Two Shows Ponder Movie Backdrops as Art
|Mount Rushmore painting, 1959, University of Texas, in Boca Raton's "Art of the Hollywood Backdrop"|
Movie backdrops are having a museum moment. There are two concurrent exhibitions of large, illusionistic background paintings, in L.A. and Boca Raton, Florida. Both feature matte paintings of Mount Rushmore from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959).
More than one Mount Rushmore painting was made (compare the ruby slippers). The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures' "Backdrop: An Invisible Art" is a focus show built around its Mount Rushmore backdrop, a distant view of the monument that Hitchcock used for scenes of the restaurant. It's shown in a two-story gallery.
|Still from North by Northwest, 1959, in the Academy Museum's "Backdrop: An Invisible Art." Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production and Biography Photographs, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences|
|Installation view of "Backdrop: An Invisible Art" at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles|
The Florida exhibition, "Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema's Creative Legacy" (through Jan. 22, 2023), brings together 22 backdrops, most from the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection at the University of Texas, Austin. That includes a 90-ft wide close-up of Mount Rushmore's sculpted faces that was used, along with 3D elements, in shots of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambling over the monument.
|Installation view of "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop," Boca Raton Museum of Art|
The Academy exhibit presents backdrops as a craft supporting the art of film. Going by the press materials, the Boca Raton show makes a stronger case for backdrops as "a popular art form" whose creators deserve to be identified, named, and celebrated. That's not so easy, as backdrops were indeed studio productions of many collaborators. The Austin Mount Rushmore is attributed to Scenic Art Supervisor George Gibson and Scenic Artists Clark Proving, Albert Joseph Londraville, Ben Carré, Harry Tepker, Art Rider, and F. Wayne Hill.
|Installation view, Boca Raton Museum of Art|
It might be fair to say that movie backdrops are to painting as Gutzon Borglum is to sculpture. They're big, and interesting because they're big, but they don't stand up to scrutiny.
Other North by Northwest backdrops were used for the film's modernist architecture. Hitchcock wanted Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home for the film's villain. Wright was known to be expensive and cranky (when contacted by The Fountainhead's producers, he demanded 10 percent of the film's budget to participate). Instead of hiring Wright, Hitchcock's production counterfeited a Fallingwater-like home existing only in a backdrop painting and a soundstage interior.
|Backdrop painting of "Vandamm Home" for North by Northwest, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater|