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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 710-719
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History Goes Hollywood and Vice Versa:
Historical Representation and Distortion in American Film
A. Joan Saab
The University of Rochester
After receiving the award for best director at the 1997 Academy Awards for his work on Titanic, James Cameron raised his Oscar into the air and announced, "I'm the King of the World." It was an embarrassing moment for many of us in the TV audience. Cameron's pronouncement, a line borrowed from Jack Dawson, Titanic's romantic male lead played in the film by Leonardo Di Caprio, seemed inappropriate for a number of different reasons. It may be okay for a young boy from steerage, who had won his ticket on the ship of dreams in a game of cards just moments before the ship left port, to utter these words as the wind ruffles his blonde hair as he heads towards the new world. Cameron, though, in his designer tuxedo, collecting the tenth Oscar of the night for his film, seemed megalomanical, to say the least. He added to the embarrassment moments later when he received the film's award for best picture. After a staged maudlin moment of silence for [End Page 710] those who perished when the great ship went down, he once again raised Oscar into the air and encouraged the audience to "party 'til dawn."
If, as Lary May asserts in The Big Tomorrow, there is "nothing more American than Hollywood" (1), then Titanic's sweep of eleven Oscars--the film is tied with Ben Hur for the record for most Academy Awards--reveals much about the fin-de-siècle United States, where history often plays the heavy role of a moment of silence at an all-night party. The combination of comments like "King of the World" and "party 'til dawn" and lack of comment (embodied in the moment of silence) indeed capture some of the reasons for the film's giant success, as David Lubin masterfully demonstrates in his monograph for the British Film Institute's Modern Classics series. Building on the assumption that cultural artifacts often reflect larger political and cultural struggles, Lubin, like May, historically locates popular film within a constellation of cultural, political and artistic moments. While May provides a sweeping pan of Hollywood movies from the 1920s through the 1960s and Lubin a close-up of one late twentieth-century film, both authors skillfully examine Hollywood cinema to explore the links between the mass media and American popular audiences' changing relationship to history and modern life.
May begins his study with a question. How, he asks, "does the nation's popular culture become enmeshed in debates over the meaning of good citizenship in terms of sex, race and class?" (1). Hollywood, he argues, does not merely produce entertainment; rather, he asserts, "something else is going on, something that connects Hollywood to political power, cultural authority and the very meaning of national identity" (1). While it might seem unnecessary to argue that the popular is indeed political--most scholars today take this as a given--May skillfully revises the scholarly claims that Hollywood movies of the 1930s, in particular musicals and comedies, were escapist, removed from the hardships of the Depression. He argues that they formed part of a "cultural dialog that reinvigorated the democratic spirit, creating an alternative view of America." In The Big Tomorrow, May challenges the historiography that situates the "transformation from an exclusive homogenous society to a more tolerant and inclusive one within the 1960s" by demonstrating how the transformation actually began during the 1930s. Building on Benedict Anderson's idea of nationalism as "an imagined community," May argues that prior to the 1930s community was "insufficiently imagined." 1 American nationalism, he argues, was [End Page 711] based on Anglo...