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Q & A with Dara Jaffe -By Naomi Pfefferman
Art & Entertainment local_spotlight Passover

Hollywoodland: The Academy Museum


When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures made its highly anticipated debut in 2021, some visitors were outraged. As one prominent Jewish leader reportedly observed, “Where are the Jews?” Missing was a section on the pioneering Jewish moguls who had invented studio system after being forced out of more established fields due to anti-Semitism.

Museum officials responded by creating its first permanent exhibition ever, based on a long-planned exhibition on the moguls, curated by museum associate curator Dara Jaffe, who joined the museum staff in 2013 and has curated or co-curated shows such as “John Waters: Pope of Trash.”

JLiving caught up with Jaffe, who is Jewish, in a recent Zoom interview to discuss the controversy, the moguls and the upcoming show, “Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital.”

The exhibition will open on May 19.

Carl Laemmle, undated. Courtesy Margaret Herrick Library

JLiving: Were you surprised that some people criticized the museum for neglecting the mostly Jewish creators of the film industry?

Dara Jaffe: I was very interested and eager to read that feedback. I had already been working at the museum for eight years before we opened and the whole time you’re thinking of the visitors and how they’re going to experience it. Up to that point, you can only imagine what their feedback is going to be so I just felt like I was very interested…. [We have] the idea of representing as many cultural stories, as many different significant cinematic communities’ stories [as we can].

The [moguls] are a foundational [Hollywood] story, which is one reason why this exhibition is going to be permanent….For our core exhibition, “Stories of Cinema,” everything is modular, everything is rotating. “Hollywoodland” is a stand-alone exhibition outside of our core exhibition…. which means we’re taking it very seriously.

JL: The Hollywood Reporter said that when the museum opened back in 2021, the lack of Jewish representation caused some insiders to view this as “an overcorrection due to ‘wokeness.’”

DJ: When I’ve heard someone say the word ‘woke,’ my instinct is to ask them to define it: What do you mean by that? I think so many people have different ideas of what that word means….[For us], it’s just a matter of wanting to be very inclusive.

Dara Jaffe. Courtesy Margaret Herrick Library

JL: What are some of your goals for this exhibition?

DJ: We have two main objectives. One, we want to tell the story of filmmaking in L.A. all the way back to the very beginning and answer the question, why L.A.? Why is this the place that became the movie capital of the world and still is? The museum will also spotlight the Jewish founders of Hollywood and how we’re thinking about the way these two stories go together. There is the physical, geographical place of L.A., and there’s a kind of mythological symbol of Hollywood that has come to represent American filmmaking around the world. There was filmmaking in L.A. before the Jewish founders established the studio system. But it was the Jewish founders of the studio system that turned L.A. into Hollywood, the symbol.

JL: These founders came to Los Angeles because there was an anti-Semitism in other fields back East. They came here and reinvented themselves in Hollywood and they invented Hollywood.

DJ: Absolutely. And not only did they invent Hollywood and reinvent themselves, but in many ways, they invented the version of America that came to represent the ‘real’ America. If you regard what people are seeing on their movie screens as representing- ing America, those become these iconic images and iconography. What’s really being defined there is an immigrant version of the American dream. Of course, the people who invented this version of America were never fully embraced by America. These are all themes that we’re going to touch on in the show.

JL: Who are some of the moguls who will be featured in the exhibition?

DJ: We’re looking at the founding of the original eight major studios. And for each of those studios, we are looking at the biography of either the studio head or founder who’s really associated with and really shaped that studio. [They] included Harry Cohn of Columbia, the Warner Bros. and William Fox of Fox….Also, we really want to show how each of these filmmakers had very specific priorities and personalities that truly shaped their movies….We want our visitors to walk away with an understanding on a human level of who they were as individuals. Also, for all of them, we want to show they really did have a very similar trajectory into the film busi- ness and throughout their careers because of their Jewish identities and specifically their Jewish immigrant identities.

JL: Will you tell their stories, warts and all?

A: We wanted to give a sense of their personalities. Sometimes that can be a bit complex. I wouldn’t say we are delving into those. I think we’re doing just enough to convey the complexity. Whenever you’re making an exhibition, you don’t get too many words – it’s not a book. And so, you really have to get to the heart of it with just the right examples.

Like Louis B. Mayer – the fact that he chose the Fourth of July as his birthday. I think whether or not his Russian birth records were really lost or not….He’s reinvented himself; he wants to be seen as the most American person ever, literally born on the Fourth of July. To me, that’s always something I point to just to show just how much [the moguls] were focused on assimilation. The fear of anti-Semitism was very real and was always a threat. From the very beginning, they proved that this new industry was not only lucrative but also could have influence because you’ve got movie screens all over the world. That’s when other people become very concerned that it’s Jewish people at the top of this industry and try to take it out of their hands. From the very beginning, you have the Catholic Legion of Decency, you have censorship, the House Un-American Activities Committee [with its] communist witch hunt….If you scratch the surface on any sort of accusation that was leveled at Hollywood, it was anti-Semitism – all of it.

Louis B. Mayer, circa 1924. Courtesy Margaret Herrick Library

JL: What kinds of things will we learn about Carl Laemmle of Universal?

DJ: We of course tell the story of him starting on the East Coast. It was the very beginning of filmmaking in America, which was truly under a very brutal monopoly led by Thomas Edison. Carl Laemmle was the one who went after him and triumphed in the courtroom. I love that he named his original film company IMP –Independent Moving Pictures. The idea was he had chosen IMP on purpose because he saw himself like a little devil who could take down this titan. He was like a little thorn in [Edison’s] side.

At one point, [Laemmle] had 11 women directors…he used to tell people that Lois Weber was his best director. And then in the ‘30s, he devotes his life to rescuing as many German Jews as possible [as well as] members of his own family from the Nazis. You know what they [used to] say: “Carl Laemmle has a big family.”

JL: What are you hoping that audiences will take away from visiting “Hollywoodland?”

DJ: I hope that they come away with a richer sense of Hollywood history and Los Angeles history. I hope that when they’re standing in the gallery they get a tangible sense that they are actually standing right in the middle of that history.

For more information, visit www.academymuseum.org.

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