PRINT February 1989

Believe It or Not

American Myths

THE AMERICAN “1988” was a year in continuous comparison with sometime else. The crash of ’87 had everyone thinking “1929,” but the first half of ’88 was devoted to commemorations of “1968.” With the nominations of Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen and George Bush, the emphasis changed to “1960,” which, once the Duke proved himself anyone but JFK redux, elided the fabled Thousand Days with endless replays of November “1963.” (Bush, it should be noted, continued to run against “1968”—at one point creating a symbolic polarity between Easy Rider and Dirty Harry.1)

Before “1989” develops its own personality, let’s celebrate the 33rd anniversary of “1956,” arguably a time of unbridled revolutionary energy surpassing even the fetishized “1968” (if not the soon-to-be-commemorated “1789”). Talk about your global liberation: “1956” saw unprecedented black militancy and youth culture run wild at home, war in the Middle East, Soviet thaw and East European invasion, weird doings in San Francisco (“I saw the best minds of my generation . . .”), a presidential election, The Searchers, Written on the Wind, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Baby Doll, and The Girl Can’t Help It. Time’s man of the year was a long-haired kid with a gun, perfect sublimation of the juvenile delinquency that succeeded communism as the great internal threat. He was called “Freedom Fighter.”

As Dick Hebdige has observed, the emergence of a subculture is invariably accompanied by a wave of hysteria in the media. This excitement is typically ambivalent—fluctuating between dread and fascination, outrage and amusement. So it was when the Teenager returned to America after twenty-five years in Depression- and war-induced suspended animation. Freedom now! If “1955” had been the year of the JD—Congress held hearings and magazines waxed solemn as The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause introduced a new mythology of violence based on the hotrod and the switchblade—still something was missing: a focal point for the mass audience of crazy mixed-up kids. Thus “1956” brought Elvis.

It’s hard to imagine that before Elvis there was no Elvis. He made himself up—combining white country music and black blues, the tough image of the urban delinquent and the sweet soul of a backwoods hick. The 14 May 1956 issue of Time (who else but Marilyn Monroe on the cover, celebrating her post—Actors Studio comeback?) broke the story of the “Teeners’ Hero”: “Heartbreak Hotel” had gone to number one and “all through the South and West, Elvis [was] packing theaters, fighting off shrieking admirers, disturbing parents, puckering the brows of psychologists, and filling letters-to-the-editor columns with cries of alarm.”

Elvis Presley, variously known as the Hillbilly Cat, the King of Western Bop, and the Atomic Powered Singer, enjoyed the most meteoric rise in the history of American show biz. Along with Marilyn, Ike, and Davy Crockett, he became a character in the national folk culture. As television variety shows began to compete with each other, they used this bizarre new creature to boost their ratings; in 1956, Elvis made 12 appearances on network TV. If you watch these shows in chronological order, you can see his image develop like a photograph in a tray: eyebrows are plucked, hair darkened, moves smoothed. Elvis brought rock ’n’ roll but he was produced by television—he was not simply a voice but an image, an icon, the Icon. Already in 1956, a prescient New York artist, Ray Johnson, was making collages out of his publicity photos.

The summer of ’56 marked the peak of Elvis’ career as a rock star—he was attacked by newspapers, preachers, teachers, cops, and politicians, the entire state ideological apparatus. There were demands that he be banned, curbed, run out of town, castrated. The August 27 issue of Life (“A Different Kind of Idol”) showed pictures of fundamentalist congregations kneeling to pray for his soul and Elvis fans kneeling on his front lawn. Of course, Elvis the Pelvis had no need to minister to teenage spiritual angst; at the very moment of his apotheosis, a less corporeal idol already hovered over the land. Dead for nearly a year, James Dean was the subject of a parallel and equally hysterical craze.

Dean had only one film in release when he crashed his Porsche on September 30, 1955, and Hollywood did not exactly go into mourning. Only after the posthumous opening of Rebel without a Cause did he become a star, the Star. No cult in the history of the movies equaled his in fervor. The Dean craze, like Elvis madness, was a spontaneous demonstration of the power of the teenage market. (There were two youth films in 1955, ten in 1956, and 40 in 1957.) In September 1956, Life reported that Dean was receiving 2,000 fan letters a week, mostly from teenage devotees who doggedly refused to consider him dead. The smashed Porsche was purchased and exhibited for paying customers in a Los Angeles bowling alley; some 800,000 tickets were sold, and bolts and screws salvaged from the wreck went their way like pieces of the true cross. No less ghoulishly, the back pages of movie magazines advertised life-sized models of Dean’s head, sculpted from plastic to feel like real skin.

Teenagers made Rebel without a Cause but Rebel without a Cause also defined teenagers. According to Nick Ray, Elvis too idolized this disembodied spirit of adolescent rebellion: “I was sitting in the cafeteria at MGM one day, and Elvis Presley came over. He knew I was a friend of Jimmy’s and had directed Rebel, so he got down on his knees before me and began to recite whole passages of dialogue from the script. Elvis must have seen Rebel a dozen times by then and remembered every one of Jimmy’s lines.” When Elvis arrived in Hollywood, he began by hanging out with Dean’s official crowd—Nick Adams, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood. Meanwhile, the industry was treating Elvis as the new Dean—he was immediately touted for lead in The James Dean Story and cast as a sensitive outsider in Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole.

Elvis embodied teenage energy; Dean made adolescent angst immortal. Their appeal transcended gender, class, and nationality. In 1956, 24-year-old François Truffaut wrote that “in James Dean, today’s youth discovers itself. Less for the reasons usually advanced: violence, sadism, hysteria, pessimism, cruelty, and filth, than for others infinitely more simple and commonplace: modesty of feeling, continual fantasy life, moral purity without relation to everyday morality but all the more rigorous, eternal adolescent love of tests and trial, intoxication, pride and regret at feeling and, finally, acceptance—or refusal—of the world as it is.” Three years later Truffaut made his version of Rebel without a Cause, The 400 Blows. Meanwhile, West Germany and Poland produced their own Deans (Horst Buchholz and Zbigniew Cybulski), France and England their native Presleys (Johnny Hallyday and Cliff Richards).

The revolution of 1956 reached its climax in November. Time reported that “TV last week hysterically joined the weird posthumous cult of James Dean” by rebroadcasting three undistinguished teledramas in which he played minor parts. The magazine quoted one unnamed executive: “He’s hotter than anybody alive.” Well, almost anyone. The opening of Love Me Tender, the routine western into which Elvis had been hastily inserted, proved a media event comparable to The Jazz Singer—the film returned its production cost in something like two weeks. November 1956 was also the month of the doomed but glorious Hungarian Revolution. Suddenly the American ideological apparatus turned cheerleader, reimagining the crazy mixed-up kid as Freedom Fighter, and presaging the mad displacement of The Wall Street Journal’s subsequent love for Solidarnosc.

The East European “1956” is the covert subject of Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 Ashes and Diamonds, which casts Zbigniew Cybulski in pompadour and shades as the embodiment of confused, romantic nationalism. The notion of Elvis the Freedom Fighter continues to haunt Hungarian hipsters. Asked why he became a director, György Szomjas—auteur of two goulash westerns and the Magyar equivalent of This is Spinal Tap—said only, “When I was 16, two things happened to me: I lived through 1956 in Budapest, and I heard rock ’n’ roll.” Peter Gothár’s 1982 Time Stands Still casts “Don’t Be Cruel” as a continuation of the uprising of 1956 by other means; Ferenc András’ maudlin The Great Generation, 1985, is set mainly in a Budapest disco called the Elvis Presley Club. Not surprisingly, the greatest of Elvis impersonators is Hungary’s Lászlo Komáor; to hear his “Egy Ejszaka” (“One Night”) is to have the yearning of the original “1956” defamiliarized and telescoped into one eerie blend of rushed Hungarian polysyllables and mumbled phonetic English.

Late last year, with Elvis sightings replacing UFO encounters as America’s privileged supernatural experience, Chris Columbus’ Heartbreak Hotel effectively remade E.T.—with an Elvis clone substituting for an adorable alien as a mystical family therapist. That the mother was played by Elvis’ erstwhile costar Tuesday Weld lent the film an additional hall-of-mirrors poignance. The ridiculous old Elvis—the fat Liberace of rhinestone-studded capes and spangled jumpsuits—has become pure spirit, just as his original acolytes prepare to experience fifty-something. This middle-aged replay of the Dean cult is the epitome of revolutionary nostalgia. Every time a suburban matron spots Elvis in a supermarket checkout line, “1956” lives.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.



1. See Maureen Dowd, “Bush Boasis of Turnaround from Easy Rider Society,” the New York Times, 7 October 1988, p. B7.