recreated. It truly is “a miracle of (cinematic) evolution”, as Richard Dreyfuss’s “Matt Hooper” might paraphrase. Pro-tip: viewing the creature on the escalator rides between floors gets you some terrific angles for photographs.
The Third Floor
My wife and I then went to Level 3’s “Regeneration Black Cinema, 1898-1971” exhibit. This floor’s exhibits celebrated Black Cinema, from the years 1898 to 1971, including the works of such multitalented performers as Hattie McDaniel (the first Black woman to win an Oscar for “Gone With the Wind”), Sammy Davis Jr. (“Porgy and Bess” “Ocean’s Eleven”), Lena Horne (“Ziegfeld Follies,” “Stormy Weather,” “The Wiz”), Eartha Kitt (“Batman,” “Boomerang”), Sidney Poitier (“The Defiant Ones,” “To Sir With Love” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), Harry Belafonte (“Carmen Jones,” “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”), Diahann Carroll (“Julia,” “Dynasty”), along with filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peeples (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” “Watermelon Man”).
The exhibits also honored many lesser known black entertainers, who had sizable followings but remained largely unknown to white audiences, such as “colored” comedian Sam Lucas, along with many other unsung trailblazers in Black cinema and entertainment. Also saluted were documentaries featuring the voices and words of celebrated activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and James Baldwin. This exhibit has a bit more gravitas than others. Nice to see so many of these unsung entertainers and groundbreakers getting their long overdue ovations.
Fourth Floor: The Barbara Streisand Bridge/The Dolby Family Terrace
The fourth floor doesn’t feature any exhibits, but after crossing the Barbara Streisand Bridge into the Dolby Family Terrace, it does offer attendees a nice place to chill and check out the L.A. skyline. The Terrace is a large glass dome with red chairs and open spaces to check out the skyscrapers, the hills surrounding the city, and—way off in the distance—the Hollywood sign itself (formerly “Hollywoodland”).
The class dome enclosure reminded me of something you’d on the planet Krypton in the opening act of 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” (or “Kriptin,” as Marlon Brando’s Jor-El might say). The venue doesn’t feature anything that screams Hollywood, as its generic red chairs and concrete floors offer a nice, relaxing space to collect oneself before venturing back into the memorabilia-filled museum.
Back to the Second Floor
As we left the Dolby Family Terrace and headed back into the museum, it occurred to my wife and I that we’d missed something. We’d both seen various videos and photos of the museum showing a large mural of Mt. Rushmore (aka, the Presidents’ mountain thingamajig in South Dakota) that was used in the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. In the movie, there’s a cafeteria scene at Mt Rushmore (the cafeteria is a Hollywood soundstage) where you see the face of the mountain, just outside a window. Since the movie was not shot on location, Mt. Rushmore was convincingly recreated using a battery of movie magic tricks, including a two story-highpainted backdrop, which was hung just outside of the faux eatery seen in the movie.
Going back down to the third floor, my wife and I went into a balcony where you could look down upon the massive painting, but we wanted to see it from the ground up, so we took the escalator down to the second floor. There, we walked into the space directly below the third floor balcony, and saw painting as it appeared in the movie. The painting itself is simple tempura paint on muslin fabric, and when viewed up close, it’s not terribly realistic, either. But take a few steps back, look up at it from under those warm lights, and the illusion of standing near the base of Mt. Rushmore in daylight is jaw-dropping. This is 64-year old movie technology that still works today. True movie magic.
On the way out, we went back to the first floor gift shop which (mercifully) doesn’t block the museum’s exit, as so many gift shops do; instead, it’s thoughtfully located at the rear of the first floor, so that you don’t have to cross through it if you don’t want to—however, my wife and I both wanted to, even if we’re not the avid collectors we were a few years ago. She wound up buying a beautiful zoetrope for her classroom, as well as a few other goodies. I walked away with a new copy of actor/writer Carl Gottlieb’s “The JAWS Log,” after losing my old copy during one of my bachelor-day moves.
The gift shop also included collections of merch from “JAWS,” “The Godfather,” the legends of Black Cinema, the Laika Studios stop-motion movies, and the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki. Even if you don’t walk away with armfuls of collectibles, just browsing the gift shop at the end of the trip makes for a nice “cherry on top” for a day at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
There’s More, If You’re Curious…
This concludes the virtual tour for this column. However, the photos shown here represent but a fraction of the museum’s amazing sights. If you want to see more? Check out the link below, but you might want to clear an evening to view ALL of the photos:
The Academy Museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm, and is located at 6067 Wilshire Blvd, in Los Angeles, CA 90036. Scheduled reservations are required, and are available through the museum’s website (academymuseum.org). Tickets are $25 for adults, $19 for seniors (62 and up), $15 for students, and are free for visitors 17 and younger. An interactive ‘Oscar night role play’ called the Oscars Experience costs an additional $15, but my wife and I didn’t do that. If you’re in the L.A. area and love movies, as I do? This museum is a must-see.