Building a museum requires an army of workers, millions in funding, and nerves of steel—and it helps if you have Sophia Loren. At least, that was the case in 2012, when Dawn Hudson, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, asked Italian architect Renzo Piano to design the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a project that is planning to open its doors in December of this year—when it will unveil 300,000 square feet of galleries, screening rooms, and assorted displays of movie magic in an overhauled former May Company building (now named the Saban Building) on Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile.
“Renzo has so many projects going on and very little time,” says Regina K. Scully, a film producer and museum trustee. “The way Dawn enticed him was that she brought him this gorgeous photo of a young Sophia Loren leaning up against a pillar with her eyes closed. It’s the most beautiful, symbolic photo, and he turned around and said, ‘I’m going to do this project.’ ”Photo credit: Joshua White
Loren, who made history in 1962 as the first actor to win an Academy Award for a foreign language role, is more than just bait—she’s literally part of the building. The Marriage Italian Style star is one of six trailblazing women in the film industry (the others are Rita Moreno, Alice Guy-Blaché, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Miyoshi Umeki, and Hattie McDaniel) being honored by the museum with fifth-floor pillars named in their honor, part of a campaign that offered naming rights for the Saban Building’s 55 structural columns for $1 million each.
“When they asked me to be honored, I didn’t believe it,” Loren says. “I’m from Naples, so I never believe when people tell me good news. Then, when I realized it was true, it made my heart beat stronger.”
The museum offers plenty of opportunities for philanthropists. It features the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater, the Barbra Streisand Bridge, the Spielberg Family Gallery, and the Steve Tisch Terrace, to name a few. To date the project has raised 97 percent of the $388 million it was aiming for from donors around the world.
Of all the big ticket ways the entertainment world has gotten behind the museum, however, the pillar campaign may be the most affecting. “I call it a sacred circle,” Scully says. “There are so many women who have worked on the same films, and now we’re working on this project together. For this museum to be honoring the legacy of these women is so important. There wouldn’t be a Regina Scully, a Lyn Lear, or a Laura Dern without them, and there wouldn’t be that next generation who have the luxury to be doing what they are. They’re the backbone of this art form, and they deserve to be honored.”Photo credit: Richard Harbaugh/© Academy Museum Foundation
During a Town & Country photo shoot at the yet-to-be-completed museum, Loren and Moreno (who had, surprisingly, never met) visited their pillars together. The day had the buzzy, breezy feel of a family reunion—albeit for a remarkably accomplished clan—but when the two women went to the top floor to visit their tributes, the frisson gave way to reverent quiet, punctuated occasionally by sighs and sniffles.
The pillars are a touching tribute, but they also show the museum’s commitment to visibility for people previously written out of Hollywood history. “I felt like an outlier, and I didn’t get treated as sweetly as I might have by this business in my younger days,” Moreno says. “I’m a girl from this tiny Puerto Rican town, but look at where I am today. To be honored in this way is astonishing.”
It’s also part of a plan to examine film history, warts and all. “We’re going to tell a lot of difficult, dishonorable, and uncomfortable stories,” says museum director Bill Kramer, “including ones about the #MeToo movement, #OscarsSoWhite, prejudicial casting choices, and lack of representation—that will all be in there.”
Inclusion won’t be visible only on the gallery walls. The portrait that accompanies this piece—shot on a steamy September day in the David Geffen Theater—shows a group of 27 women who were instrumental in the museum’s founding, including trustee Laura Dern, donors Rita Wilson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Patti Bellinger-Balzer, and philanthropist Cheryl Saban, who with her media mogul husband Haim made a $50 million donation that resulted in the building being named in their honor.
“It’s a group of badass women,” Dern says. “These ladies have blown my mind. They’re powerhouses in finance, philanthropy, and the arts as well as film, and they have worked so hard to make this all happen.”
For Saban, the thought of getting involved was immediately appealing. “We were invited to a dinner at Ted Sarandos and Nicole Avant’s house several years ago with a few people who were already involved with the museum,” she says. “At one point Bob Iger asked Haim if he’d be willing to give a big donation, and his first inclination was to say, ‘It’s a wonderful thing, but the mission for our foundations is to be helpful in healthcare, to help women and children, to help people with issues that are more critical.’ Then he talked to me about it, and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? We have to do this.’”Photo credit: Todd Wawrychuk
This isn’t the first ambitious assemblage of Hollywood heavyweights to try to get a movie museum off the ground. The idea for an institution to showcase the academy’s collection of films, photos, scripts, and ephemera—popular with academics, but rarely seen by the public—started nearly a century ago, in 1929, with a group that included Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
“The founders of the academy had a vision that this art form needs to be preserved in the same way as other art forms. The very first articles of incorporation envisioned a museum,” says Hudson, who has run the organization since 2011. “As soon as I got here, I thought we had to have a place for people to see this. It became a priority for me from day one.”
The fundraising campaign for the Academy Museum’s current incarnation began in 2012, and according to Hudson they raised nearly $100 million in the first year, but delays repeatedly pushed back the museum’s opening, which was originally slated to take place in 2017. “Someone just said to me they couldn’t believe the museum was taking so long,” Dern says. “I get it, but I’ve also been renovating a bathroom for a year.” Considering the red tape involved in a project of this scale, she says, “I think it’s remarkable how well it’s coming together.”
For Hudson the power of the finished project makes up for any trouble encountered along the way. “Every time I see this thing that was just a model in Renzo Piano’s office and is now a reality, it’s just incredible,” she says. “To have watched that develop from a concept to this gorgeous building has been the experience of a lifetime.”
The museum, which consists of the Saban Building (a landmarked Streamline Moderne classic, built in 1939, notable for its gold mosaic-tiled cylindrical front and now outfitted inside with galleries designed in part by Why Architecture) and the glass, concrete, and steel Sphere Building (created by Piano to house the Geffen Theater and the Dolby Terrace) is a sight to behold.
The old-meets-new idea is not only visually powerful, it serves as an instant signifier of what’s going on inside. When the museum opens to the public on December 14 (assuming public gatherings are permitted at that point), it’s going to offer a wide range of programming that will reach back to the earliest days of the moving image without losing sight of moviemaking’s modern-day achievements (and problems).
An inaugural exhibition, “Stories of Cinema,” which will feature individual film artists on a rotating basis, includes collaborations with filmmakers Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar, a sound experience from Oscar-winning musician Hildur Guðnadóttir, a gallery devoted to The Wizard of Oz, and a spotlight on the work of Bruce Lee. Another exhibit allows visitors to reenact the “bullet time” sequence from The Matrix using the film’s original multi-camera rig. And no visit will be complete without a stop at the immersive Oscars Experience, which lets guests simulate walking across a stage and accepting little gold men of their own.
But there’s more here than history lessons and Instagram fodder. The museum will offer a chance for L.A. To pay tribute to the industry that drives it, a destination for cinephiles, and a way to pull back the curtain on an art form often celebrated only in amusement parks and tourist traps.
“I remember turning eight years old and saying I wanted to have a birthday party about movies,” Dern says. “My parents were confused and asked if I wanted to go to the movies. I said no, I wanted to go somewhere to learn about movies. And my mother, Diane Ladd, my father, Bruce Dern, and my godmother, Shelley Winters, looked at each other like, Shit, all we have is a wax museum.” The group ended up taking in the footprints at Mann’s Chinese Theater and heading to Schwab’s Pharmacy for a soda, but it didn’t quite hit the spot. Dern adds, “I can really say I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”
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