On Sept. 25, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures held its opening gala with a starry guest list that included Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Queen Latifah, Patty Jenkins, Tiffany Haddish, Kristen Stewart, and Jurnee Smollet. It was a moment long in the making, given that planning of the Renzo Piano-designed mecca celebrating the history of film first began back in 2005 and was delayed by the rise of the Covid pandemic. Though eyebrows were raised by the fact that the A-list revelers mingled maskless inside the 33,000-square-foot space on Wilshire Boulevard at a time when celebrities were publicly chastising those who ignored Covid precautions, a much bigger controversy was brewing. Donors and influential Academy members, many of whom already had received private tours, were outraged that Hollywood’s origin story — wherein a group of mostly Jewish émigrés fled persecution in their home countries to create what would become a multibillion-dollar, American-led industry — was conspicuously absent.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who was on hand for the gala, was immediately struck by the lapse. “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 says. “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.”
That sentiment is being echoed from Hollywood’s C-suites to the halls of academia. “It’s sort of like building a museum dedicated to Renaissance painting, and ignoring the Italians,” says Hollywood historian and Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty. “That generation of early moguls — Carl Laemmle, Jack Warner, we know all their names — is a terrific story of upward mobility, living the American dream. It’s one of the great contributions of American Jews to American culture.”
Instead of tributes to those Old Hollywood pioneers, the dozen-plus exhibits that would open to the public five days later included more contemporary-skewing fare, such as Director’s Inspiration: Spike Lee and Installation: Pedro Almodóvar. And behind the scenes, a full revolt was afoot, sources say, with some patrons threatening to pull future support for the institution. Says one prominent Academy member who declined to be named: “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.”
Haim Saban, who made a $50 million donation to the museum with his wife Cheryl — the single largest gift to the institution — was one of those with influence who spoke up. “Cheryl and I firmly believe that the Jewish contributions to the film industry, from its founding to today, should be highlighted,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We shared our perspective with the Academy Museum’s management and appreciate that they are taking our feedback seriously.”
Nearly four months since opening its doors, 290,000 people have purchased tickets to the museum, far exceeding internal projections. But many from Hollywood’s older generation, who avoided the early crush due to Covid, have only recently begun to trickle through the five-story edifice. And the feedback the Academy has received from this wider audience regarding the absence of many of Hollywood’s founding fathers continues to be less than glowing.
“I’ve had sit-downs with four Academy members and two donors who wanted to better understand why they weren’t seeing an exhibition on the primarily Jewish founders of Hollywood, and we take that note very seriously,” says museum director and president Bill Kramer. “Representation is so important to us, including our Jewish founders. 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.”
In response, Kramer reveals to Rolling Stone that a year from now, the museum will unveil a long-planned exhibit on the so-called founding fathers and the birth of the studio system, which will mark the first and only permanent exhibition in the collection. It was originally envisioned as a temporary installment, but museum brass reversed course following the outcry.
Saban, for one, was also heartened by a six-week film series, launched Dec. 11, titled Vienna in Hollywood: Émigrés and Exiles in the Studio System, which features predominately Jewish filmmakers — from Erich von Stroheim to Max Steiner — who helped shape the film industry’s classical era. “We have no doubt that as the museum’s dynamic exhibitions continue to rotate, Jewish contributions will continue to be represented among the many important stories about the history, art, and artists of the movies,” Saban adds.
But some feel that the damage has already been done.
“By not including the founding fathers out of the gate, they were making a massive statement,” says Triller co-founder 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 anti-Semitism — they couldn’t get bank loans, they couldn’t own homes in L.A., and yet they still created this industry that is the bedrock of the L.A. economy and touches people around the world. Instead of, ‘Look at what what they were able to do,’ it’s just wiped out. It goes against everything that our industry says they stand for.”
Why the museum made such a polarizing move is a matter of debate and intrigue. Sources say a small contingent of influential Academy members pushed hard for nonwhite cinema to be highlighted and white contributions to be de-emphasized. A review of the exhibits would seem to support this notion. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, for example, received a retrospective, while there was no similar treatment for the genre’s godfather, Walt Disney.
The relative obscurity of others spotlighted, such as Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, who received the museum’s first Vanguard Award, left some patrons scratching their heads. The museum’s website notes that Gerima “has mentored several generations of filmmakers such as cinematographers Malik Sayeed and Bradford Young as well as cinematographer and video artist Arthur Jafa.” But one patron, noting that The Godfather is mentioned nowhere in the museum, says far more influential filmmakers seem to have been ignored: “I don’t think this man has ever made a film that was distributed [widely]. That’s a kind of insanity. I mean, Coppola is still alive. They couldn’t have gotten him?”
If identity was a priority in programming, Jewish identity apparently was not. There is scant mention of Jewish trailblazers, Sunset Boulevard director Billy Wilder being an exception. A small placard next to one of the six Oscars he won notes that he fled Nazi Germany because of his religion.
A source who is familiar with programming decisions says it was a battle no one was willing to fight, even if that meant a skewed overview of cinema history: “A lot of people who might have fought harder for the representation of Jews were just really laying low,” says the source.
Although the current drama has played out mostly under the radar, a few outlets have blasted the museum for neglecting the forefathers. Sharon Rosen Leib wrote in The Forward: “At the museum, [Jews] are ghosts. Their presence hangs over the halls — there would literally be no museum, no industry, without them.” Likewise, Sam Wasson’s critique in Air Mail of the new tourist attraction was even more scathing, calling it “worse than a failure. It is a fraud.” A piece by Peter Kiefer and Peter Savodnik in Bari Weiss’ Substack, Common Sense, also referenced the museum’s omissions of Jewish contributions amid a broader report on modern culture clashes in Hollywood.
As more industry veterans visit the museum for the first time, resentment continues to simmer, with some expressing everything from confusion to downright disgust about the programming. Many that Rolling Stone spoke to declined to be named given the third-rail nature of the issue. “It’s a conspiracy of silence and that’s deeply upsetting,” says Greenblatt.
But others say the controversy is overblown. Sid Ganis, who was one of the earliest champions of the museum and is an honorary trustee, began to hear rumblings of disappointment even before the gala and was “a little surprised.” Ultimately, he has no regrets about the museum’s content.
“We have a museum that covers over 100 years of this industry. 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,” he says. “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.”
Ethan Millman contributed to this report.