Jim Cullen. Oxford University Press, 2013. 252 pages; $19.95
Jim Cullen argues that movie stars both portray and create a popular version of American history that is as true as the narratives put forth by academic historians – and in many ways more powerful. These stars achieve this historical vision through the totality of choices made during their careers. In Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, Cullen compiles a set of case studies intended to illustrate his claim. He examines the filmography of six movies stars: Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Jodie Foster. He then sets these six stars’ visions within a “master narrative” of American history and culture. All but Foster are also linked to a major figure in American history. Pointedly eschewing traditional scholarly notions of evidence and proof, Cullen offers his own unique interpretations. Some of these case studies are more successful than others, but the overall argument is thought-provoking. [End Page 41]
These overarching constructions are reminiscent of the myth and symbol paradigm in American Studies, as Cullen attempts to establish a uniquely American mind. He credits Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975) with shaping his understanding of American culture and scholarship and aims to achieve something similar to Garry Wills’s book, John Wayne’s America (1998). Cullen’s general thrust is that these stars illustrate an “historical transition from institutionalism to antiinstitutionalism” (14). Working chronologically, he begins with Clint Eastwood, the oldest of these movie stars, and ends with the youngest – Foster. His choice of stars is rather arbitrary. The project began with his fascination with Daniel Day-Lewis movies. He then added Clint Eastwood, another of his personal favorites. These two chapters are clearly the best of his case studies.
Cullen labels Eastwood an “Ambivalent Wanderer” who is “Tending the Flock”(17). His master narrative of American history “as a struggle over – and for – small communities” (17) is linked to Thomas Jefferson. This fits well with Eastwood’s beginning in westerns. Cullen does a good job of showing how Eastwood’s rugged individualist characters also demonstrate a need for community – whether a family or a small town. There is a discussion of Eastwood’s gender portrayals that is quite interesting but it might have been better integrated into Cullen’s argument about a master narrative.
Despite the fact that Day-Lewis is not American, Cullen sees him as the most interested in defining American history through his career choices. He brands Day-Lewis the ultimate frontiersman, whether he plays a puritan, a big city gang leader, a New York lawyer, or an oilman. Cullen links this interpretation to Frederick Jackson Turner and his celebrated frontier thesis. Day-Lewis’s work in The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992) serves to organize these disparate roles, as Cullen uses the various characters in the film as metaphors for each of the protagonists in his other movies.
Though there are many reasons to include Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington as major movie stars, Cullen seems to have added them merely as politically correct tokens – the most respected white woman and black man in the industry. The master narratives he assigns them are predictable and his analysis lacks the power of his Eastwood and Day-Lewis chapters. He pairs Streep with Betty Friedan as a liberal feminist moving “from private to public” (89). In other words, Streep’s early roles cast her as wife and lover, while her later roles included professional women who wield power. Cullen construes this evolution as her personal historical vision, with nothing said about changes in women’s professional opportunities brought about by the second women’s movement. Denzel Washington is paired with Malcolm X and labelled an “Affirmative Actor,” (121) playing both on Affirmative Action and on Washington’s tendency to play affirming, positive characters. Cullen chose Malcolm X over Martin Luther King primarily, it seems, because Washington played the role in Spike Lee’s biographical movie. His master narrative is American history as “an intergenerational family drama...