How to Spot the Hidden Gems at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

The new museum is a joy, but here's how to strategically approach its collection.

the academy museum, spike lee
Photo by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When you visit the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles there are some stops you will invariably make. You will probably take a selfie in front of "Bruce," the hanging shark from Jaws, that looms over the escalator on the third floor. You might hop across the Barbra Streisand bridge to take in the gorgeous California vista. You'll probably look at Rosebud, the sled from Citizen Kane. (Spoiler? For a movie released in 1941?) But the Academy Museum's collection is one worth spending time with. The closer you look the more you'll get out of the experience.

The long-in-the-works Academy Museum, from the same organization that hosts the Oscars, opened last September, and features four floors of galleries. The majority of the collection is housed in the "Stories of Cinema" galleries, which span three spaces—though the first, stationed next to the gift shop, is just a series of clips on screens. The museum doesn't aim to tell a comprehensive history of filmmaking. Instead, it seeks to highlight the works of artisans and creators across time. In that sense, strolling through can be overwhelming, and while some displays immediately draw your attention, others you might overlook. Consider this a loose guide about where to direct your eyes from another fan. Tickets are timed entry so make your reservation before you go.
 

The Oscar Micheux display

The "Stories of Cinema" exhibit on the second floor opens with a series of displays highlighting individual creators or films. And while it would be easy to be drawn to the Citizen Kane—hey, there's Rosebud—and Bruce Lee sections, I would encourage you not to overlook the corner dedicated to Oscar Micheux, a Black filmmaker who worked through 1919 through the 1940s, whose work like the film Within Our Gates directly challenged the racist invective of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. The space not only plays clips of Micheux's films, but highlights how he advocated for himself via advertising at the time. By highlighting Micheux the museum directly contradicts the typical narrative of Hollywood's birth.


 

cher dress academy museum
Photo by Esther Zuckerman

The gowns

Look, you aren't going to miss Cher's 1986 ensemble designed by Bob Mackie, as well as the dress that Rita Moreno wore to the Oscars twice—first when she won for West Side Story in 1962 and the second when she presented in 2018. They loom large in a vast space where screens play notable speeches on repeat. But I cannot express the joy I felt to be able to gaze upon these looks. After all, I wrote a book about them. The museum doesn't give much context—you may not know that Cher wore the feathered headdress and torso-baring black outfit after being snubbed for Mask—but it's still stunning.

spike lee acceptance speech academy museum
Photo by Esther Zuckerman

Spike Lee's posters and his handwritten acceptance speech


When you enter the room full of Spike Lee's personal treasures your eyes will immediately be drawn to the highlights: The purple suit that Lee wore to accept his Oscar for the BlackKklansman screenplay, for instance; the guitar Lee was gifted from Prince; Mookie's jersey from Do The Right Thing. But don't forget to look closely. My favorite part of Spike's room was his collection of signed posters and photos, which show the depth of his film love. He has an On the Waterfront poster signed by director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Schulberg calls Lee "my main man." Lee's Jaws poster is signed by Steven Spielberg, who writes, "Jaws almost ate me alive!" There's a signed image of Akira Kurosawa, and another of Lee hanging out with Martin Scorsese, inscribed by the latter. I was also captivated by Lee's handwritten Oscars acceptance speech, noting that he wrote out, in all caps, "BROOKLYN'S IN DA HOUSE BROOKLYN WINS BROOKLYN WIN BOOM SHACKALACKA."


 

The screenplays

Tucked in what is essentially an alleyway between Spike Lee's collection and the Wizard of Oz room is a display about the art of the screenplay. It's easy to overlook, but it contains some of the most thrilling treasures the museum has to offer, a look at process you're unlikely to get anywhere else. There, I found a page from the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally… annotated by screenwriter Nora Ephron herself, in impeccable penmanship. On the left hand side of the document she's added the bit where Harry and Sally, walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, speak in funny voices, resulting in Harry asking Sally out for the first time. It's a part of the movie that's so loose it almost seems improvised, but instead here you see it came directly from Ephron's hand. Elsewhere in that hallway you'll find Gregory Peck's annotations on his To Kill a Mockingbird script, specifically his rousing speech trying to convince the jury of Tom Robinson's innocence. Peck, in red pen, wrote in all caps: "DON'T HURRY GIVE IT WEIGHT! BLOOD!" And while you spend time examining these pages, don't miss the video about Navajo extras in John Ford films. Their improvised dialogue in their own language is translated, revealing how they subverted the white-focused narratives.


 

stanley tucci hair
Photo by Esther Zuckerman

The casting room

Yet another room you might miss is the one dedicated to casting, but don't skip over it, particularly the wall from the personal archive of legendary casting director Marion Dougherty. There, you can examine her notecards revealing her early takes on pre-fame luminaries. Al Pacino "reminded [her] of Dustin Hoffman." She was convinced Matthew McCounaghey was headed for greatness. "As I said before," she wrote. "This kid is going to be a star." Dougherty's polaroids are also not to be missed. Yes, that fresh faced youngster is Ethan Hawke. And there's Stanley Tucci with hair.


 

midsommar dress academy museum
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

The conversation around the Midsommar dress

Obviously the floral dress from Midsommar, which the Academy bought from an A24 auction, is one of the more instagrammable spots of the museum, but I found myself as captivated by Andrea Flesch's design as I was by people's reactions to it. Ari Aster's terrifying folk horror is not the most famous title represented in the museum, so while eyes are drawn to the ensemble, there's also confused curiosity. And kids, who are way too young to experience the saga about grief and terrible boyfriends, love it. One little girl was glued to the dress and the video beneath it which shows Florence Pugh striding away from the burning structure where her ex is being consumed by flames. Her mother told her Pugh was probably going to get water. The rest of the installation is fantastic as well, an opportunity to examine studies for the likes of Tilda Swinton's Suspiria robes, as well as see Joan Crawford's green suit from Mildred Pierce rendered on screen in black and white.


 

academy museum
Photo by Esther Zuckerman

The animation gallery

Though you might be invariably drawn to the room one over in the "Stories of Cinema" area on the third floor—which contains R2D2, C3PO, E.T., the costume from Edward Scissorhands, and Danny DeVito's prosthetic Penguin nose—but I would encourage you to linger in the animation gallery before heading over to see those marquee items. Filled with models and studies it's a wonderful look at the evolution of a design. I was particularly taken with gorgeous studies for Bambi, but you can find character models from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Shrek as well as looks at how the likes of Up and Inside Out evolved.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.