Chapter 5

Pop Culture

This essay is a review of:

Acting for America: Movie Stars of the 1980s

by Robert Eberwein

Stars Influence a Nation
by Dahvi Cohen

            “Rarely do we perceive the significance of everything that’s happening as we live through a given historical moment.”1 These opening words to Robert Eberwein’s book, Acting for America: Movie Stars of the 1980s, are certainly true, as movies and their stars often reflect the views of their time period – sometimes unintentionally – giving historians a deeper insight into the period. The 1980s were a time of transition, such as the switch from the Carter to Reagan presidency or the rise of the Macintosh, first introduced in a 1984 Super Bowl commercial. Various social issues were brought to the forefront in the 1980s such as the feminist movement, recognition of African American stars, as well as the AIDS epidemic. The movies of the time reflected all of this as actors such as Sally Field and Eddie Murphy gained popularity while using their stardom to break down barriers and bring attention to these social issues. Whether it was obvious or not, subconscious or intentional, all of the major celebrities in the movie industry in the 1980s, as Eberwein clearly explains throughout his book, were somehow connected to major movements and issues taking place in America at the time.

            Many actors gained popularity in the 1980s by mastering one specific role. This is seen in how both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger competed throughout the decade for the same boldly masculine roles that exploited their bodies for the entertainment of the audience. Robert De Niro is unique in that he began his career by only playing strong and violent roles, however he also took on “alternative, gentler, compromising” roles in smaller films.2 De Niro is often credited with commenting on the social construction of masculinity through his acting. This is similar to how Stallone and Schwarzenegger, although portrayed as macho men, “played roles that increasingly emphasized androgynous elements beneath a hyper-masculine veneer,”3 reflecting the “conflicting psyche”4 of America at this time. Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek both began their acting careers in what Eberwein calls the “Dust Bowl Trilogy”. The two female stars were similar in that they both were associated with “real life” because of the roles they played that were often based on real people.5 Additionally, both stars played a part in campaigns to help people in rural areas, as the two stars themselves chose to live outside of Hollywood, rejecting the glamorous life many celebrities enjoyed at the time.

            Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise, two of these glamorous celebrities, were stars that reflected the conservative ideologies of the 1980s through the roles they played. While Cruise often played the “teen rebel,” Gibson portrayed roles that “rendered him accessible to a wide range of audiences across national, sexual, and gender boundaries.”6 Michael J. Fox is often compared to the “Brat Pack,” the unwanted name given to a group of young actors in the 1980s who often starred in films together and were portrayed as bratty and rude. Fox’s childish looks seemed to help him at first in the industry; however, he later had trouble finding parts to propel his career away from teenage comedies. On the other side of the spectrum, a new star emerged as Eddie Murphy became the only young, attractive black man with important roles in Hollywood. Murphy separated his acting from black culture, refusing to use “Hollywood Blackspeak” in his movies, thus condemning the “black friend” roles common to the industry.7

            Sigourney Weaver, although she was the only woman with an action franchise at the time, never fully embraced her fame. Weaver never wore “trademark 1980s female attire”8 and her films such as Working Girl “sparked discussions about the status of feminism and the rise of post-feminism…and women in traditionally male occupations.”9 Weaver also took on many diverse roles, seen in her work in Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, both huge comedic successes, while her character Ripley in Aliens made a statement about the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 as a female lead to an action series. Sally Field and Goldie Hawn, two female actors both known for their role in the feminist movement, didn’t always call themselves “feminists,” reflecting how many women at the time disliked the label. However, while many of Field’s movies included women taking charge of their own lives, the female characters still seemed to depend on the men in their life. Harrison Ford’s acting also showed a “larger shift in Hollywood representations of masculinity occasioned in part by a simultaneous shift in American political concerns from foreign policy issues to domestic ones.”10 Ford was often paired with strong female characters and portrayed as a protective figure with a “consistently comic tone” in his films.11

            Meryl Streep is often portrayed “as a real-life configuration of a post-feminist success story, the 1980s superwoman.”12. Additionally, although her more glamorous roles were more popular among her fans and critics, she rejected the classic forms of femininity. Streep’s films assessed the tensions between a woman’s career and motherhood as well as resistance to glamour. Clint Eastwood was also unique to the era, as he hated excessively technical action films, as opposed to Schwarzenegger and Stallone who both embraced the technological advancements of their era, seen clearly in their respective movies: Rambo and Terminator. Eberwein describes Bruce Willis as an “Eastwood persona for the high-tech age,” comparing the two and how they played similar roles in 1980s action films.13 The two male actors also showed their political views through their acting careers, heard in the many presidential campaign slogans that originated from Eastwood’s one-liners. Lastly, Eberwein discusses the highs and lows of the careers of two comedy stars in Hollywood, Steve Martin – who started as a stand up comedian – and John Candy – finding success with the popular sketch comedy group, Second City. Both struggled to find their place in the industry, Candy being forced to be the punch line of “fat jokes” and Martin finally finding his place playing patriarchal roles.

            Eberwein’s purpose in writing this book is to show how the biggest celebrities in the movie industry in the 1980s had the potential to help shape the common American’s political beliefs. Additionally, Eberwein stresses how these stars’ films, as well as their own personal actions, often reflected the views of the nation at this time allowing readers of his book to gain a different perspective on the decade. For example, Mel Gibson’s relationship with his family combined with his political views made him an “ultraconservative advocate for family values” according to Eberwein.14 This was seen as Americans in the 1980s turned away from 1960s liberalism and toward conservatism. In contrast, Meryl Streep’s work allowed her to “[debunk] the feminine mystique” that was making many women in the 1980s shy away from the movement.15 Through her actions with the movement as a beloved movie star, she encouraged many women to embrace the term rather than be afraid of it. The potential for a celebrity in the film industry to have that kind of influence over others is still seen today with stars such as Emma Watson leading the feminist movement, utilizing her stardom to teach and encourage others to become more involved. Eberwein stresses the importance in these stars’ actions in the 1980s, on and off screen, as even today people look up to celebrities as role models and often adopt their positions on certain issues.

            Robert Eberwein, a former professor at Oakland University, is passionate about film, seen in the way he writes about even the minutest details of the lives of movie stars in the 1980s with excitement. Among Eberwein’s other works are titles such as, The Hollywood War Film, Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film, and Sex Ed: Film, Video, and the Framework of Desire. All of his books, including Acting for America, analyze in great detail how the portrayal of characteristics such as masculinity and sexuality in movies during a specific era shapes a nation. For example, Eberwein discusses in great detail how both Stallone and Schwarzenegger developed “multilayered sexual identities [that] spoke to deep ambivalence and anxiety over shifting social, political, and sexual roles.”16 Suggestions like this one appear throughout his book, implying that the movies of the 1980s reflect how Americans felt about themselves or the changing world around them. Eberwein’s love for film encouraged him to look for connections between the biggest movie stars of the 1980s and the political views of the nation during the decade. Written in 2010, Eberwein’s book reflects attitudes of his time period, seen when he stresses how actors in the 1980s paved the way for the leaders of today. For example, he suggests in his writing that the celebrity status of numerous black actors “helped prepare Americans for an Obama presidency in one way or another.”17

            In his book, Eberwein makes many interesting points connecting how certain actors portrayed themselves in their various roles to American attitudes during the 1980s. However, some of these connections seemed slightly far-fetched. This is seen as Eberwein suggests that “the films of Sylvester Stallone serve as a cultural gender barometer, tracking the weather for the extremes of hyper-masculinity, ultra-femininity, and the liminal states between.”18 By stating this, Eberwein gives Stallone much more credit for forming American attitudes about masculinity in the era than he probably deserves, as there were many other factors that contributed to these attitudes. However, Eberwein makes some valid points throughout his book showing how the work of various actors in the 1980s certainly made a large impact on the film industry, discussing how “De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull set a new standard” for the dedication actors should have for the roles they play.19 De Niro both gained and lost a dramatic amount of weight in order to seem as identical to the man he was portraying – risking his own health in the process. Overall, Eberwein shows though his writing how the actions, both on and off screen, of the biggest stars of the 1980s influenced Americans’ attitudes during the era, something many readers had most likely not considered.

            Eberwein also mentions how the movies made in the 1980s lay a recognizable foundation for the many movies that would be made in the decades to come. For example, Eberwein comments that “with no parallel in American movies, this resurgence bears important implications for some of the main developments in Hollywood cinema of the 1980s” – referring to Clint Eastwood’s comeback in the film industry in the 1990s.20 Eberwein recognizes that without the major failures of films in the 1980s, Eastwood would not have had the success he did in the following decade. This is true for many stars of the 1980s who went on to create popular movies in the 1990s and 2000s, such as Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, two successful actors of today that gained recognition in the 1980s. Eberwein portrays these particular stars as developing in the 1980s to become what they are today.

            The interesting aspect of the film industry in any era is the fact that audiences are able to see stars with all different sorts of political views work together, sometimes playing roles with completely opposite beliefs as their own. Eberwein discusses the contrasting careers of ultraconservative actors such as Mel Gibson versus more progressive stars like Sigourney Weaver. Throughout his book, Eberwein supports the idea that many actors in the 1980s used their celebrity statuses to raise awareness of social issues, continuing the popularity of a progressive movement in America. However, he also recognizes that some more conservative celebrities in the movie industry in the 1980s helped turn the United States away from 1960s liberalism through their various works and public images. For example, Tom Cruise shows the conservative ideology of the mid-1980s in his movie Risky Business. Eberwein also mentions how “at a time of rampant capitalism during the Reagan era, with its emphasis on development through urbanization…[there were] films that [stood] in opposition to the urban ‘hyperreality’ of American cities, and which put forward a nostalgic view of the American countryside…”21 This is one of the many examples Eberwein gives the readers of how movies of the decade were created in response to political events taking place, showing how the 1980s seemed to be a decade of social progressivism, as people in the film industry used movies to examine the social issues of the era.
            Through his book, Eberwein explains how all the biggest celebrities of the 1980s were somehow connected to political and social issues of the decade. At one point, Eberwein cautions the readers “to recognize that our perspectives on Sigourney Weaver’s 1980 stardom are filtered through our own times.”22 This is true when discussing all the stars of the 1980s movie industry, however this is why looking into the actions and films of these stars is such a good way to understand the era.

1. Eberwein, Robert T. Acting for America: Movie Stars of the 1980s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2010. Print. 1.

2. Eberwein, Robert T. 34.

3. Eberwein, Robert T. 20.

4. Eberwein, Robert T. 56.

5. Eberwein, Robert T. 66.

6. Eberwein, Robert T. 78.

7. Eberwein, Robert T. 127.

8. Eberwein, Robert T. 145.

9. Eberwein, Robert T. 151.

10. Eberwein, Robert T. 178.

11. Eberwein, Robert T. 178.

12. Eberwein, Robert T. 209.

13. Eberwein, Robert T. 241.

14. Eberwein, Robert T. 88.

15. Eberwein, Robert T. 221.

16. Eberwein, Robert T. 37.

17. Eberwein, Robert T. 132.

18. Eberwein, Robert T. 46.

19. Eberwein, Robert T. 24.

20. Eberwein, Robert T. 225.

21. Eberwein, Robert T. 71-72.

22. Eberwein, Robert T. 158.