How six Oscar winners tell the story of America
By Jim Cullen,
Jim Cullen, chair of the history department at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is the author of “Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions.”
A box office is not a voting booth, but they have their similarities. Neither is entirely democratic in the ways it offers choices, and each is a little too deferential to market forces. But both tell stories about the state of the nation, produced by teams that are fronted by star performers.
In politics, some of the most successful performers take on multiple roles. Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama: Their stories have offered versions of the country — where it had been, where it was headed. Some were stories of restoration, others of progress.
In the Republic of Hollywood, it’s movie stars, not politicians, who rule. And in Hollywood, as in politics, one of the recurring themes is our national ambivalence about powerful institutions — religious, economic, military or political — and their influence over everyday life.
Hollywood reflects and projects this ambivalence. And the actors to whom audiences have reacted most strongly since the 1960s — Oscar winners Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks — have long been engaged, consciously or not, in this great American conflict.
Start with Clint Eastwood, who was a child during the New Deal and rose to stardom during the Great Society — two high points of institutional renovation and power. Too old to be a founding member of the 1960s counterculture, which Eastwood seemed to observe with some amused detachment, he instead became a cultural icon in the 1970s and ’80s. His “Dirty Harry” character underscored a quickening libertarian current in American society. Eastwood described the first of the five films — which ends with his protagonist tossing his badge away in disgust with the police department in which he served — as depicting “a world of bureaucratic corruption and ineffectiveness.”
Eastwood has long been considered the quintessential individualist, one lionized by Reagan, who turned “make my day” into a political slogan. And his skepticism about big government was certainly on display last year in his empty-chair monologue at the Republican National Convention. Yet Eastwood’s movies have often affirmed the value of community — albeit a loose, improvised kind.
In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” he is a renegade former Confederate who constructs a micro-society on the Texas frontier that involves peaceful coexistence with Native Americans. In “Unforgiven,” his loyalty to his friend (played by Morgan Freeman) and his solidarity with a group of women prove more important than a mercenary act of retribution. And in “Gran Torino,” his crusty protagonist, Walt Kowalski, can’t help bonding with his Hmong neighbors and sacrificing himself on their behalf. In these and other films, he’s a tough guy who nevertheless tends to his flock.
If Eastwood’s career hints at the communitarian streak in American life, that of Daniel Day-Lewis, a Londoner turned Irishman and avid chronicler of U.S. history, speaks to the power of the frontier in the American imagination. Day-Lewis may have even surpassed John Wayne in his rugged individualism.
The quintessential Day-Lewis character is a frontiersman, obvious enough in the 1992 film version of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel “The Last of the Mohicans.” But in their temperaments and dilemmas, Day-Lewis’s characters are often restless loners chafing against the boundaries of conventional society. In “Gangs of New York,” he plays the raging, xenophobic Bill the Butcher. In “The Age of Innocence,” he’s an elite lawyer impatient with the oppressive conformity of Gilded Age Manhattan. In “There Will Be Blood,” he’s a willful California wildcatter whose thirst for dominance proves self-destructive.
Like Wayne’s characters, Day-Lewis’s frontiersman is tragic, strangled by institutional forces that depend upon, yet finally destroy him. His recent Oscar-nominated turn as Abraham Lincoln is a partial exception, though here again we see a man straining against mainstream racist opinion.
In most societies, of course, formal authority is patriarchal. Because the political staging ground for emancipation tends to be personal, feminism has often had a libertarian cast, albeit one that leans left rather than right. These tendencies are on display in the work of Meryl Streep, especially in movies like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which her character struggles to assert her identity while her self-involved husband struggles to care for their child. In early Streep films, influential institutions — such as the U.S. government of “The Deer Hunter” that drafts her friends to fight in Vietnam or the secretive nuclear power company of “Silkwood” that endangers the health of its workers — are remote, corrupt or both.
In the most recent phase of her storied career, however, Streep’s characters have begun pulling levers in powerful institutions such as the U.S. Senate (in the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”) and the Roman Catholic Church (in 2008’s “Doubt”). She has also repeatedly portrayed tough women who command our respect, evident in her Oscar-winning performance in 2011 as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” This cinematic story line is one of hard-earned progress through institutional engagement.
It’s instructive to compare this vision of feminism with that portrayed by a younger contemporary: Jodie Foster, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award at last month’s Golden Globes. Unlike Streep’s, Foster’s characters are skeptical about the ability of formal institutions to improve American life. In 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” a film drenched in irony about politics and the law, the child prostitute she plays regards the norms of society as a joke. In films such as “Panic Room” and “The Brave One,” the police offer assistance to her distressed and victimized protagonists, but they prove useless. Even when Foster is in a role of authority, as she was as a young FBI agent in “The Silence of the Lambs,” she must finally confront evil alone; in that movie, she does so as her fellow agents are breaking into the wrong house.
It was formal institutions — legal, political and religious — that made slavery and segregation possible in the United States. It was also formal institutions that destroyed them. Understanding this duality seems to come instinctively to Denzel Washington, who dramatized it in movies like “Glory” and “Malcolm X.”
One institution, however, has consistently served as Washington’s lodestar: the family, whether literal or figurative. As with Eastwood, Washington’s roles typically involve parenting or mentoring, evident in his Oscar-nominated turn as an addicted pilot in “Flight.” Unlike Eastwood, however, Washington’s tales almost always involve reintegration into society. (One reason he won an Oscar for 2001’s “Training Day” is because his police detective character went spectacularly against type as the mentor from hell for his protege, played by Ethan Hawke.)
One of the oldest tropes in U.S. history is “republican motherhood”: the idea that the success of American society depends on producing good women so that they can raise good men. Washington’s career is an affirmation of “republican fatherhood”: Good fathers make good sons, and good sons make history. In “Glory,” Washington plays a prodigal son redeemed by the mentoring of Morgan Freeman. In “The Great Debaters,” which Washington directed, he’s a mentor at a Texas black college in the 1930s, shaping the persona of future civil rights leader James Farmer (played by Denzel Whitaker, who was named after Washington).
Finally, two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks offers perhaps the purest archetype in the American story: the arch-institutionalist. He has repeatedly embodied the team player, whether in a women’s baseball club (“A League of Their Own”), the armed forces (“Saving Private Ryan”) or a family business (“You’ve Got Mail”). Even when he’s a victim of an institutional wrong, as is his character in “Philadelphia,” he uses that same system to make it right. And the protagonist of “Forrest Gump” may be clueless, but time and again, it is established institutions — whether the University of Alabama or the Army — that give him the grounding so sorely lacking for his beloved Jenny.
Hanks’s genial Everyman has made a compelling vehicle for liberal values in a climate not always hospitable to them. At the very moment a Democratic president was declaring that “the era of big government is over,” Hanks starred in “Apollo 13,” a paean to a massive government bureaucracy — NASA — performing with grace under pressure in response to the failures of a private contractor that provided faulty equipment to the space agency. Hanks’s roles affirm the dominance of liberal ideology in popular culture, even at times when it has been repudiated in national politics.
The election and reelection of Barack Obama have been widely described as rejections of the conservative attack on institutions as a force for good in everyday life. American politics may be witnessing a new wave of institutionalism, evident in the high-profile government reforms in health care, immigration and possibly climate change. Even the fight for same-sex marriage can be seen as an institutional affirmation; I doubt that many of the participants at Stonewall, by contrast, were rioting for the right to have church weddings.
So how will a new generation react to or reflect a new political and cultural order? Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” for instance, shows characters groping their way toward a reclamation of discredited institutions and discarded values. It’s hard to imagine a baby boomer affirmation of the CIA, and fellow best-picture nominee “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by boomer Kathryn Bigelow, is a good deal more ambiguous in its view of the institution. It will be interesting to see what story the career of emerging star Jessica Chastain will tell.
The spirit of an age is never set, in any case. Actors respond to new scenes and any number of costume changes. In a land of eternal reinvention, there’s always another take.
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