In a design marriage of space age and Streamline Moderne, the newly constructed David Geffen Theater has docked with the 1939 former May Company department store at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire. Together, the pair of buildings is the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures—four stories of exhibition space coupled with the 1,000-seat theater, where you’d surely lose Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Everything’s red inside the theater and The Wizard of Oz was screened twice on opening day in September.
Dorothy’s slippers are actually next door in the museum’s permanent exhibition, housed in a clear display case alongside the Wicked Witch’s hat and the Cowardly Lion’s mane. But don’t picture a gallery where you can hear a pin drop. This is a museum for the movies, and it can get a little dramatic.
“Movies create emotion,” says Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano, who designed the museum. “Tell me about another art that can move people so easily to tears.” Renzo Piano Building Workshop brought shadow and the light, taking the former department store down to its concrete-and-steel core. Walking into the permanent Stories of Cinema exhibition on the first floor is like entering a darkened theater. Instead of one screen there are a half-dozen TV-size ones suspended in midair and playing simultaneously among dark curtains. You walk around them like artworks, hearing dialogue and seeing characters you may know. Most clips reach way back: black-and-white scenes, men in dark suits, Godzilla, Bugs Bunny.
The experience ends rather quickly, as you walk back into the light, go up the glass elevator, and enter through another heavy theater door into the exhibition’s much longer scene two. This time there’s one gigantic horizontal screen split three ways and showing more recent clips from Star Wars, Driving Miss Daisy, Charlie’s Angels, and Ghost. The scenes rotate through in seconds, playing off one another with common themes and shots.
Citizen Kane and Bruce Lee are both featured as Significant Movies and Moviemakers. Then the exhibition spends room after room detailing the Components of Moviemaking. The last category is where you will finally meet the real R2-D2 and C-3PO, albeit as unanimated in their display cases as the ruby slippers.
There’s a second movie theater in the lower level beneath the exhibitions (you can buy tickets to regular screenings through the museum website), and a tearoom for events on the fifth floor. A light-filled, second-story bridge crosses over to the David Geffen Theater, with a showpiece rooftop event space capped by a rounded, retractable glass roof.
Most appropriate for the academy’s voyage through the 21st century is a placard in the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby that reads “There is … a long history of excluding diverse voices from the development of this art form. This has enabled and perpetuated damaging stereotypes [that] were wrong in the past and are wrong now …. [J]oin us as we work to build empathy, accountability, and a more equitable future through the lens of cinema.” academymuseum.org