Longtime film studies professor Peter Lev is an Academy Film Scholar.
What led to your interest in film history?
I was very interested in film as a freshman and sophomore at Wesleyan University, but I never dreamed I’d be a film historian or end up teaching at Towson for 26 years. I went to Paris as an undergraduate exchange student and saw how the French approach the subject, which opened my eyes to many different kinds of film. Paris is still the best place in the world to see films.
Peter Lev sits in on group discussions during one of his classes.
What classes do you teach?
I teach History of Film, Film Analysis, and International Cinema, plus an introductory course called Principles of Film and Media Production. Years ago I enjoyed teaching scriptwriting but gave that up because, with the expansion of the Department of Electronic Media and Film, there was more opportunity for me to teach in my specialty area of film history.
How do you bring your scholarship to the classroom?
First, the various models of how to think about film history and film aesthetics are not textbook abstractions to me, they are ideas I work with and struggle with every day. Second, I have taught topics related to my books in Film Analysis and other classes. When that happens, I can make research materials available to students that they would not normally see.
How did you come to the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?
I submitted a proposal for a book about the history of Twentieth Century Fox from 1935 to 1965. Almost
everyone has heard of legendary studio head Darryl Zanuck, but I also wanted to focus on Spyros Skouras, who ran the business side from New York. Skouras was a remarkably innovative leader in a very complicated industry. For example, Skouras oversaw Fox’s responses to the rise of television in mid-20th century America.
What were some notable Twentieth Century Fox films from that era?
Let’s start with the Academy Award winners for Best Picture: How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman’s Agreement and All About Eve. A short list of favorites would also include The Grapes of Wrath, A Yank in the RAF, Laura, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and The Longest Day. Some of the films I’m viewing for the book are hard to see, like Margie or The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. There are others that everybody knows, such as Miracle on 34th Street.
From left to right: Sid Ganis, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Peter Lev; TV Producer Andrew Marlowe, Chair of the Academy Grants Committee.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the same organization that awards Oscars every year, right?
Yes, but only the film industry people get the gold statuettes—Academy Film Scholars receive certificates with a gold-embossed image of the Oscar, plus $25,000 to fund our research. The Academy Film Scholars program was established to “stimulate and support the creation of new and significant works of film scholarship about aesthetic, cultural, educational, historical, theoretical or scientific aspects of theatrical motion pictures.”
And you were one of only two award recipients this year?
Yes. The other recipient was from the University of Southern California, a noted film studies campus with a School of Cinematic Arts. The academy selected our proposals from among 53 submissions.
How long has the academy funded film scholarship?
The Academy Scholars program is in its ninth year. Previous winners have been academics from elite institutions and high-powered research campuses, though there was one independent scholar. I’m extremely pleased to be able to represent Towson, which focuses primarily on undergraduate education.
Are you hard at work on the book?
It’s quite an undertaking. I recently flew to Los Angeles to interview Sid Ganis, president of the academy, because he began his career in Twentieth Century Fox’s New York office. I’ve found a publisher—the University of Texas Press—and assigned myself a deadline. The academy gives half of the prize money at the ceremony, and the balance when a scholar completes the project. Other than delivering a lecture in Los Angeles, there are no strings attached. It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized by the academy, which is such an important organization in world film culture.