A blown-up image of a street map of Boyle Heights greets visitors to a small section of one of the galleries of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. It’s a section dedicated to “Real Women Have Curves,” the 2002 film adaptation of the play by Josefina López, set in the neighborhood and filmed in several locations shown on the map.
The “Real Women Have Curves” section is in the Significant Movies and Moviemakers gallery as part of the expansive, 30,000-square-foot exhibition Stories of Cinema, which according to the museum offers “celebratory, critical, and personal perspectives on the disciplines and impact of moviemaking, past and present.” Indeed, it is a miniscule portion of what’s to be seen in the seven-story, 300,000 square foot museum which opens this week on the former site of the historic May Company department store in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles.
Hollywood and the film industry may seem unreachable to most Boyle Heights residents, but just 10 miles West the museum takes a careful and thoughtful look into the process of adapting a local story and taking it –and the neighborhood– to the big screen.
The section is dominated by a huge, color reproduction of an image from the film, showing veteran actor Lupe Ontiveros as Carmen and then beginner América Ferrera as Ana, the mother and daughter characters whose layers-deep conflicts are at the heart of the “Real Women” story.
Sophia Serrano, an assistant curator of the Stories of Cinema exhibition responsible for the “Real Women” section, told the Los Angeles Times this month that she wanted that image “to stand out as the hero object of the gallery.”
Other elements in the space include production stills, location scouting photos and script notes, part of a collection donated to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library by the film’s director Patricia Cardoso. Most valuable is an interview with Cardoso, who talks about the process of adapting and updating Lopez’ 1980s play to a film set some 20 years later.
“I think that the most important part of telling a story is to be passionate about that story,” the director says in her native Spanish.
In the interview, the Colombia-born Cardoso talks about visiting Boyle Heights, walking its streets and having multiple interviews with the playwright in order to get a true feel for the neighborhood. Cardoso talks about the film’s casting – seeing many extremely thin actors for the roles of the curvy women alluded to in the title. She talks about adding Spanish-language dialogue to the film, a first for HBO Films, and about softening some of the machismo and sexism in the play’s original characters, which she found stereotypical.
Crucial to the adaptation, Cardoso and screenwriter George LaVoo wrote in their script revision notes, was to “make clear why Ana loves Carmen.” This was to be accomplished by adding complexities to the mother character, like a tender scene with her husband (played by Jorge Cervera Jr.) or by the fact that Carmen owns and takes care of birds in her home.
“Birds are a very Mexican tradition,” wrote Cardoso. “All of the mothers I visited in Boyle Heights have them, my mother in law, who is Mexican, has them too.”
A reproduction of an old-school Thomas Guide map page, with color highlights, shows several Boyle Height streets that were used for exterior shots. The curators explain that Cardoso and cinematographer Jim Denault “worked in close collaboration to balance the more theatrical nature of the script with scenes that highlighted Ana’s surrounding environment. To make Los Angeles more present, they selected driving routes that would show key murals in Boyle Heights. These sequences, in which Ana looks out the window while in a car or on public transit, are intended to express her affection for the vibrant creativity of her local community.”
The panel with the large reproduction of the Boyle Heights map features three of the Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles locations used, with original scouting photos and stills of how they appeared in the film. For the exterior of the dress shop in which Ana and Carmen work –where some the film’s most crucial scenes take place– the filmmakers chose an existing textile factory and left most of it unchanged.
Boyle Heights residents who visit the exhibit may recognize some of the locations. [The former textile factory, for the record, is now a modern space administered by a Boyle Heights nonprofit which houses a couple of local businesses and currently serves as headquarters for Boyle Heights Beat.]
The small section in the new, state-of-the art film museum highlights a groundbreaking film that in it’s day earned several accolades, such as the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, and became the first film directed by a Latina to be added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
The museum’s only exhibit to focus on a strictly Los Angeles story, it’s part of an attempt by the museum’s trustees and directors, and by the academy itself, to come to terms with how poorly Latinos have been represented in the film industry – and at its own yearly awards ceremony. Some of the themes and subjects dealt with throughout the museums acknowledge that the industry has not always been inclusive of people of color.
A section about the use of background photos that includes a huge reproduction of Mount Rushmore used in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film “North by Northwest,” for example, contains information about how the Lakota nation objected to the carving of the four white presidents on the top of a mountain it considered sacred land.
Lots to see: amusing and eye-opening
There is lots to see in the academy’s new museum and much of it is amusing and eye opening, especially to film buffs. There are sections that deal with the origins of cinema, a beautiful one about the precursory “Magic Lamps” that projected illuminated images long before film. There is a large room dedicated to the “Wizard of Oz” that includes a glass case with Dorothy’s ruby slippers. At a recent press preview, folks lined up for that, as well as for The Oscars Experience, a ticketed amenity where visitors are photographed holding an Academy Award, as if they were accepting it at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.
But the humble space dedicated to one groundbreaking Boyle Heights movie has the potential of inspiring conversations about how Los Angeles and its urban barrios are often used as Hollywood backdrop, not always with glowing results.
It also pays overdue homage to the late Ontiveros, a physically small but artistically monumental Los Angeles actor that the academy shamefully failed to include in its 2013 Oscars “in memoriam” section. Ontiveros, who is perhaps best remembered as the evil Yolanda Saldívar in Gregory Nava’s 1997 “Selena,” had an important stage and film career that deserves an exhibit on its own. (She had a memorable Boyle Heights scene in another Nava film, 1983’’s “El Norte,” standing in front of the Sears tower.)
Like with most art institutions in Los Angeles, access to the new Academy Museum can be daunting for some. Tickets, which are only available through advance reservations, are $25 for adults, $19 for seniors and $15 for students, but admission to visitors ages 17 and younger and any California resident with an EBT card is free. (A separate $15 ticket is required for The Oscars Experience).
Public programs and film screenings at various prices have been scheduled for the upcoming months, including an Oct. 8 screening of “Real Women Have Curves” at the 288-seat Ted Mann Theater for which the most expensive ticket is $10. While the film is easily available on the HBO Max streaming service, getting to see it again on the big screen is a thrill that may be worth the 10-mile trip to the Westside.
Other screenings will take place in the much larger, 10,000-seat David Geffen Theater, inside an imposing concrete and glass spherical structure behind the old May Co. building. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, it’s likely to become Los Angeles’ new Instagram icon. From the rooftop Dolby Family Terrace, under the glass dome that Piano calls a “soap bubble,” visitors will be able to enjoy one of the best views of Los Angeles available – for the price of admission.
It’s likely that on a clear day, one may be able to also get a glimpse of the Eastside neighborhood that the “Real Women” exhibit so beautifully recalls.
Academy Museum of Motion Pictures – Photo Gallery