“Hollywoodland”: The Academy Museum’s Exhibition on the Jews Who Made Hollywood

Gordon Haber

When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened in Los Angeles in later September of 2021, it was a moment of great excitement for those who love the movies, which is just about everyone.

Designed by starchitect Renzo Piano, the 300,000 square-foot facility cost nearly $500 million, boasting large exhibition galleries, two movie theatres, a rooftop glass-domed terrace, as well as the obligatory restaurant, café, and gift shop.

The exhibitions look fascinating, such as the sweeping Stories of Cinema, which presents landmark films and filmmakers as well as the technology, design, and craftsmanship of cinema.

The artifacts alone seem worth the price of admission—the shark from Jaws! The Mount Rushmore backdrop from North by Northwest! The sled from Citizen Kane! And the curators have made laudable efforts at inclusivity, with exhibits on pioneering filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, Bruce Lee, Spike Lee, and Patricia Cardoso.

But the museum was heavily criticized for whom it excluded—namely, the Jews so crucial to the formation of the American movie industry. Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times that he was “shocked by the absence of an inclusion of Jews in the Hollywood story.” A writer in The Forward noted that the exclusion had her “[leaving] the museum with a pit in my stomach.”

The Academy Museum’s response was swift. In March of this year, it announced that its first permanent exhibition, Hollywoodland, will launch in the fall of 2023.

The exhibition will focus on the early Hollywood studio system and its “predominately Jewish founders”—the men like Harry Cohn (Columbia), Carl Laemmle (Universal), Louis B. Mayer (MGM), David O. Selznick (RKO), William Fox (Fox Film Corporation), Adolph Zukor (Paramount), and the eponymous Warner Brothers—who created the American film industry and whose influence is still felt today.

Hollywoodland is being curated by Associate Curator Dara Jaffe, who joined the Academy Museum in 2013. She has helped curate many of the museum’s exhibitions, including Stories of Cinema, as well as exhibitions on Spike Lee, Oscar Micheaux, The Wizard of Oz, and Citizen Kane. In her spare time, Jaffe is a visual artist, whose liquid light projections have been featured at Los Angeles venues such as the Troubadour and the El Rey Theater, as well as LA Pride Festival.

We spoke to Jaffe about how Hollywoodland is developing, how the museum has weathered the criticism, and if the current climate of bigotry is having any effect on the exhibition.

Q: Is it fair to say that Hollywoodland is a response to that early criticism?

Jaffe: The museum was designed with a lot of identities in mind. Our goal was to have every single visitor see something to identify with. And we did have stories of Jewish identity at the opening, with moments dedicated to [director] Billy Wilder and Schindler’s List. But Hollywoodland was a story we were always planning on telling. What we did acknowledge as a response was that we should have opened with it, and it’s the only exhibition in the entire museum that we have committed to be permanent.

Can you tell us more about the exhibition?

The Jewish story will be foregrounded. We’re going to tell the stories of the eight major studios. Of course, not everybody was Jewish—United Artists was a major studio founded by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, among other film artists—but even in this case there were Jewish executives.

We’re taking a multi-pronged approach, one of which is showing that this is an immigrant story, because they were all immigrants, or the children of immigrants. And to varying degrees they were all preoccupied by being American. Louis Mayer, who was born in Minsk, claimed his birthday was July 4th. He chose that date for an obvious reason.

What can visitors look forward to seeing?

An abundance of reproduced or digitized materials from the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library as well as other archives, such as posters, letters, telegrams, archival photographs, newspaper clippings, promotional material, maps and more.

Louis B. Mayer, ca. 1924,  Carl Laemmle, undated. Images Courtesy Margaret Herrick Library

Why did so many Jewish people go into the film business?
The American film industry was developing at roughly the same time the U.S. was seeing an influx of Jews escaping European pogroms, that is late nineteenth, early twentieth century. So many doors were closed to Jews, but Jews weren’t barred from industries like filmmaking, for one reason because it was considered déclassé, entertainment for the masses. Also it was a new technology with no major industry in place. So this was one place where they could form their own industry and also maybe change their social standing.
Another important aspect is that many studio heads had business experience, for example in the garment industry. You know, when you’re making clothes, you have to be able to forecast and affect trends, and you need the same instincts for a movie to be successful. You need some experience in anticipating tastes. You need an appetite for risk as well, you know, “What happens if we clean out this storefront and put in a nickelodeon?”
We want to include this entrepreneurship in the exhibition and how Jewish people moved from showing movies into production and distribution, because they realized this was the way to have the most influence over the films they were sharing, and in turn, the best way to elevate their own positions in the world. And you can’t forget all the businesses that sprang up around the studios, because the studio leadership turned to Jewish lawyers and bankers, because they couldn’t rely on fair treatment outside their own network.
So it’s an immigrant story, and a Jewish story, and we also want to tell the story of how these strong personalities shaped their studios. Billy Wilder said you could close your eyes during the credits and open them when the picture started, and you’d immediately know which studio made it. Because the stamp of the studio heads was so distinctive.
The exhibition will discuss how the film industry affected the development of Los Angeles as well.
Yes, that’s an important part of Hollywoodland, L.A. itself. You know, we’re a film museum in L.A., so we can’t leave that out.
Most people know that the industry moved here because land was abundant, the light is good, and the warmth means you can shoot all year round. You also have all these wonderful terrains nearby, the ocean, the desert, the mountains, the city.
What fewer people know is that they were getting as far away as they could from Thomas Edison and his trust. In the early years of the twentieth century, Edison created a trust of producers who held different patents, including the cameras and projection equipment, and his company had a partnership with Eastman Kodak, so it was nearly impossible to get film stock. Edison’s trust was creatively limiting as well, insisting that a film couldn’t be longer than twenty minutes and to keep salaries down you couldn’t name the cast. If you broke those rules Edison and his goons came after you, but it was harder to do that when you’re in California.
But even here it’s a Jewish story. Of course, there was still antisemitism, but on the West Coast the social hierarchy was more relaxed.
Are you changing anything about Hollywoodland in response to the current climate of antisemitism?
This is something I am thinking about all the time professionally and personally. But we’re not changing anything about Hollywoodland. As I mentioned, it’s a story we were always planning to tell. If anything, the climate is just reinforcing that these stories are pertinent and need to be told.
For a related discussion on Jewish entrepreneurs in a “déclassé” business, see the our piece on the cannabis industry.
And for more on cultural institution’s responses to bigotry, see our piece on the recent joint conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums and the Association of African American Museums.

Featured image: The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

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