Jim Cullen: How Six Oscar Winners Tell the Story of America

tags: WaPo, Jim Cullen, Oscars, Academy Awards



Jim Cullen is chairman of the history department at the Fieldston School in New York and author of "Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions" (Oxford University Press).

 

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....



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