How the Academy Flubbed Its Moguls Memorial

How the Academy Flubbed Its Moguls Memorial

How the Academy Flubbed Its Moguls Memorial

The Academy’s film museum, seeking to placate critics who decried its earlier omission of Jewish moguls, rushes to fix its clumsy handling of a sensitive subject. 

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On May 19, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Museum in Los Angeles opened its first and only permanent exhibit, “Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital.” The installation recognizes the Jewish filmmaker-producers who founded Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., Columbia, Fox (later Twentieth Century Fox), and Universal, and thus the American movie industry. It’s also an answer to critics of the museum’s 2021 debut, which had no mention of them at all. “Where are the Jews?” Academy patrons and members wanted to know. Three years later, the Academy found them, and no one’s really happy about it.

The Academy’s timing could scarcely have been worse. Eight months into Israel’s war in Gaza, discourse on the war convulses with overheated charges of antisemitism—real, false, perceived, half-understood, cynically exploited, and everything in between. Defenders of the war hurl accusations of antisemitism at its critics, and its critics complain of “weaponized” antisemitism (apparently the old kind was more fun). There have been posters of Hamas’s hostages ripped down, a few hundred campus protests. You can include shifting definitions of “Zionism,” “never again,” and “from the river to the sea,” and the bathetic spectacle of House Republicans debating, and then endorsing, a bill to ban antisemitic hate speech (except the kind that conflicts with their own talking points). The Oscars provided its own celebrity front, ranging from Jonathan Glazer’s impassioned denunciation of Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war in his Oscar acceptance speech for Zone of Interest to the now quaintly charged debate over Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic Leonard Bernstein nose in Maestro. In the midst of all this, the Academy’s exhibition, “Hollywoodland,” has prompted a new bout of outsized controversy.

“Hollywoodland” takes its cue from Neal Gabler’s landmark 1988 film history, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. The title of Gabler’s book takes what bigots traditionally use as an accusation about Hollywood and owns it (a move Gabler’s publishers were a touch nervous to adopt). Gabler’s chronicle finally offered a serious history of the Jewish American origins of the film industry. It recounts the rise of a global culture industry through the lives of its founders: men possessed with incredible gifts and often equally incredible flaws, such as Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, the Warner Bros., Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, and Carl Laemmle, among others. The exhibit begins with From the Shtetl to the Studio: The Jewish Story of Hollywood, a documentary narrated by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. The interior hall features display space devoted to each studio and their founders, and then a projection display over a wide table-map of Los Angeles that shows a chronological development of the city, the growth of its Jewish community after Jews began migrating there in the 1910s, and the expansion of the Jewish-led film industry during the 20th century.

The documentary goes into detail about the exclusion and antisemitism the moguls faced, but the display treating them as individuals turns much more critical. Studio head Jack Warner gets branded a “womanizer,” and the studio he ran with his brother Harry “frugal” in its approach to filmmaking (as loaded a euphemism as you can get in an exhibit about Jews). A less fraught description would note that the Warners relied on a lower-budget B-movie filmmaking model compared to MGM spectacles as a key component of its long-term business success. The exhibit denounces Harry Cohn as a “tyrant and predator” and a wannabe authoritarian who clownishly decorated his office in the style of Benito Mussolini’s to intimidate visitors. Universal’s Carl Laemmle is cited for “nepotism” because he famously handed out so many studio jobs to relatives he earned the industry-wide nickname “Uncle Carl.” With the Warners’ historic release of the first studio feature sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927), the exhibit delivers a blunt appraisal of the film’s depiction of Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Al Jolson), a white Jewish American who becomes a minstrel singer: “As part of a marginalized minority, Jakie—and the Warners—seek acceptance as Americans by embodying the dominant culture, invoking a popular symbol of racial oppression that further harms another marginalized group.”

It’s true: The Warners did make a movie about minstrelsy that never questions minstrelsy. The Jazz Singer section simply drops that note on the Warners as oppression-dealing social climbers with all the subtlety of an “I’m just gonna leave this here” tweet. The odious then-century-old tradition of minstrelsy in America requires some serious unpacking, which falls well beyond the exhibit’s mission. Instead of leaving the issue at labeling its practitioners as oppressors, “Hollywoodland” could have mentioned the Warners’ producing their anti-Klan, anti-lynching movie, The Black Legion( 1936). They released that film in a politically timed moment, as progressive Democrats in the Senate saw their anti-lynching bills, Costigan-Wagner (1935) and the Gavagan-Wagner Act (1937), succumb to Jim Crow resistance and President Franklin Roosevelt’s callous refusal to support them. Today, as the world looks on aghast at the invasion of Gaza, the competing narratives of Jews as victims and Jews as oppressors gets played out daily in the news and social media. The same can be said of the legacies of these complicated showmen, steeped both in the unjust and vicious world they escaped and the industry that transformed them into powerful cultural figures.

The exhibit barely looks at the moguls as filmmakers, preferring to focus on them as captains of the American culture industry. They often functioned as producer-filmmakers, and their personal visions defined their studios more than any single director (with the exception of Frank Capra, whose movies alone pretty much built Columbia). Those visions were as signature as Hitchcock and Hawks movies. Louis B. Mayer’s immigrant experience compelled him to champion clean-cut Andy Hardy movies and musicals, while Warner’s best-known movies remain gritty gangster pictures (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy) and works of social realism like I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Heroes for Sale, or adding songs like “My Forgotten Man” to musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933. Critical reliance on auteurism has long diminished the contributions of the moguls, feeding into the caricature of them as meddling philistines and uncultured oafs interfering with directors’ visions.

“Hollywoodland” generated letters from Patrick Moss, head of the WGA Jewish Writers Committee, stating that “THIS VERY EXHIBIT IS COMPLICIT in the hatred of American Jews, by using antisemitic tropes and dog-whistles.” “Tropes and dog-whistles” is correct. It’s not the kind of overt hatred that the moguls faced all their lives; it’s a subtler framing of them as the problem. As showrunner Keetgi Kogan wrote to the museum, “You effectively lay the prejudice, racism and misogyny of the 20th century at the feet of the Jewish founders of the movie business…. It is almost as if, instead of celebrating the birth of the industry, the Academy is apologizing to the public for having to reveal a dark corner of its history it wishes it could have kept hidden.”

“Hollywoodland” mostly relies on tacit double standards to indict perceived hypocrisy on the moguls’ part. Columbia head Harry Cohn, like so many other Hoover-era Americans when it looked like capitalism and democracy were done—including the studio’s star director Frank Capra—did have a pre-Hitler infatuation with Mussolini. The question is, why single out the Jewish mogul for that criticism? The “Hollywoodland” map display also includes studios led by non-Jewish producers like Walt Disney, but, unlike the treatment given the Warners and The Jazz Singer, there’s no mention that Disney gave us Song of the South, a movie so racially toxic the Disney corporation currently keeps it buried in its IP vaults. There’s also no mention that Walt Disney once gave Leni Riefenstahl a tour of the Disney studios in 1938—after Kristallnacht. In 1934, Harry Cohn realized he was wrong about Mussolini. “I’m a Jew,” he told one studio employee. “He’s mixed up with Hitler and I don’t want no part of it.” By contrast, Disney partnered with former Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun in 1955 to make kids’ documentaries about space exploration.

Strikingly different depictions like that make it obvious the curators singled out the Jewish moguls for more detailed and sustained criticism. The exhibit suffers from a consistently cursory and superficial treatment of its subjects, which could be rooted in either a peevish reaction to the demand for Jewish representation or a thoughtless lack of context in a rather incendiary moment for Jews worldwide. Any one of these moguls and their studios could fill the space given this exhibit, and the artificial limits imposed by that space prevent a serious historical perspective. Limitations like that cannot help but leave out vast swaths of film history, good and bad, like the moguls’ various responses to Nazi Germany and its domestic allies, Jim Crow censorship, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklist, or their long history of union-busting. There is also little space given to the lifesaving American haven they provided artists like Fritz Lang and Hedy Lamarr, together with cinema technicians who fled Nazi-occupied Europe.

To be sure, accountability culture has its place—but the evidence presented by “Hollywoodland” strongly suggests that the Academy is not that place. That’s a job better left to independent scholars, biographers, and historians. As an institution, the Academy Museum can never be fully separated from its influential membership. That member constituency is what created the demand for “Hollywoodland” in the first place, by protesting the conspicuous lack of Jewish representation when the museum debuted in 2021. After the exhibit opened, the instant pushback the Academy got— internally, publicly, in petitions, social media—brought about quick alterations to the original clumsy text. For example, the text on The Jazz Singer now reads, “By performing in blackface, Jakie—like the Warners—seeks acceptance as a marginalized minority by embodying the country’s dominant culture that predated cinema, invoking a popular and harmful symbol of racial oppression.”

The Academy’s quick response improved the exhibit, but highlighted the limits of film history conducted at the behest of film industry heavyweights. An historical institution, a museum, needs more independence. Is that really possible here? The Academy derives a large part of its operating budget from its annual Oscar telecast on ABC, a network owned by Disney. (Full disclosure: I was a writer for the 84th Oscars.) It’s hard to imagine an exhibit about Walt Disney himself or his animation without the participation of the Disney corporation or the Disney family. Given that so much of the film history the museum addresses was produced by its members and the corporations that funded those movies, the museum will never have true scholarly independence.

And for an institution whose real strength has always been celebrating cinema, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the more successful exhibits the Academy Museum has staged is “John Waters: The Pope of Trash,” a celebration of Waters via his own props, handwritten scripts, concept designs, personal notebooks, film clips, and correspondence. The Waters show covers his career as an independent filmmaker for the last half-century, and was done with his participation and approval. It would not be half as interesting or engaging without him. It’s also accompanied by a sister exhibit, “Outside the Mainstream,” an installation that pays homage to the work of other trailblazing queer directors like Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, Andy Warhol, and Rose Troche, among others, where no one gets dragged.

If John Waters has done some godawful thing, we are happy not to learn of it at the Academy Museum. The Academy Museum’s strength is that it can draw on the incredible resources of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Research, and its membership. The Academy’s film archive (and state-of-the-art facilities to screen these films), its internal collection of props, design work, costumes, industry documents, and personal papers make it the leading film historical archive in the world. One of the more powerful moments of the “Hollywoodland” exhibit comes from that kind of archival documentation, in the exchange of letters between Universal’s Carl Laemmle and his cousin director William Wyler, as they file paperwork on getting every single relative they can out of 1930s Europe. That trove of documents shows why cavalierly applying the word “nepotism” to Laemmle as he worked so tirelessly to aid his vast family in the Jewish diaspora has a cold sting to it.

In Los Angeles today, you can drive the Howard Hughes Expressway or Mulholland Drive, visit Griffith Park or the Getty Museum. There’s not much in the way of public recognition for the old moguls, whose industry defines the city to this day. The names Zukor, Mayer, and Laemmle have faded away. That’s by design, since drawing attention to themselves personally was always a double-edged sword. But that’s also exactly why an exhibit like “Hollywoodland” deserves its permanent space in the museum.

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