Issue 4.3, August 1989

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Essay Excerpt

From the Gilded Age on, the American fiction of the self-made manor success hero has been used to reformulate an older republican dream of individual freedom in the context of an increasingly organized, consumption-oriented, corporate capitalist society. My concern in this article is with one such reformulation. From an analysis of four unabashedly minor Hollywood films, I will abstract a certain ideological pattern that came into circulation during the Reagan era.

The films were released between 1984 and 1987, at the height of that era. They are: All the Right Moves (1984), starring Tom Cruise; Ferris Buehler's Day Off (1986; subsequently referred to as Ferris Buehler), starring Matthew Broderick; Nothing in Common (1986), starring Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason; and The Secret of My Success (1987; subsequently referred to as Secret), starring Michael J. Fox. These films form a cycle, defined by overlapping similarities in story, theme, and locale. All four are concerned with individual mobility and success, as achieved in high school (All the Right Moves, Ferris Buehler) or in the corporate workplace (Nothingin Common, Secret). At a more abstract level, all have plot structures based on an opposition between youth and age, to which other oppositions are made to correspond as the plots unfold.

With the exception of Nothing in Common, the films star teen idols and were intended for today's biggest ticket-buyers, the 12-to 19-year-old movie audience. Hanks, whose main appeal is to young adults, resembles Cruise, Broderick, and Fox in an important respect. He and the younger stars specialize in conveying a cool, breezy, highly verbal, yet distinctly boyish style of rebellious independence. In All the Right Moves, however, Cruise is cast against this type. The film was a box office flop. By contrast, both Nothing in Common and Secret did moderately well in their respective seasons, and Ferris Buehler, with its ultra-ironist hero, was the smash hit of the summer of 1986.

In this article I try to contextualize the relative box office popularity of cinematic images of success. My thesis, in brief, is that a fantasy embedded in the commercially successful success stories in my cycle appeals primarily to the young corporate employees of today and tomorrow. In short, I interpret the films as part of the making of the new middle classes. (Traube, 273)

Traube, Elizabeth G. "Secrets of Success in Postmodern Society." Cultural Anthropology 4, no. 2 (1989): 273-300