Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions

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Have you ever noticed strains of Jeffersonian populism in Dirty Harry? Or Lincoln’s institutional confidence in Big? Jim Cullen has.

Cullen, a former Harvard professor who currently helms the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York City, sees historical undercurrents in a lot of films. So many, in fact, that he’s written a book on the subject. Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions explores American history as seen through the lenses of six A-list stars: Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Jodie Foster. He even assigns each actor a historical counterpart – in Eastwood’s case, it’s Thomas Jefferson; for Meryl Streep, it’s pioneering feminist Betty Friedan. Cullen looks at each actor’s career and explains how their choices of roles reveal their individual notions of history, and how those notions align with those of their analogues. Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, is the consummate champion of the frontier.

EW spoke with Cullen about the book and the inspiration behind it. Read the edited interview after the jump:

EW: What first compelled you to write the book?

JIM CULLEN: As I explained in the introduction, this whole thing started when I became a high school teacher. I was teaching a US History course, and I knew I wanted to use some movies; I looked at the list I had made, and all of them starred Daniel Day-Lewis. I thought that that was kind of a running joke, that I had a Lewis film festival every year. Year after year of watching these movies attuned me to the performances, but it also got me thinking about how a certain kind of actor – and a powerful actor who had a choice in the roles they took – revealed their priorities and revealed their consciousness of history in particular. And I say this knowing that movie actors are not thinking primarily about history. In fact, what interested me about this was that we all have a notion of history, we all have a working notion about the way the past unfolds. You may think that history is essentially cyclical, or you may think history is a matter of “you can’t fight city hall,” or you may think that history is a story of progress. These are very simple ideas but they shape our notion of reality. And movie stars are not different from anybody else in that regard. The difference between movie stars and the rest of us is two things. One, that they have more control over the circumstances of their work, and two, that they reveal themselves in the process of their work much more than you and me. So in a way, movie stars are just a vehicle for me to get at something much more fundamental about the way we all think about and experience the past.

Can you elaborate on the book’s three main threads – the frontier, individuality, and mistrust of authority?

Well, to some extent, this project was a kind of generational study. Looking at a group of people, all of whom were born in the middle of the 20th century. They were born into, or adolescents, or young adults, at a time when people had a lot of confidence in institutions. In the early 1960s, people believed the government could be trusted. They believed in the military. They believed in the mainline churches. And as they came into adulthood, in the last third of the 20th century, this came into question. Things like the Vietnam War, all this led people to question institutions, and made for a much more individualistic culture. People began to think in terms of autonomy – that was the prevailing wind in the culture at large. The people I look at deal with that in different ways. Someone like Clint Eastwood embraces this notion of institutional skepticism and individuality and makes it a cornerstone. Someone like Tom Hanks, to a certain extent, pushes back against it, and thinks in terms of being a team player and being part of a larger enterprise. So there’s a spectrum of responses. The world changes, and everyone understands the world changes, but they don’t all deal with it the same way.

Tom Hanks seems to be the lone exception.

Tom Hanks represents the outer perimeter of institutional commitment. All the other actors I look at buy into this institutional skepticism. And it’s ironic in the case of someone like Jodie Foster, because Jodie Foster grew up in the age of Reagan, and nobody really thinks of her as a Reagan-esque person. She’s the antithesis of that. And yet her individualism, her reality of being on her own, in an odd way, reflects the age that she grew up in. But there is a middle ground. You look at someone like Denzel Washington. Washington still maintains a sense of connection and commitment to a larger whole. But it tends to be refracted through the unit of the family, literally or allegorically. So there’s a whole fathers-and-sons thing. There’s a kind of logic that says, “men have to be good fathers because good fathers make good sons, and good sons make history and change the country in a better way.” So in a movie like Glory, he’s a rebellious young man, and Morgan Freeman brings him around, and he therefore can become part of the saga of emancipation. There are a lot of stories like this. First he’s the son, later he becomes the father. Sometimes he’s both, in a movie like Malcolm X. Recently, he becomes a bit of a surrogate father for white people, like Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire, or Chris Pine in Unstoppable, or Ryan Reynolds in Safe House.

Aside from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” were there any specific works you looked to for inspiration?

I’m a guy who’s trained to be a historian, so I read a lot of history and I’m aware of a lot of historians. But the real pattern for the book is that every chapter has a historical figure associated with it. So in Clint Eastwood’s case it’s Thomas Jefferson; in Meryl Streep’s case it’s Betty Friedan; in Denzel Washington’s case it’s Malcolm X. In Daniel Day-Lewis’ case, it’s this guy Frederick Jackson Turner – who’s a historian – because Lewis’ logic seems so closely patterned on this guy. And I’m fascinated by the way in which – unless you are a professional historian – you’ve never heard of Frederick Jackson Turner, and yet we’re all walking around with his model in our heads, even though most of it has been explicitly rejected by professional historians. The analogy I use is Sigmund Freud: no one believes Freud anymore – there’s almost no one practicing Freudian psychoanalysis – yet all of us now live in a post-Freudian world. Even some of the terminology that Freud used has all been absorbed into the fabric of our collective psyche. And I think that Turner really is an analog for that. We are all Turnerians, in a way. And the reason we are is because of a very sensitive antenna like Daniel Day-Lewis, who picks up those vibrations and presents them on our screens.

You quote Meryl Streep as saying, “The progression of roles you take strings together a portrait of an actor, but it’s a completely random process.” Does this in any way invalidate your claims?

This is one of the reasons why I picked people who’ve been at it for a while. Meryl Streep has made dozens and dozens of movies, and obviously there’s lots of idiosyncrasies involved, but the law of averages says – especially when you’re dealing with somebody who is powerful enough to say “no” a lot – that there’s going to be a pattern of what they say yes to. And I think what that pattern indicates is reasonably clear. You can see in her case someone who is very committed to representing women’s lives over a period of time. She starts out her career representing mostly women’s private lives, their relationships and their struggles to gain some sense of autonomy. Later in her career she’s representing women’s lives in a much more public setting, women in positions of power and responsibility, and the challenges that that brings.

I’ve had trouble describing Sensing the Past succinctly. Can you give me an elevator pitch?

The book uses Hollywood actors to show how we’re all walking around with a notion of history in our heads.

Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions is in stores now.

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Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions
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