Producer John Goldwyn turned down his invite to the September 2021 opening gala for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The grandson of Samuel Goldwyn — an industry founding father whose executive endeavors a century ago led to the formation of both Paramount and MGM — had been astonished to learn, before the institution’s debut, that the immigrant pioneers who invented Hollywood weren’t addressed in the decade-in-the-making, $500 million, 300,000-square-foot citadel to moviedom.
“If you’re going to have a museum in Los Angeles tied to the Academy that celebrates arguably the most significant art form of the 20th century, how is it possible not to acknowledge the Jewish men who started it all?” asks Goldwyn, ticking off names like Universal’s Carl Laemmle, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, Paramount’s Adolph Zukor and the brothers Warner. “It’s an egregious oversight.”
Goldwyn wasn’t alone in his displeasure. Haim Saban, who donated $50 million to the institution (its single largest gift), has gone public with his view, along with Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who attended the gala and later told Rolling Stone: “As I walked through, I literally turned to the person I was there with and said to him, ‘Where are the Jews?’ “
In 2018, the museum announced a permanent exhibition plan, under then-head Kerry Brougher (who’d arrived from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum). It included a gallery dedicated to the arc of the studio system and its founders. But his replacement, Bill Kramer, explains that “we moved away from a chronological walk-through of cinematic history” in favor of a more thematic approach when he took over the following year. “So many things were looked at in different ways in terms of, ‘How do we knit this all together?’ Others believe the reconceived format was cover for a new cultural storehouse wishing to position itself, post-George Floyd, to best avoid criticism over Hollywood’s own racism. Explains one museum insider, “There has been a huge overcorrection of [film] history due to wokeness.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs LA’s Museum of Tolerance, and himself a two-time Oscar winner (for producing documentaries on Jewish subjects, 1982’s Genocide and 1997’s The Long Way Home), contends that to inaugurate an institution canonizing the film business in the absence of those who created it “is a form of intellectual discrimination. Without the Jewish leadership in Hollywood, there would be no Hollywood,” he says.
The founding moguls, mostly Ashkenazi Jews, created what became the film industry in part because they were excluded, both formally and informally, from what were then more prestigious commercial sectors, like finance. “You could have an accent” in the nascent film industry, explains Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. “It was wide open.”
Today, due to assimilation, the moguls’ descendants typically are considered white, and even the once-pervasive professional Anglicization of stage names — still in evidence among the likes of Winona Ryder (née Horowitz) and Natalie Portman (Hershlag) — has faded in younger generations. But this was not the world the founders inhabited.
Since Hollywood’s beginning, antisemites have blamed Jews for everything from moral corruption to political subversion, according to Neal Gabler’s volume on the moguls, An Empire of Their Own. A core charge was that their otherness — advanced through the new technology of motion pictures and the fiefdoms they’d built to harness it — oppressed traditional American values.
The consistent xenophobic assault on a group anxious about its own precarious position within national life shaped the industry’s leadership. A reactionary conservatism prevailed among many of the moguls. They proactively implemented the Motion Picture Production Code, a puritanical set of guidelines that not only put limits on sex, skin and violence but also symbolism or storylines that it considers anti-patriotic or amoral. Later, they’d release the Waldorf Statement, which blacklisted the so-called Hollywood Ten — producers, directors and screenwriters who refused to answer questions regarding their political affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A candid assessment of Hollywood’s Jewish founders must tangle with this record, along with their more personal failings. It may be tsuris for a museum already in the crosshairs of many Jewish donors.
Yet overlooking the moguls’ story is troublingly ahistorical, say scholars. “It implies that — despite antisemitism — Jews are seen as insiders rather than the outsiders they were before creating Hollywood,” says Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, who wrote Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. The missing narrative also deprives museumgoers of understanding how these men, through their gifts and ambitions as well as their prejudices and flaws, defined struggles persisting to this day, from labor relations to gender equity. Some see a paradox in the pioneers ending up on the cutting-room floor, since they mostly kept their Jewishness within the realm of their private lives, instead using their studios to promulgate and burnish their country’s mythos — happy endings most of all. “It’s the ultimate irony that this idealized, almost utopia-like portrait of America was created onscreen and perpetuated by a handful of impoverished Jewish immigrants,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. Adds J. Hoberman, author of a volume on Jewish contributions to film, Entertaining America: “There’s a reason why [MGM founder] Louis B. Mayer claimed his birthday was July 4th.” Oscar-winning documentarian Richard Trank, who oversees content at the Museum of Tolerance, notes that “the Hollywood Jews kept a low profile about their Jewishness. You had very few films — Gentleman’s Agreement, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker — and it really wasn’t until Schindler’s List in the ’90s that the motion picture industry came around.”
The museum, whose official messaging touts a desire to be “radically inclusive” — the temporary opening exhibits include established names like Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar as well pioneering Black director Oscar Micheaux, groundbreaking female editor Thelma Schoonmaker and martial arts master Bruce Lee — since has acknowledged it’s erred in omitting the founders. But the institution, which has sold more than 400,000 tickets, emphasizes that Jewishness has been woven into its curatorial activity since the opening, pointing to a symposium on Austrian exiles like Billy Wilder, which began at the end of 2021, as well as several moments throughout the collection currently on display, including an animated clip from 1986’s An American Tail, about a family of Jewish mice escaping a pogrom. (A prominent sign in one hallway recognizing donor Barbra Streisand as the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a major studio film, 1983’s Yentl, notes that she “redefined beauty standards” but doesn’t mention her Jewishness; Kramer says that Streisand pre-approved the wall text, which isn’t part of a curated exhibit, and therefore isn’t subject to the museum’s standards.)
“For me [the outcry] was a lesson,” says Jacqueline Stewart, chief artistic and programming officer. “It’s also an acknowledgment of the really high expectations of us as an institution.” In response, what she and Kramer describe as a previously planned temporary exhibit about the founders, “Hollywoodland,” is now being reconceived as permanent, scheduled to debut in spring 2023. (Gabler has been brought on to consult; he didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
“Hollywoodland,” not yet finalized, will be a broad exploration of the birth of the studio system, but its curator, Dara Jaffe, assures that the pioneers’ backgrounds will deeply inform the exhibit. “They were creating their own American dream,” she says, “as they were creating Hollywood’s American dream.”
This story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.