‘They Erased the Past’: Patrons of Major Hollywood Museum Question Omission of Jewish History
Some prominent members and donors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are asking why Jewish trailblazers who helped build the Hollywood industry are not spotlighted in its new museum in Los Angeles.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who attended the opening gala of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept. 25, called the absence “a conspiracy of silence and that’s deeply upsetting” in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
“I would’ve hoped that any honest historical assessment of the motion picture industry — its origins, its development, its growth — would include the role that Jews played in building the industry from the ground up,” he added. “As I walked through, I literally turned to the person I was there with and said to him, ‘Where are the Jews?’ The omission was glaring.”
Neal Gabler wrote in the introduction to his 1988 book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” that the American film industry was “founded and for more than 30 years operated by Eastern European Jews.” He added, “There were none of the impediments imposed by loftier professions and more firmly entrenched businesses to keep Jews and other undesirables out.”
Hollywood’s Jewish founding fathers included Paramount Pictures co-founder Adolph Zukor, Warner Bros. founders Harry and Jack Warner, Universal Pictures co-founder Carl Laemmle, Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn, and MGM co-founders Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer.
Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, who along with his wife Cheryl made the largest donation to the museum — a $50 million gift — told Rolling Stone that the couple “firmly believe that the Jewish contributions to the film industry, from its founding to today, should be highlighted.”
“We shared our perspective with the Academy Museum’s management and appreciate that they are taking our feedback seriously,” he said.
Some patrons considered withdrawing future financial contributions to the institution, with one Academy member who preferred to remain unnamed saying, “You left the museum with the impression that the film industry was created 10 years ago. They erased the past. And I find it appalling.”
The museum’s current exhibits include a retrospective on Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki; a three-floor exhibition titled “Stories of Cinema” about moviemakers and their works; a display of pre-cinematic devices from the collection of Richard Balzer; and another that spotlights the Mount Rushmore scenery in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
Opening this year is a new exhibition called “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” which will explore the history of African-American filmmakers.
The museum contains “scant mention of Jewish trailblazers,” with the exception of “Sunset Boulevard” director Billy Wilder, according to Rolling Stone. One of the six Oscars won by Wilder is displayed with a small placard stating that he fled Nazi Germany due to his religion.
“By not including the founding fathers out of the gate, they were making a massive statement,” said Triller CEO and Academy member Ryan Kavanaugh. “As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, it’s just shocking that they erased the contributions of a group who faced severe antisemitism — they couldn’t get bank loans, they couldn’t own homes in LA, and yet they still created this industry that is the bedrock of the LA economy and touches people around the world.”
“Instead of, ‘Look at what what they were able to do,’ it’s just wiped out,” Kavanaugh added. “It goes against everything that our industry says they stand for.”
An insider familiar with the decision-making process for the museum’s programing indicated there was a lack of will to push back, saying, “a lot of people who might have fought harder for the representation of Jews were just really laying low.”
In December, the museum launched a six-week film series titled “Vienna in Hollywood: Émigrés and Exiles in the Studio System,” which features predominately Jewish filmmakers “who made their way to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, escaping persecution from the Nazi party and rising antisemitism in Europe.” In the description of the series, the museum acknowledges that the US film industry was “built by Jewish immigrants.”
The museum’s director and president Bill Kramer told Rolling Stone that he has spoken with Academy members and donors who expressed their concerns about the lack of Jewish representation. He said the museum will open a display on the Jewish founding fathers of Hollywood next year, and while it was originally planned as a temporary installment, it will now be the museum’s first and only permanent exhibit.
“Representation is so important to us, including our Jewish founders,” he explained. “If we are not talking about them in enough detail or more prominently, we want to hear that and we want to respond to that. We heard these notes, and we get it. And we’re really happy to be able to make a change and are going to course correct.”
Sid Ganis, an honorary trustee of the museum, said he found no issue with the current set of exhibits and was “a little surprised” by the outrage.
“We have a museum that covers over 100 years of this industry,” he said. “And yes, we didn’t get to opening night with the origin story, but we got to opening night with what was relevant to the audience we were playing to and needed to include. I have friends who said to me, ‘Where are the Jews?’ It’s in the eyes of the beholder. They’re there, and they will be there in a bigger, more prominent way pretty soon.”
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is the largest museum in the US dedicated to the arts, sciences, and artists of moviemaking. Its mission is to advance “the understanding, celebration, and preservation of cinema through inclusive and accessible exhibitions, screenings, programs, initiatives, and collections.” Its guiding principles include efforts to “illuminate the past, present and possible futures of motion pictures and the Academy,” as well as “embrace diversity and be radically inclusive.”