Given the eagerness with which collectors pursue everything connected to film, from posters to props to press books, the feeble state of film museums around the world comes as a disconcerting surprise.
Berlin has a modest facility, and New York has something similar exiled out in Queens, but London's Museum of the Moving Image, and the magical Paris space created by Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francaise, have both been closed. And though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences puts on jewellike small exhibitions, Los Angeles has never gotten it together to create the film museum the world's film city deserves.
Just as sad, when an excellent traveling show like the New York Jewish Museum's "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting" wanted to transfer to L.A. a few years back, none of the city's museums agreed to host it. As Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of London's Royal College of Art, puts it, "It's not quite kosher for art museums to do movies, they're not geared to do cinema very well, and cinema houses are not museums; they don't have the space."
Frayling and Estella Chung are trying to change that. Their jointly curated "Once Upon a Time in Italy ... The Westerns of Sergio Leone" at the Autry Center's Museum of the American West (where Chung is associate curator of popular culture) is more than what the Autry is calling "one of the largest and most elaborate museum exhibitions ever organized to honor a single director." It's a successful attempt, on view through Jan. 22, to bridge that gap, to do a museum-quality show on a film personality that, says Frayling, "is not just about posters."
Frayling has been a partisan of the Italian director who created the spaghetti western genre and jump-started the career of Clint Eastwood since he had a fight with his girlfriend as an undergraduate at Cambridge and walked directly into a life-changing screening of "A Fistful of Dollars." He's written several books on Leone and started to think about a show when he realized that the man was such a forceful presence that collaborators who ordinarily saved nothing had gone out of their way to preserve artifacts from his films.
So on loan from Eastwood himself is the iconic poncho he wore as the Man With No Name, as well as the wooden gun grips decorated with metal snakes that he used in the films. These were the same grips he'd used as Rowdy Yates in the TV series "Rawhide": The actor, who dedicated his classic western "Unforgiven" to Leone and director Don Siegel, had brought them to Hollywood for good luck.
Though the curators couldn't manage to pry the bed Claudia Cardinale used in "Once Upon a Time in the West" from the gentleman in northern Italy who's currently sleeping in it, they did get the Winchester that Gian Maria Volonte's bad guy used to put some holes in that poncho, a rifle that took a while to get into this country. "We're one of the few organizations," Frayling says dryly, "importing firearms into the U.S."
The Autry exhibit is more than a collection of items, no matter how totemic. It's an attempt to recapture the spirit of this exuberant, excessive director, to allow visitors to experience the brio with which Leone recast the western in films like "For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "Once Upon a Time in the West."
According to co-curator Chung, the exhibition has a trio of goals: to explain why an Italian filmmaker who spent his entire life in Rome made westerns, to explore what makes a Leone western uniquely his, and to look into the man's film legacy.
This is partly done with film itself, because the exhibit includes six mini-docs on a variety of subjects. You can witness the way Leone quoted from dozens of classic westerns in "Once Upon a Time in the West"; experience a clip from Leone's first feature, "The Colossus of Rhodes," which has Rory Calhoun crawling out of the statue's enormous ear; and even see part of the episode of "Rawhide" called "The Incident of the Black Sheep" that persuaded the director to turn to Eastwood in the first place.
The Autry's most memorable touches are life-size plaster statues of the quartet of desperadoes -- played by Charles Bronson, Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock -- seen in the famous opening sequence of "Once Upon a Time in the West," which will be shown nearby on a continuous film loop. "You can't," Frayling says with conviction, "see that scene too often."
Leone, who called his films "fairy tales for adults," was influenced by everything from Sicilian puppets to the acting and directing career of his father, Vincenzo. The organizers of the annual silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, still talk about the day Leone literally leapt out of his seat at the shock of recognizing a previously unknown early film starring his father.