American-ness

Lately I’ve seen a couple of times the trailer for the forthcoming David O. Russell directed movie “American Hustle” (due to be released in December 2013). The film appears to take place in the 1970s and the trailer’s Led Zepplin song accompaniment lends an enticing energy to the film’s purported story.

Believing “American Hustle” is a movie I hope to see, I began to wonder about other movies with “American” in the title (& a 1950s film that didn’t put the term “American” in its title yet the book the film is based on has this term). In what context is this term used and when is it flattering and when is it not? (calling to mind both the rose known as “American Beauty” and the disparaging phrase the “ugly American”). How and when the term “American” appears in a movie title, is it in any way a sign of the times and era in the context in which it is used?

The first film I thought of is “American Heart,” a movie from the early 1990s starring Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong. Here an ex-con, newly released from prison and living in Seattle, struggles to make a life for himself and his teenage son who he barely remembers.

Another is “American Gangster” starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe circa 2007.

How about a 180 degree turn and the fairly lighthearted “The American President” (1995) made and released when former President Clinton was in office with actors Michael Douglas and Annette Benning?

And then spinning again, there is “American Gigolo” the 1980 drama with Richard Gere.

For sex comedy and silliness there is “American Pie” (1999) and its subsequent sequels.

While not a complete list, here are some additional movies with “American” in the title – for the most part the term is used as an adjective. In some instances there are movie titles where the term is a noun.

“American Beauty” (1999) – Directed by Sam Mendes. Numerous nominations and awards including oscars for best picture, best director and best actor.

“American Psycho” (1999) – Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. An early starring role for actor Christian Bale.

“American Graffiti” (1973) – Directed by George Lucas. Considered now something of a modern classic, this features a cast of actors who later became very well known. This film is believed to “capture the innocence of America before the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War”, depicting a typical night in the life of group of recent California high school graduates before their lives begin to change.

“An American Werewolf in London” (1980) Directed by John Landis. Darkly humorous movie that became a cult classic.

“The Quiet American” (based on the novel by Graham Greene) — This movie was made twice: In 1958 starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave; More recently in 2002 starring Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine.

“An American in Paris” (1952) – Featuring the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, this musical is about the life and romances of an ex-GI (actor Gene Kelly) who remains in Paris after the war to study painting.

“American Splendor” (2003) – A movie that weaves both fact and fiction concerning the life and times of real life comic book writer, Cleveland, OH resident, Harvey Pekar. Actors Paul Giametti and Hope Davis star; the movie includes also narration by the real life Harvy Pekar.

“An American Tragedy” (1931) ; “A Place in the Sun” (1951) – These two films are based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by American writer, Thedore Dreiser (1871-1945). The story is based on a real life 1906 event.
Made 20 years apart, the 1951 version “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, is the more well known. I’m not sure the reason why the book’s title is not used for this rendition — perhaps it is due to film title copyright concerns at that time. If not, perhaps the original book title An American Tragedy was considered too pessimistic for a time in America, the 1950s, when the country was booming with post-war optimism. Maybe upon deeper examination the ironic “A Place in the Sun” movie title lends the story poignancy. I wonder what Mr. Dreiser’s thoughts would’ve been on this.


Painting known as “American Progress” or “Spirit of the Frontier” by John Gast (1872)

 

“American Gothic,” a painting by Grant Wood (1930)

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