A Night at the Academy Museum: How 20 Oscar Milestones and 27 Speeches Tell the Stories of Cinema

The Academy’s long-awaited home for movie history is finally here with an exhibit focusing on the most significant Oscar wins in 93 years.

At the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, 20 significant Oscar wins are featured in the “Academy Awards History” gallery, which is housed within the gorgeous golden rotunda of the Saban Building, formerly known as “the lipstick” of the May Company Building on Wilshire Boulevard. The actual statuettes are on display in a glass case. But perhaps most notable is the one that’s missing from this collection.

Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar, for best supporting actress for “Gone With the Wind” (1939), but her trophy is lost. It’s a heartbreaking tale wrapped in a web of suspicion and ongoing legal battles. Before McDaniel died of breast cancer in October 1952, she specified that her prize should be donated to Howard University. There are countless myths about where it could be. Was it destroyed by racists? Or just misplaced at McDaniel’s estate sale? No matter the location of her Oscar, the museum wants to honor her legacy.

Doris Berger, senior director of curatorial affairs, says the leadership knew early on that it wanted to highlight McDaniel’s legacy. “The key for us was a wide range of representation that we would like to have visible in that room,” says Berger. “That relates to race, gender, identity, sexual orientation, as well as crafts.”

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Courtesy of Joshua White/© Academy Museum Foundation

For years, the Academy’s pet project seemed to teeter on the edge of uncertainty, as its budget ballooned to nearly $500 million (in typical Hollywood fashion, that’s $100 million more than originally estimated). Now AMPAS, the ultimate entity of achievements in Hollywood, is finally opening its COVID-delayed museum to the public (admission is $25 per adult and free for minors). While it’s still unclear if anyone outside the greater Los Angeles area will make this a definitive go-to destination, the Academy’s continuous outreach to underserved communities and educational programming are symbols of hope that the invitation to be part of the movies will be received. As with all public art institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic has fixated the museum’s worries on how patrons and visitors can enjoy this rich history safely. The leadership feels confident that all proper precautions have been taken.

With the Oscars, AMPAS has excelled at building a brand that is synonymous with the highest honor in Hollywood. Although not without its share of controversies, unflattering hashtags and battles within its membership and leadership ranks, the Academy is still the industry gold standard (so to speak). The Museum of Motion Pictures is the organization’s clearest gesture to the general public: come inside and show your love for movies. With a vast collection of memorabilia and artifacts, the museum is ready to reflect and look to the future of cinematic milestones.

In “Academy Awards History,” an opulent, spirited exhibit that is one part of the inaugural “Stories of Cinema” exhibition, the two adjacent rooms contain 20 of the most notable wins in Oscar history, a wraparound screen displaying 27 video clips of historic Oscar speeches, gowns worn by winners Cher and Rita Moreno, Paul Newman’s watch and a timeline that highlights key Academy moments from 1927 onward. It’s like a come-to-life clips reel of some of the biggest hallmarks associated with the 93-year-old organization.

In the rotunda, a golden aura fills the room and a circular red chair in the middle welcomes visitors. Walking in and seeing what appear to be identical Oscar statuettes in 20 glass cases in a row can be misleading to the naked eye. However, looking more closely, you can discern the slight variations in the plating of the figures. Further, you notice the wear and tear on the individual statuettes, which comes from the multiple people allowed to touch them. And you can observe the physical evolution of the figure, from Charles Rosher’s cinematography win for “Sunrise” (1929) to Barry Jenkins’ adapted screenplay award for “Moonlight” (2016). And that’s without getting into any of the symbolic meanings that are associated with the trophy.

On view are the Oscars for cinematography for Rosher for “Sunrise,” best actress for Mary Pickford for “Coquette” (1929), best actor for Clark Gable for “It Happened One Night” (1934), color art direction for Cedric Gibbons for “The Yearling” (1946), supporting actor for Harold Russell for “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), story and screenplay for Billy Wilder for “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), Herbert Bragg’s Scientific and Technical Award (Class I) in 1953, film editing for Adrienne Fazan for “Gigi” (1958), best actor for Sidney Poitier for “Lilies of the Field” (1963), documentary feature for Barbara Kopple for “Harlan County, U.S.A.” (1976), visual effects for Richard Edlund for “Star Wars” (1977), sound effects editing for Charles L. Campbell for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), original song for Buffy Sainte-Marie for “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), documentary feature for Robert Epstein for “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), costume design for Eiko Ishioka for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), foreign language film for Taiwan’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), animated feature for Aron Warner for “Shrek” (2001), directing for Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity” (2013) and adapted screenplay for Jenkins for “Moonlight.”

Devoted to the industry’s historical, scientific and cultural impact, the museum is the first large-scale institution of its kind in the United States, holding more than 13 million objects, including costumes, props, film reels and more. In addition, the second and third floors house the opening exhibition “Stories of Cinema,” which features multiple themes, such as the influences of Spike Lee, how documentaries and narrative movies reflect and impact social issues and most notably, the history of the Academy Awards.

The selection of Oscars on view is not permanent. There are so many more stories beyond the ones chosen for the opening exhibition. While the winners in particular categories are represented, there were internal debates about whether to include all of the nominees and the agreed-upon Oscar snubs from over the years; those ultimately did not make it into the corridors but are touched upon in table text in the speeches room.

At 13.5 inches tall and about 8.5 pounds, the Oscar encapsulates much worth for the recipient: acknowledgment, recognition and successful achievement in the arts and science of moviemaking. Cedric Gibbons, an art director for MGM, designed the statuette, and there are theories about who it was modeled after, as it represents a seemingly lean male figure. There’s an unproven story that Mexican actor and director Emilio Fernández, who was friends with Gibbons’ wife, actor Dolores del Río, was the standing model.

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Courtesy of Joshua White/© Academy Museum Foundation

Every Oscar is permeated with the triumph, disappointments and even love and suffering experienced by the person who earned it. Buffy Sainte-Marie, who became the first (and only) Indigenous person to win an Academy Award, remembers the pain in her life during her proudest moment. “I was in a very bad marriage,” says Sainte-Marie. “You know the stories about Rihanna on her way to the Grammys? I was in a bad situation. I was beaten up and verbally abused in the car and pushed around that night. So I didn’t have a whole lot of fun, but I’m awfully glad that we won.”

At the time, Sainte-Marie was married to her then-producer-husband and co-songwriter Jack Nitzsche. While a moment can mean so much to an underrepresented community, it can simultaneously be a bittersweet reminder of a difficult time.

When you enter the speeches room, scrolling on the walls on both sides are 27 of the most memorable remarks shared by winning recipients. In the center, a large table holds the gowns worn by Cher when she was snubbed for best actress for “Mask” (1985) and Rita Moreno when she took best supporting actress for “West Side Story” (1961). (She wore the dress again when presenting best picture to “Nomadland” at the most recent ceremony.)

Moreno, who is the only Latina to win an acting Oscar, shares her disappointment about still holding that title. “We haven’t gotten very far,” she says. “We haven’t moved as much as we’d like to. We want to … but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Some of the featured speeches playing in the room are those of Sacheen Littlefeather, who accepted the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando for “The Godfather” (1972); Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win directing for “The Hurt Locker” (2009); and Halle Berry, who became the first and still only Black woman to win best actress for “Monster’s Ball” (2001). Overcome with emotion when her name was announced, Berry said the award was “for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

Two decades later, Berry, who is making her directorial debut this year with the Netflix film “Bruised,” is still alone in that space, with nominees Andra Day, Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo, Ruth Negga, Gabourey Sidibe and Quvenzhané Wallis all coming up short. “I didn’t think I’d be the only one 20 years later,” Berry says. “But while there’s no one standing next to me, which is heartbreaking, I’ve seen women of color thrive and do more things than they were able to do 20 years ago.”

Also on display is an illustrated timeline that highlights the Academy Awards from 1927 to 2021. It begins in 1927 with an image of producer and actor Mary Pickford, who was one of only three women, along with screenwriters Bess Meredyth and Jeanie MacPherson, who were part of the 36-person founding membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The timeline navigates many of the industry’s firsts, including one achieved in 1958, when the supporting performance categories included Asian nominees: Japanese actors Sessue Hayakawa for “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and eventual winner Miyoshi Umeki for “Sayonara.”

Overseen by director Bill Kramer and a board of trustees that includes Laura Dern, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Ryan Murphy, Ted Sarandos and Diane von Furstenberg, the museum is a place where a new and inspired generation of movie lovers can be born and nurtured. The building was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed notable landmarks such as the New York Times location on 41st Street.