How do perceptions of the past—not just of particular events, but of the trajectory of history as a whole—shape our experience of the world? To answer this (and other) questions, Jim Cullen looks closely at the work of what might be considered an unlikely source of historical insight—the work of six major Hollywood stars. Indeed, Cullen offers a fascinating portrait of pivotal movements that have shaped our history as reflected in the work of Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis (at left, made up as Abraham Lincoln for his forthcoming performance in Team of Rivals), Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Jodie Foster. By focusing on the career choices made by these powerful actors, all of whom have the rare ability to put their personal stamp on their work, Cullen reveals a discrete set of historical narratives, including a surprising strain of Jeffersonian communitarianism that runs through Eastwood’s work, a sense of how the frontier shaped American character as reflected in the roles chosen by Day-Lewis, the Lincoln-styled belief in institutions and the power of ordinary people that runs through the films of Tom Hanks (like Jimmy Stewart before him), and the history of liberal feminism of the last century captured in the movies of Meryl Streep. That these historical patterns emerge in the work of these six artists—almost certainly unintentionally--sheds much light on the way that, for all of us, historical forces can shape our understanding of the world without our being aware of them.
Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.