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Riding Oscar's Coattails

Working with Oscar-related materials

Words by Doug Johnson

Every January since 2013, there has been a scramble in UCLA’s Library Special Collections after the Academy Award nominations are announced. Costume designer Dorothy Jeakins’ Oscar for Night of the Iguana (1964) is brought from its subterranean vault up to the somewhat-less subterranean area that is the LSC lobby. Gingerly removed from its velvet-lined box by gloved hands, the golden trophy assumes a place of honor in the small bi-level exhibit case that stands next to the reading room doors. There, it will remain for the next six weeks as symbol and sentinel, while a series of exhibits inspired by the Best Picture nominees rotates in and out of the case.

A librarian enthusiastically solicits volunteers to create the exhibits, which will stay up for only three days or so, shorter even than the week-long “flash exhibits” that normally go in the case. Getting volunteers is a little harder than it should be. Curating the exhibits is, in a word, fun, but it can also be a little frustrating. Not every nominee easily inspires a symbolic representation by the vast holdings of the UCLA library. And even when the inspiration is there, the execution might be disappointing.

I was new to UCLA when the Oscars flash exhibits commenced last year, and I volunteered early on to participate. There was no particular movie I wished to represent, so I just became the guy who would do whatever films went unclaimed. I wanted the series to come off well, and I adopted a neurotically proprietary attitude to the whole endeavor. You see, previously I had spent thirteen years as a special collections archivist at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. I find it rather sweet and odd that UCLA’s Oscar statuette is treated with such delicacy and reverence. There are no fewer than six Oscars in the Herrick’s Katharine Hepburn Special Collections Reading Room, including one that has been to outer space. If you ask nicely, of course you can hold one, and no one will ask you to wear gloves.

In 2016, someone had decided that the Best Picture nominees would be highlighted, naturally enough, in alphabetical order. But this became a problem because no one had claimed The Big Short by the time the nominations were announced. That meant it fell to me. I hadn’t seen the movie, natch, so I had to learn all about it by reading the internet. The fun begins when you start brainstorming, making mental associations between various aspects of the film at hand and the library’s diverse collections, which you may or may not be familiar with. Plugging a search term into the OAC, you read the finding aids and hope and imagine that the things you read about will have enough intellectual or visual appeal to constitute a decent exhibit. At the Academy, if I wanted to look at something in our collections, all I had to do was walk downstairs and find it. At UCLA, if I’m curious about something, I have to request it from the Southern Regional Library Facility and wait for it to arrive late the next afternoon. If I decide that what I requested is unsatisfactory, I have to find something else, and wait another day. That is where the frustration sets in.

With The Big Short, I got lucky. I decided it was essentially a movie about real estate and I discovered we had this thing called the Collection of Tract Maps and Cadastral Maps of Southern California. I paged a couple boxes and was enthralled by what I found within. For anyone interested in the history of Los Angeles, these maps are a delight. For instance, this 1887 map shows that USC was then thought of as West Los Angeles, an indication of how much the epicenter of the city has shifted over time. By putting together a few of these maps, some photos of nineteenth-century houses, and some explanatory text I had my first Oscars flash exhibit, and it was extremely gratifying. I learned some more about our collections, I gained insight into the history of Los Angeles, and I discovered the word “cadastral.”

From the Collection of Tract Maps and Cadastral Maps of Southern California (Collection 349). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

From the Sheet Music Collection (Collection PASC 147-M). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Seeing what your colleagues come up with is instructive as well, both in terms of learning about the collections and the psychology of your coworkers. Someone came up with this great piece of sheet music as an element in the exhibit for Brooklyn. It’s visually compelling and thematically appropriate without being too on-the-nose.

This year, the alphabetical framework was abandoned to allow more flexibility. I volunteered to do La La Land, and to go first, so that we would be ready as soon as the nominations were announced. La La Land was sure to be nominated, and I already had an idea! Instead of the movie’s white protagonists gamboling about Los Angeles pontificating about jazz music, I would highlight some African American performers. One of the first projects I worked on at UCLA was the Howard Morehead collection. Morehead was a former Tuskegee airman who moved to Los Angeles after World War II and became a photographer. As both a journalist and a fan, he documented the Los Angeles jazz scene for decades. He also did a lot of glamour photography and sponsored beauty pageants for women of color who were excluded from white pageants (and from the pages of Playboy magazine). He combined his interests in this portrait of Vi Redd, one of the few female instrumentalists active in the 1950s.

Though I’d known about the Morehead photographs already, I took the opportunity to explore some other collections I knew nothing about. Stephen Longstreet was a writer and painter who documented jazz in several different cities. A striking watercolor of Dizzy Gillespie became the centerpiece of the exhibit. Was the bent trumpet really “used by some cool progressive jazz men,” and not unique to Gillespie?

From the Howard Morehead Photographs and Papers (Collection PASC-M 142). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

From the Stephen Longstreet Papers (Collection 380). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Though La La Land was something of a no-brainer, I then found myself stuck with Manchester-by-the-Sea. Apparently, no one else had a good idea about what to do with it either. Not having seen this film, I found myself fixating on the title and the location. Looking up “Manchester,” I came across a collection of British broadside ballads. It turns out a large number of these nineteenth-century songs were either printed in Manchester, England or recount events there. But I had no idea what they looked like. I requested some boxes and was disappointed to find that nothing Manchester-related had much visual appeal. 

There were a couple false starts, half-formed ideas that died once I was actually able to see the archival materials that I had pinned my hopes on. With my deadline approaching I settled on showcasing a movie called Hell Is a City (1960), which was filmed on location in Manchester, England, and for which we have a number of lobby cards and stills. It has absolutely no connection to Manchester-by-the-Sea, thematically or otherwise, but the material looks good, and with some captions explaining the alleged thought process, it made a not-too-bad little exhibit.

From the Motion Picture Lobby Cards (Collection PASC 65). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

In the end I made an exhibit for a movie I haven’t seen using materials from another, totally irrelevant and tangential, movie that I also haven’t seen. There may have been several lapses of judgement and/or ethics involved, but the Oscars won’t wait. We had to get something in the case. Now I better get a head start and think of what we’re going to do for Blade Runner 2049, coming soon to a theater near you.

From the Columbia Pictures Still and Key Books (Collection 159). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Doug Johnson is a processing archivist at UCLA Library Special Collections. He was previously a manuscripts archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.

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