Museum Review: Behind the Screen at the Museum of the Moving Image

What resonates in Behind the Screen, MMI’s ongoing exhibition, is the attention to craft, image and how these permeate social history. “The museum is not just about art or artistic value,” explains collection curator Barbara Miller, “Our job is to draw the curtain on the Wizard of Oz and see what’s going on.” With that aim, objects are chosen “to add to the story about how craft changes,” explains Miller.

It’s an interesting mission, one actualized with abundant success.

I visited the exhibition twice: once in the company of Miller, and later, just me and my Nikon. True confession—I found it difficult to maintain a professional demeanor on the first visit. Once, while Miller introduced me to the transformations in the hair and makeup section, I gasped and interrupted, my normally smoky voice suddenly possessed by a childish lilt, “look, it’s the Bride of Frankenstein!”

Bad hair day? No, birth by electricity. Reconstruction of the wig for "Bride of Frankenstein", 1935. By Josephine Turner and Leland Crawford.

The challenge here is keeping cool, and maybe that’s the point. Don’t. The exhibition offers one-on-one experiences with so many touchstones of Hollywood history—Chewbacca’s head! Mork’s uniform! Winona Ryder’s legs from Black Swan!— it’s a losing battle to approach it with anything less than an inner dialogue full of explanation marks. In choice of objects, the curators engagement with the audience is clear; they know what will capture attentions, and, deftly, they capture, then in the display text reward the inner intellectual as well.

Chewbacca mask from "Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope", 1977

Winona Ryders legs from "Black Swan", 2010

Lon Cheney was an early innovator in makeup art, using mortician’s wax to transform his face for the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Popcorn in movie theaters was a Depression-era innovation, an effort to attract and keep audiences. Film cameras used in World War II were painted in camouflage. Ushers in movie palaces “performed with the precision of a military unit, lining up for inspection before their shifts and marching to their stations.” Such are the tidbits of potential cocktail chatter picked up on tour of Behind the Screen. On their own, interesting facts, no doubt about it. But as tropes to urge the reader to consider wider cultural implications–priceless.


Uniform of a Radio City Music Hall usher

Behind the Screen begins with a display of black and white portraits—a visual archive of old Hollywood’s greatest faces. En masse, it’s a giddy experience; but it’s also interesting to consider how the curators arranged the images. Of note, side-by-side photographs of Jane Russell and Gene Tierney: among the head shots, these are the only two shown in repose—a wink at the selling of a star. Or (need I clarify?) sex.

George Hurrell, Gene Tierney, 1944

How does a character become one? The actor’s perspective has been told in countless interviews, but what of those who create the physical being that the actors inhabit? The skills to transform an actor are often overlooked, subsumed into accolades of an actor’s accomplishments. Makeup, masks, wig, and even fake legs are indispensable to Hollywood’s magic; the skilled craftspeople who bring those elements to life are the artists behind the artifice.

a partially ventilated wig.


"Jezebel", 1938. Reconstruction by Josephine Taylor and Leland Crawford.

For my interests, the most immediately arresting vision was the impressive vitrine of vintage movie magazines. So much cultural information can be inferred just by studying these covers—from the gaze of an idol to the cover lines (“How Far Should a Good Girl Go?”). Soon, though, my quiet contemplation was disturbed by the exuberant commentary of two women in their 70s. “Olivia de Havilland, now she was a beauty,” one gushed. “Jennifer Jones!” countered her friend, “When she died in Farewell to Arms, oh did I sob.” Quickly, they were on to the next. “Rita Hayworth. Stunning, stunning, stunning. They were stars then.” These two were as enjoyable as the display itself.

The exhibition includes costumes as well. While impressively displayed and given a place of due prominence, my connection with this section was surprisingly light. It was fun. I enjoyed imagining the actors and actresses in character. I took note of tiny waistlines. And while I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know–I  didn’t feel let down. For the moment, proximity to a garment worn by the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr was plenty.

Dress worn by Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah", 1949; dress worn by Glenn Close in "Dangerous Liasons" 1988; costume worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in "Honeymoon in Vegas"


Costumes for "Mildred Pierce", 2011, by Ann Roth

Even after two visits in two weeks, I’m already looking forward to the next time. Maybe on November 13, when, in collaboration with the Fashion in Film Festival, the museum will host a program on 1960’s drag queen, Mario Montez.

Hope to see you there.



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1 Comment

  • Jenna Rossi-Camus October 12, 2011 01.05 pm

    Thanks for the fantastically entertaining and insightful post! I was particularly glad you included some overheard visitor reactions. These tell us so much about the ability of exhibitions to trigger memory responses from visitors.


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