Jim Cullen: Review of Julie Levinson's "The American Success Myth on Film" (Palgrave, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
For some people, the American success myth is one of the great cultural engines of our national history, a motivating ideal that gets realized by the very faith individuals invest in it. For others, it's a myth in the sense of a lie, a evident falsehood (much in the way a self-made man is quite literally a contradiction in terms). For Babson College professor Julie Levinson and the scholars she cites in this slim but evocative study, "myth" is a academic term connoting a widely believed notion whose validity isn't really possible to gauge empirically, which is why cultural historians like herself look to popular culture as repositories of collective imagination -- and shifts within it.
What's really striking about The American Success Myth on Film is the way Levinson documents a long, varied, and powerful vein of skepticism, even hostility, to the myth, even in works that presumably embrace it. In one sense, this shouldn't be surprising. Levinson's intellectual heritage rests on a poststructuralist tradition in which deconstruction is the point of departure for the analysis of any text. So it is, for example, that she cites scholars like the great Robert Ray, who notes that in It's a Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart's dreams for escape from his small town roots go unrealized, and the villain goes unpunished, amid the seemingly celebratory scene at the end of the film where his contributions to his community are lionized. Even in those cases where such stories end less ambiguously, like the mediocre but nevertheless revealing 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, happy endings tend to result from the creators of such tales concluding them (as with romance tales that end in marriage) before drudgery and routine set in. Levinson illustrates this point with a wide variety of films from the thirties to the present, and does so deftly.
Given this theoretical stipulation of textual multivalence, the surprise here is actually how unexpectedly direct and emphatic the rejection of the success myth is in so many of the films Levinson analyzes. This is particularly apparent when she filters the myth through a gendered lens, shifting her gaze toward female protagonists. The governing metanarrative of recent decades -- I'll call it the Oprah Myth -- is one of progress and equality. But over and over again, she shows women who are conflicted, disappointed, or just plain punished over their aspirations for upward mobility. Susan Faludi made this point two decades ago in Backlash, but Levinson shows it be alive and well in the twenty-first century -- in some ways more alive than ever.
Even more surprising is the final and most original chapter, titled "Hallelujah I'm a Bum: The Glorification of Unemployment." Here Levinson makes a truly compelling case for a long, varied and yet coherent tradition in American cinema that valorizes leisure over labor, stretching from Charlie Chaplin to the slacker films of the 1990s. As she notes, "each generation crafts its own version of the glorification of unemployment, and collectively these movies comprise compelling diachronic evidence of deep-seated unease with work as an indicator of self-worth and as a guarantor of the good life."
Not all Levinson's readings are fully persuasive. Her reading of the 1987 film Broadcast News, for example, describes the filmmakers depicting Holly Hunter's character as "directly responsible for her status as an unhappily single woman," a somewhat reductive take on a woman who makes conscious choices based on her personal and professional values and maturely accepts the price of those choices. Similarly, the fact that Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2005) is unhappily married and is not finally a role model for Anne Hathaway's protagonist is not necessarily grounds for concluding she's a failure (one could also plausibly see her as a resilient survivor who has learned to accept her personality as a form of fate). In their tendency to problematize myths and other cultural constructs, scholars sometimes don't give creators or audiences enough credit in their capacity to understand the tensions and incomplete resolutions that gives myths their vitality generation after generation.
But such arguable assessments are part of what make The American Success Myth on Film valuable. Only currently available in an expensive hardcover edition, this is a book that deserves a paperback edition for course adoption as well as a potentially general readership. Levinson's is a voice that deserves to be heard.
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