EDITORIAL: Movies that epitomize the American Dream (Part 7)

Over where my blog movie reviews get published on Examiner.com, I was presented with an editorial project opportunity dealing with the topic of the "American Dream."  The suggested angles pertained to how the American Dream presently relates in the many real-life sections (Home, Job, Finance, Parenting, Education, etc.) that Examiner.com reports on.  You know me.  When I heard the topic, I immediately thought about the many movies that embody the spirit of the American Dream.  It was an angle in the entertainment realm of Examiner.com that I thought wasn't touched on, so I took it upon myself to gather a few angles myself.  From the immigrants of Coming to America to the self-made man of Citizen Kane, you'll see that more movies than you think end up embodying the American Dream.  So many, in fact, that I had to break this editorial into sections.  Enjoy!


The second decadent route to the American Dream is through performing arts, a very 20th and 21st century version of the American Dream.  Between singing, dancing, or acting, the quest for notoriety through one's "fifteen minutes of fame" onstage or onscreen is path to greatness.  There's a reason why American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?, America's Got Talent, and Dancing With the Stars are perennially among the most-watched TV shows every year of the last decade.  Before it, it was American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, Star Search, and the entire MTV  generation.  The reason is, like sports, America loves an underdog and a rags-to-riches story.  Again, the big question is whether this is a good or prudent way to strive for the American Dream.  Over the course of Hollywood history, there are too many to list.  This part is so large that it need its own subcategories and shortened descriptions.


Movies based on real people follow typically the same origin formula for telling their nobody-to-somebody and rags-to-riches tales.  Here's a big chronological list of prominent and popular American Dream examples matching the subject with the actor/actress that played them (you're on your own with info and trailers, go to IMDB):

Houdini (1953)-- Tony Curtis plays magician Harry Houdini

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)-- James Stewart as bandleader Glenn Miller

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)-- Diana Ross plays singer Billie Holliday

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)-- Gary Busey plays singer Buddy Holly

The Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)-- Sissy Spacek plays country singer Loretta Lynn

Sweet Dream (1985)-- Jessica Lange plays country singer Patsy Cline

La Bamba (1987)-- Lou Diamond Phillips plays singer Richie Valens

Bird (1998)-- Forest Whitaker plays jazz artist Charlie Parker

Great Balls of Fire! (1989)-- Dennis Quaid plays singer Jerry Lee Lewis

The Doors (1991)-- Val Kilmer plays frontman Jim Morrison

Chaplin (1992)-- Robert Downey, Jr. plays actor Charlie Chaplin

What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993)-- Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne play singers Tina and Ike Turner

Ed Wood (1994)-- Johnny Depp as film director Ed Wood

Private Parts (1996)-- Howard Stern as himself, the radio host

The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)-- Woody Harrelson as publisher Larry Flynt

Why Do Fools Fall in Love? (1998)-- Larenz Tate plays singer Frankie Lymon

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)-- Johnny Depp plays journalist/author Hunter S. Thompson

Gods and Monsters (1998)-- Ian McKellan as film director James Whale

Man on the Moon (1999)-- Jim Carrey as actor/comedian Andy Kaufman

Beyond the Sea (2004)-- Kevin Spacey plays crooner Bobby Darin

Ray (2004)-- Jamie Foxx plays singer Ray Charles

Walk the Line (2005)-- Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon play country singers Johnny Cash and June Carter

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)-- Gretchen Mol plays model Bettie Page

I'm Not There (2007)-- Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, and Ben Winshaw all play different incarnations of singer Bob Dylan

Cadillac Records (2008)-- Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, and Beyonce Knowles play executive Leonard Chess and singers Muddy Waters and Etta James

Notorious (2009)-- Jamal Woolard plays rapper Christopher "Notorious B.I.G./Biggie Smalls" Wallace

The Soloist (2009)-- Jamie Foxx plays cellist Nathaniel Ayers

Mao's Last Dancer (2009)-- Chi Cao as Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin


Much like biopics about real people, these follow pretty much the same formula.  That aside, like Rocky for sports movies, these movies succeed in telling fictitious, yet equally compelling, stories of striving for success and popularity through stardom.

A Star is Born (1937, 1954, 1976)-- The frequently remade story of an aspiring Hollywood actress, most famously done by Judy Garland in 1954.

The Player (1992)-- Satire loosely based on real Hollywood executives and stereotypes will a cast a mile long from ensemble directing specialist Robert Altman

That Thing You Do! (1996)-- Tom Hank's directorial debut could stand in as the story of dozens of one-hit wonders from the rock 'n roll 1960s.

Mo' Better Blues (1990)-- Spike Lee and Denzel Washington team up on a troubled jazz trumpeter with aspirations much like the real Miles Davis of the past.

Almost Famous (2000)-- Loosely based on filmmaker Cameron Crowe's teenage years working for Rolling Stone magazine.

Dreamgirls (2006)-- Loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes with great performances from Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, and Eddie Murphy.

Nine (2009)-- Loosely based on film and stage director Federico Fellini played by Daniel Day-Lewis

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)-- Last and certainly least is a perfectly ridiculous spoof of all modern music biopics starring John C. Reilly.


These are American Dream stories of trying to reach stardom, just quite a bit more different and unique than the singing and acting stereotypes listed before.  These are arguably the most fascinating because of that big departure of setting.

Boogie Nights (1998)-- The aspiring pornstar epic is arguably the best journey to the American Dream on this whole list, fact or fictional.  Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson knock the ball out of the ballpark.

Showgirls (1995)-- Equally dirty and risque, but far worse of a movie is Paul Verhoven's Showgirls about a wide-eyed American girl who comes to Las Vegas to be a legitimate dancer, but ends up as a ridiculous stripper in the meantime.  Bad for a movie, but true to the American Dream theme surprisingly.

The Cable Guy (1996)-- It was a dark comedy then in 1996, but looks like a borderline cautionary tale now of Generation X and the MTV generation's overexposure and reliance of pop culture and connection.

The Truman Show (1998)-- Two Jim Carrey movies in a row.  What if your fifteen minutes of fame was actually your entire life and you didn't even know it?  The incredibly not-so-distant future premise of Andrew Niccol's excellent The Truman Show is truly impressive for its scope.  It's also when Jim Carrey actually became a real actor.

EDtv (1999)-- Ron Howard and Matthew McConaughey pre-date the boom of reality television with its look at a regular guy getting his own 24/7 television show and invasive entourage and national following.  It was poorly reviewed in 1998, but looks surprisingly prophetic now.

NEXT PART:  The American Dream Through the Eyes of Youth