Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions.

Author:Puglia, David J.

Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions. By Jim Cullen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. x + 252, acknowledgements, notes, index.

Outside of a few prominent names--ones that often appear above the title--a director is not a movie's main attraction. The Hollywood moguls knew this. Rather than create the director system, they created the star system. In Sensing the Past, Jim Cullen proposes an alternative to auteur theory for American culture scholars that puts actors first. Instead of approaching film through genres, periods, or directors, Cullen analyzes movie stars--six specifically--as bastions and purveyors of American historical worldview. Cullen wants to take actors seriously, specifically prominent leading men and women who choose historical roles over careers that span decades. For the book's central question, Cullen asks, "Could it make sense to think of actors as historians? That people, in the process of doing a job whose primary focus was not thinking in terms of an interpretation of the past, were nevertheless performing one? And that in doing so, repeatedly over the course of a career they would articulate an interpretive version of American history as a whole?" (3-4). Cullen seeks to prove the affirmative by sifting through actors' corpuses to discern overarching historical master narratives at play in their work. Regardless of whether these master narratives are true or false, Cullen argues, actors portray "mythic truths that bear some relationship to fact, and to a shared collective memory" (11). It is these "mythic truths" and this "shared collective memory" that Cullen wants historians to take more seriously.

Cullen's argument addresses an actor's repeated choice of script rather than individual, momentary acting choices. His larger purpose here is to evaluate how the production of history emerges outside of the academy. In this framework, movie stars are only a beginning, but a useful beginning, because the choices they make over a career are explicit and public. For example, in Cullen's estimation, John Wayne "repeatedly portrayed tortured souls who do dirty work, and yet in the process of doing so create or preserve a life of decency for others, even if they cannot cross over into the promised land themselves" (9). In Cullen's view, this is not a popular but typecast player settling into familiar characters in comfortable genres. This is a declaration by John Wayne about the world John Wayne...

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