Inside the Academy Museum’s Jewish Exclusion – The Hollywood Reporter

Producer John Goldwyn declined his invitation to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ September 2021 Opening Gala. The grandson of Samuel Goldwyn – an industry founding father whose leadership efforts a century ago led to the formation of Paramount and MGM – had been amazed to learn, before the institution’s debut , that the immigrant pioneers who invented Hollywood weren’t approached in the decade in the making, $500 million, 300,000 square foot citadel in moviedom.

“If you’re going to have a museum in Los Angeles tied to the Academy that celebrates arguably the most important art form of the 20th century, how is it possible not to recognize the Jewish men who started it all?” Goldwyn asks, checking off names like Universal’s Carl Laemmle, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, Paramount’s Adolph Zukor and the Warner Brothers. “It’s a glaring oversight.”

Goldwyn wasn’t the only one unhappy. Haim Saban, who has donated $50 million to the institution (his largest donation), went public with his views, alongside Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who attended the gala and then said rolling stone“While crossing, I literally turned to the person I was with and said, ‘Where are the Jews?’ “

In 2018, the museum announced a plan for a permanent exhibition, under the direction of Kerry Brougher (who had arrived from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum). It included a gallery dedicated to the arc of the studio system and its founders. But his replacement, Bill Kramer, explains that “we moved away from a chronological journey of the history of cinema” in favor of a more thematic approach when he took office the following year. “So many things have been looked at in different ways in terms of ‘How do we put this all together? “Others believe the revamped format was the cover of a new cultural warehouse wishing to position itself, post-George Floyd, to better avoid criticism of Hollywood’s own racism. A museum insider explains: “There was a huge overcorrection of [film] revival story.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs LA’s Museum of Tolerance, and himself a two-time Oscar winner (for producing documentaries on Jewish subjects, 1982 Genocide and 1997 The long way back), maintains that inaugurating an institution canonizing cinema in the absence of those who created it “is a form of intellectual discrimination. Without Jewish leadership in Hollywood, there would be no Hollywood,” he says.

The founding moguls, mostly Ashkenazi Jews, created what became the film industry in part because they were excluded, both formally and informally, from what were then more prestigious business sectors, such as finances. “You might have a focus” in the fledgling film industry, says Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. “It was wide open”

Cecile B. De Mille with Paramount co-founder Adolph Zukor in 1933.
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Today, due to assimilation, descendants of moguls are generally considered white, and even the once ubiquitous professional anglicization of stage names – still in evidence among the likes of Winona Ryder (née Horowitz) and Natalie Portman (Hershlag) – faded. younger generations. But that was not the world the founders inhabited.

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by Neal Gabler A full-fledged empire is a chronicle of the Jews who founded Hollywood. The author will consult the Musée de l’Académie on a new exhibition on the period.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Since the dawn of Hollywood, anti-Semites have blamed Jews for everything from moral corruption to political subversion, according to Neal Gabler’s volume on moguls. A full-fledged empire. One of the main charges was that their otherness – advanced through new cinema technology and the fiefdoms they had built to exploit it – undermined traditional American values.

The constant xenophobic aggression against a group concerned about its own precarious position within national life has shaped the leadership of the industry. A reactionary conservatism reigned among many moguls. They proactively implemented the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of Puritan guidelines that not only place limits on sex, skin, and violence, but also on symbolism or storylines deemed unpatriotic or amoral. They later released the Waldorf Statement, which blacklisted the so-called Hollywood Ten – producers, directors and screenwriters who refused to answer questions about their political affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A candid assessment of Hollywood’s Jewish founders must intertwine with this record, as well as with their more personal failings. It’s possible tsuris for a museum already in the crosshairs of many Jewish donors.

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Harry Cohn (left), president of Columbia Pictures, makes a deal with producer Stanley Kramer.
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Universal owner Carl Laemmle (right) with Albert Einstein in 1931.
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Yet ignoring the history of the bumps is troublingly ahistorical, say scholars. “It implies that – despite anti-Semitism – Jews are seen as insiders rather than the outsiders they were before Hollywood was created,” says Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, who wrote Indelible Shadows: Cinema and the Holocaust. The missing narrative also deprives museum visitors of an understanding of how these men, through their gifts and ambitions as well as their biases and flaws, defined the struggles that persist to this day, from working relationships to gender equality. . Some see a paradox in the pioneers ending up on the cutting room floor, as they mostly kept their Jewishness in the realm of their private lives, instead using their studios to promulgate and polish their country’s mythos – mostly happy endings. “It’s the ultimate irony that this idealized, almost utopian portrayal of America was created on screen and perpetuated by a handful of poor Jewish immigrants,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. Adds J. Hoberman, author of a volume on Jewish contributions to cinema, entertain america“There’s a reason why [MGM founder] Louis B. Mayer claimed his birthday was July 4th. Oscar-winning documentarian Richard Trank, who oversees content for the Museum of Tolerance, notes that “Hollywood Jews have kept a low profile about their Jewishness. You had very few films — Gentleman’s Agreement, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker – and it’s really not before Schindler’s list in the 90s that the film industry appeared.

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MGM CEO Louis B. Mayer (right) with actress Norma Shearer and her husband, producer Irving Thalberg.
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The museum, whose official message touts a desire to be “radically inclusive” – temporary opening exhibits include established names like Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar as well as pioneering black director Oscar Micheaux, groundbreaking editor Thelma Schoonmaker and the martial arts master Bruce Lee – since admitted to having made a mistake in omitting the founders. But the institution, which has sold more than 400,000 tickets, stresses that Jewishness has been woven into its curatorial activity since opening, pointing to a symposium on Austrian exiles like Billy Wilder, which began in late 2021, as well as several moments in the entire collection currently on display, including an animated clip from 1986 An American tail, about a family of Jewish mice fleeing a pogrom. (A prominent sign in a hallway recognizing donor Barbra Streisand as the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a major studio film, 1983 Yentl, notes that she has “redefined the standards of beauty” but does not mention her Jewishness; Kramer says Streisand pre-approved the wall text, which is not part of a curated exhibit and therefore not subject to museum standards.)

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Jack, Harry and Albert Warner, founders of Warner Bros.
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“To me [the outcry] was a lesson,” says Jacqueline Stewart, Artistic and Programming Director. “It’s also a recognition of the very high expectations of us as an institution.” In response, what she and Kramer describe as a previously planned temporary founders exhibit, “Hollywoodland,” is now being redesigned as permanent, scheduled for spring 2023. (Gabler was brought in to consult; he did not respond to a maintenance request.)

“Hollywoodland”, not yet finalized, will be a broad exploration of the birth of the studio system, but its curator, Dara Jaffe, assures that the backgrounds of the pioneers will deeply inform the exhibition. “They were creating their own American Dream,” she says, “like they were creating Hollywood’s American Dream.”

This story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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