Like every great Hollywood production, it was years in the making, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, was befuddled by production snafus and creative differences, and ended up taking a lot longer to finish than anyone anticipated. But on Sept. 30, the long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures finally opens its doors in Los Angeles. What’s inside? Is it worth the trip? How’s the gift shop? Below, the answers to these and other questions on many movie lovers’ minds right now.
Why wasn’t there a movie museum before this?
The answer stretches back to Hollywood’s primordial days. As far back as the silent era, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences founders like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were pushing for a movie museum but never got one off the ground. Later, in the 1950s, Walt Disney and Jack Warner tried to build one near the Hollywood Bowl but got mired in local politics and lawsuits and ended up throwing in the towel.
The Academy came close in 2007, even hiring French architect Christian de Portzamparc to design an eight-acre campus in Hollywood, but the financial meltdown of 2008 put a wrecking ball to that plan and the Academy ended up selling the land. But then, in 2012, a new Academy CEO, Dawn Hudson, revived the dream, finding a just-right location, 300,000 square feet in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, and raising $484 million to get it done.
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What’s so special about the location?
What isn’t special about this location? It’s hard to imagine a more fitting spot for a movie museum. Back in the 1920s, silent film mogul Cecil B. DeMille — another of the Academy’s founders — built an airfield on this very corner of Fairfax and Wilshire for his fleet of dirigibles and barnstormers. Ultimately, DeMille’s Mercury Aviation Company took a nosedive after the stock market crash of 1929.
In 1939, the May Company Wilshire department store sprang up on the property, with architect Albert C. Martin Sr. designing a groundbreaking deco edifice with a cylindrical section that looked like a gigantic tube of lipstick emerging from the primitive L.A. skyline. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art took over the May building in 1994, christening it LACMA West, until the Academy snatched the property in 2014, eventually renaming it the Saban Building (after movie executive and philanthropist Haim Saban and his wife forked over a $50 million donation to the museum).
Famed Italian architect Renzo Piano was hired in 2017 to refurbish and repurpose the building — already an L.A. historic landmark — with an opening date originally scheduled for 2020. But funding snafus, a global pandemic and other hiccups (like the discovery of Ice Age sloth fossils under the foundation) delayed its completion until now.
What items in the museum’s collection are worth seeing?
The Mona Lisa of this museum has got to be Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, footwear with a history as twisty as a Dan Brown thriller. Five pairs were known to have survived the film’s production. One pair was buried in an MGM warehouse for 30 years, Indiana Jones-style, until it was accidentally unearthed in the 1970s. Another was on display at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids but got stolen by Oz-loving cat burglars in 2005 (the shoes were finally recovered by Michigan authorities in 2018).
Now one pair is on exhibit — safely behind glass — here at the Academy Museum. Beyond the ruby slippers, there are plenty of other historical artifacts to ogle: the only surviving fiberglass mold for Bruce the shark from Jaws (hanging ominously over a stairwell), the typewriter used to tap out the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the tablets from The Ten Commandments, a space suit from 2001: A Space Odyssey, shelves filled with Oscars (on loan from winners like Sidney Poitier and Barry Jenkins), a cape worn by Bela Lugosi in Dracula and — prepare to be awed — a robe worn by Jeff Bridges’ Dude in The Big Lebowski.
What does the museum charge?
Admission is $25 but add another $15 and you can enter the Oscar Experience, an immersive environment that lets ordinary folk step up to a podium and pretend to accept an Academy Award in front of a virtual crowd. You get to hold a statuette (identical to the ones given out on Oscar night) but you don’t get to take it home. Instead, you’ll be emailed a video of your acceptance speech. But just like the real Academy Awards, keep it short; you’ll only get a few seconds before the orchestra starts playing you off stage. Don’t forget to thank your agent.
Does the museum have a restaurant and how good is it?
Or dinner, for that matter? The museum’s restaurant, Fanny’s — named after Fanny Brice, the original Funny Girl — promises to be something of a showstopper in its own right, with managing partner Bill Chiat (who helped create Republique, Bestia, Otium and Tartine, along with other current L.A. hot spots) modeling the space on Golden Age eateries like the Brown Derby and Chasen’s. In other words, there’ll be lots of red leather, velvet and mohair booths and an old-school style of obsequious service that includes waiters carving beef tableside, sommeliers pouring wine and jacketed captains checking on diners mid-meal.
The exact menu is still under wraps but daytime service will likely be salad-and-sandwich fare while dinner will strive for a more formal ambience, serving mostly American cuisine. Fanny’s will also hold private parties, arranged by Hollywood’s most famous chef, Wolfgang Puck (who has been catering the Oscars Governors Ball for ages.
How good is the gift shop and which souvenirs are worth buying?
Of course, the true test of a great museum is its gift shop, and the Academy Museum won’t disappoint. You may not be able to purchase Dorothy’s ruby slippers but you can snag the next best thing: a handbag that looks just like a pair (created by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood costumer Arianne Phillips in collaboration with Moschino’s Jeremy Scott). There are also Lego Oscars, jewelry created by Black Panther costumer Ruth Carter (sorry, no vibranium), Academy tote bags and tons of T-shirts, including a special Spike Lee Crooklyn collectible. Prices aren’t available yet but, like every true Hollywood creative, expect to go over budget.
Ben Svetkey is a contributing writer who covers film and entertainment. Editorial director of Los Angeles Magazine, he previously was a top editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly and is the author of the Hollywood novel Leading Man.