Have you ever noticed strains of Jeffersonian populism in Dirty Harry? Or Lincoln’s institutional confidence in Big? Jim Cullen has.
Cullen, a former Harvard professor who currently helms the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York City, sees historical undercurrents in a lot of films. So many, in fact, that he’s written a book on the subject. Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions explores American history as seen through the lenses of six A-list stars: Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Jodie Foster. He even assigns each actor a historical counterpart – in Eastwood’s case, it’s Thomas Jefferson; for Meryl Streep, it’s pioneering feminist Betty Friedan. Cullen looks at each actor’s career and explains how their choices of roles reveal their individual notions of history, and how those notions align with those of their analogues. Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, is the consummate champion of the frontier.
EW spoke with Cullen about the book and the inspiration behind it. Read the edited interview after the jump: