Celebrating Movie Magic at the Academy Museum

Over the last few years Hollywood has been working hard in the former May Company building, overhauling it to turn it into the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Earlier this fall it finally opened, and we visited last weekend. Fair warning, this post includes spoilers of classic films such as Citizen Kane and Psycho.

The exterior of the Academy Museum, the corner is rounded and made up of small gold tiles. Flanking the curve in cold letters reads "Academy Museum."

Bruce, the giant shark from Jaws hangs over the escalators of the museum.

A rounded room with a gold chain curtain and small display cases housing Oscars. A small round red velvet couch sits in the center.

With five stories, the Academy Museum attempts to cover all aspects of movie making, and there is certainly something for everyone. A area I didn’t expect was one dedicated to the pre-cinema days of shadow puppets, “Magic Lanterns,” phenakistoscopes, flip books, kinetoscopes, and the zoetropes, all before the Lumière brothers perfected the motion picture as we know it today. The area also included some of the earliest films created, which were really just showcasing simple moments of life around the world.

In a small area is dedicated to “the greatest movie ever made” Citizen Kane, I was quite surprised to see the Rosebud from the film, as it is infamously burned in the film. Turns out three sleds were made in the event multiple takes had to be done. Orson Wellses did not like take one, but liked take two, and used it, thus sparing the third sled, which survived all of these years!

Animation gets a room of course, and showcases elements from the various methods of animation, from stop motion to the hand-drawn cell to computer animation. I was thrilled to see a puppet from Lotte Reinger, a German artist who made hand-cut silhouettes and used them in stop motion films. They are nothing short of enchanting, and I highly recommend checking out her work. While I have seen animation artist tables in various exhibits, it’s always a thrill to see one again. The one housed at the Academy Museum belonged to Frank Thomas, who did work on such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Sleeping Beauty, as well as personal favorite Robin Hood.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the massive hand-painted backdrops of Hollywood, and seeing one up close was certainly a thrill. It was made even better by the fact it was from one of my favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest. Used twice in the film, the backdrop showcases Mount Rushmore, which is where much of the film takes place. I was especially thankful that the Museum drew attention to the fact that the area now known as Mount Rushmore was taken from the Lakota. A sacred site, it was known to the Lakota as the Six Grandfathers prior to the presidential faces being craved upon it.

A room dedicated to special effects and intense costumery showcased a surprising amount of items from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which beautifully showcased the various elements of movie magic, from miniatures such as the one-eighth scale of Cobblepot Mansion and the matte painting of the Old Gotham Zoo. It’s wonderful to see such items up close, and really appreciate the skill that went into making the items.

Of course the museum also features areas dedicated to the Academy Awards themselves, showcasing various Oscars, and a timeline of the Academy Awards, highlighting when new categories were introduced and landmark wins.

A "Peacock" style magic lantern, which features a large circular disk that holds smaller glass discs with images on them that would be projected.

An early camera by the Lumiere Brothers.

Sketch for the backdrop from the opening of Citizen Kane, showing a decaying mansion.

The red sled from Citizen Kane, with gold letters reading "Rosebud" and a white rose painted below.

The massive technicolor movie camera.

Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, visible behind is Dorothy and company on the Yellow Brick Road with the gleaming Emerald City in the distance.

Storyboard of the murder of Marion in the shower in the film Psycho.

A silhouette cut out of a soldier, made by Lotte Reinger.

A pale wood desk features a tilted top and rotating space for the artist to move their paper around. Short shelves above and a lamp hangs from the top. A name placard reads "Frank Thomas."

Various heads of Jack Skelington from The Nightmare before Christmas.

Mr. Fox, a fox puppet wearing a button down shirt and red and gold stripe tie, from the stop motion film The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Myself standing in front of the massive backdrop painting of Mount Rushmore from North by Northwest.

A gothic Cobblepot mansion from Batman Returns, a 1/8th scale.

The matte painting from Batman Returns which features the ruins of the Old Gotham Zoo. The center features an empty area where the practical area would be.

The beloved droid R2-D2 from Star Wars.

A sketch features men battling skeletons, from the film Jason and the Argonauts, which featured Ray Harryhausen's amazing effects.

The backside of an astronaut costume from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features a blue backpack with all sorts of silver dials on it.

A quilted robe as worn by Gary Oldman in Dracula.

The belted leather costume of Edward Scissorhands. The center belt features a buckle of a crescent moon with a face.

The intricate red and brown costume of the Dora Milaje from Black Panther.

Brad Pitt's costume from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, of a Champion sparkplugs tee under a yellow print shirt and jeans.

A glamorous costume sketch of Grace Kelly from Read Window, as done by Edith Head.

Close-up of my charm bracelet which features a mini Oscar charm.

The Academy doesn’t shy away from issues of racial tension either. Highlights included a dedicated area to Bruce Lee, Oscar Micheaux, and Spike Lee. Racial stereotyping, sexism, and violence were also touched on in the animated section, and a small area was dedicated to Native Americans in film, and how their representation has changed over the decades.

Much of film making doesn’t have tangible things, so the museum has several viewing rooms that showcase various processes, including cinematography, set design, and sound mixing, giving visitors insight into the layers that go into making a film.

Despite a 3:30 pm entry time, we ended up closing out the museum, and still didn’t see everything! We ended up skipping the entire Hayao Miyazaki exhibit! Which I was okay with, as I’m not a fan of his work (don’t hate me!) but those who do love his work have until June 5, 2022 to visit. That area will then feature an exhibit on Black cinema.

The Academy Museum is located within the iconic Streamline Moderne structure that was once home to the May Company department store. Designed by Albert C. Martin Sr, and opening in 1939 it was one of the places to shop in Los Angeles. It closed in 1992, and became a LA Historic-Cultural Monument the same year. In 1994 it was acquired by the LA County Museum of Art who have their museum directly behind the former department store. The once glitzy department store sat vacant until 2014 when the Academy signed a 55 year lease with LACMA, and joining the ranks of other nearby museums such as the Petersen Automotive Museum, LACMA, and the La Brea Tar Pits.

Peek into the world of movie magic at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures at 6067 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Learn more about the museum, exhibits, as well as buy tickets on their website. Please note that as of our visit, the museum required proof of vaccination and masks to be worn.

What’s Nearby?

El Coyote Cafe

Petersen Automotive Museum

La Brea Tar Pits

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