California Dreamin’: How the Golden State is Used to Subvert the American Dream

Over a century’s worth of dreams have been chased to the West Coast state, so it’s no wonder that California’s sunny locales have been used in skeptical, neurotic movies about the American Dream to make their brutal subversion of it all the more cutting. Here, we take a look at how this has been done.
By  · Published on July 6th, 2017

When going West becomes a skeptical, neurotic affair.

To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.

New York might be their landing stage, but for those seeking to “go West” and find their fortunes, California is the natural, terminal destination in their quest; the furthest spot on the horizon that a dreamer could set their sights for without skidding into the Pacific. Dreamers have certainly come in their droves, allured by the raft of real-life rags-to-riches stories the Golden State has seen: the Sierra Nevada Mountains sparked America’s first Gold Rush, Hollywood is home to the movie industry, and Silicon Valley the site for the dot-com boom.

Over a century’s worth of dreams have been chased to the West Coast state, so it’s no wonder California is where the American Dream – the idea that social mobility (and concomitantly, happiness) is in reach for everyone willing to work hard – was born. Its swathes of arable land, cookie-cutter homes and palm tree- and mansion-lined boulevards signify it as a land of plenty. Here, success is for the taking, and you can go as high as you like: blissful domesticity, a la The Brady Bunch and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, lies dormant in suburban Valley homes, waiting for you to sign the dotted line, while goldmines of Hollywood millions and tech billions sit untapped in anticipation of the next big dreamer. Hollywood, itself a shining example of the Dream, has been instrumental in the self-mythologizing of California: Paint Your Wagon, California, Singin’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, JobsThe Pursuit of Happyness, and (in all its self-referential glory) La La Land all depict golden eras in the Golden State’s history, or are odes to its transformative ability in making rags-to-riches dreams come true. Even TV’s favorite couple, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, made the move westward to seek fame and fortune.

California is inextricable from stories of success and the celebration of the American Dream – so it makes sense that its sunny locales have also been used in skeptical, neurotic movies about the American Dream to make their brutal subversion of it all the more cutting.

The claustrophobic tedium of suburbia – a direct product of the American Dream, and the aspirational home of so many of its disciples – has been a favourite feature of anti-Dream Midwest movies like American Beauty and the New England-set Stepford Wives remake, but the Brady Bunch bliss of Californian suburbs hasn’t escaped this skewering satirisation, either.

Julianne Moore famously slipped into the skin of a chronically dissatisfied housewife in Todd Haynes’ Connecticut flick Far From Heaven, but she’s also conveyed that particular gendered brand of kitchen sink anguish in the California ‘burbs, too: first in Haynes’ Safe, and later in The Hours. The first is a movie gripped by the stultifying ennui of affluent Valley suburban life – with its cliché of sterile homes, sparkling lawn-sprinklers and Hispanic domestic staff – and positively pulsating with anxiety about the psychological effects of such an existence. Haynes makes the lethargy menacing by blighting his lead (named Carol, in an early herald of his 2015 critical hit) with a mystery illness, its symptoms ranging from stray seizures and migraines to unprompted nosebleeds at the salon. It’s unclear whether the sickness is psychosomatic, but the intentional ambiguity around Carol’s affliction serves to make it a metaphor for the malaise of her life and the millions of lives like it.

Moore’s character in The Hours, Laura, exists approximately 40 years before Carol, but faces much the same problem: her life is materially comfortable, her husband quite agreeable, but something remains terribly wrong. She, too, has been duped by the American Dream: her 1.5 kids and cookie-cutter home on a bright and cheery Californian street mask a listless depression and sense of inner hollowness that prompt her to commit suicide, a brink she only just pulls back from. All this occurs on a “beautiful day” – one of many promised by California’s sunshine-soaked climate. Ultimately, the picture-perfect life promised by the state’s postcards cannot live up to expectations, prompting existential crises and auto-immune disorders in its hoodwinked residents. The underlying messages of The Hours and Safe are conveyed more subtly than in, say, the Suburban Gothic genre, but both are clear in their implications: just behind those neat, white-picket fences lies suburbia’s simmering homicidal potential.

The suffocating effect of the Dream was also explored in relation to Californian youth, and most viscerally so in Over the Edge, the movie that inspired the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It depicted a planned suburban community meticulously designed for adults pursuing the pre-fab Dream – it has “safe streets, clean air [and] good schools” – but one that was, to its own fiery damnation, numbingly devoid of distraction for their kids. The film’s tale of youth gone feral in sunny New Granada (a fictionalized Foster City, CA) conveys a palpable, stifling sense of oppression-by-architecture for the town’s youth, posing the question, “Whose Dream?”

This generational alienation mirrored that of The Graduate and Rebel Without A Cause. In Mike Nichols’ film, the gleaming vacuity of Californian suburbia invokes unease for Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a college graduate contemplating his future in his first summer home as a free man. Forced to model scuba gear to the delight of his affluent Pasadena parents and their friends, Benjamin realises the discomfort he feels in this (American) Dreamy life, complete with the Golden State’s never-ending pool weather and convertible rides to Berkeley. With the contemplative eyes of a recent grad, he sees the glossy lives of his parents’ generation with fresh understanding: theirs revolves around the outward projection of happiness, which sublimates any chance of the true joy he’s chasing.

Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson is the inevitable underside of this: a repressed woman whose career dreams (and future happiness) were thwarted when she followed the Dream blueprint and did the “right thing” by marrying her thoroughly unsuitable husband. Her despair turns to bitterness, proving that the Dream-turned-nightmare needn’t always reduce its victims to frightened shadows of themselves, as Julianne Moore’s characters are. The tension between Benjamin and Mrs Robinson is emblematic of the conflicting generational responses to the American Dream: the unquestioning acceptance by Mrs Robinson’s generation, and the contemplative scepticism, ultimately leading to rejection, by Benjamin’s.

Benjamin’s disillusionment is matched by Jim Stark’s (James Dean) in Rebel Without A Cause, a recent LA transplant who does his rebelling against his parents’ Dream-endorsed consumerism. When his father, perplexed at his son’s ruffian behaviour, asks, “Don’t I give you everything you want?” Jim responds with “You buy me many things. Thank you.” in sardonic tones. Like Benjamin Braddock, Dean’s character feels alienated from his parents because of the instinctive trust they place in the Dream, which obstructs their emotional ability to understand their child – a requirement of parenthood that can’t be bought at the Galleria. In the end, the tension invoked by the cynical teenager’s conflict with his Dreamer parents boils over in a climactic, tragic scene at the Griffith Observatory, reconciling Jim and his father in the light of the latter finally understanding what really matters to his son.

While West Coast domestic life is fraught, it pales in comparison to the anxiety of those seeking success in Hollywood; like objects under a magnifying glass, the droves of ambitious youngsters that flock to its streets for a shot at stardom simply burn up under the Californian sun. The 1975 adaptation of The Day of The Locust captures the original novel’s themes of high-flying Hollywood ambition and the crash-and-burn disappointment that usually follows. A scene where too many extras storm a fragile stage, leading to its collapse, is dripping with metaphor; under the heavy weight of all those naive dreamers, LA buckles. Later, when mobs set a movie premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre ablaze, we feel the heat of their burning anger. The equal opportunity promised by the American Dream breeds mass entitlement, but the sorry truth is that simply can’t be satisfied for everyone. For all its promises of success and happiness, California ends up being its own undoing.

Although less lucid, Mulholland Drive provides a heightened the sense that LA is little more than a seductive predator to the innocent and ambitious; a black widow spider that draws you in with glittering lights and sparkly smiles before she sucks the life out of you. Original reviews called the film a “poisonous valentine to Hollywood”, and it’s hard to argue with that. Its fever dream of a narrative is clear about little, but it is sure of one thing, at least: Hollywood is the stuff of nightmares.

Theories that Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is the Miss Havisham-like, bitter reality of the naïve and talented actress Betty Elms (also Watts) tap into other cinematic depictions of soured dreams. Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane sketch out the eventual destiny of girls like Betty; after tasting a morsel of success, they will, most likely, face a career drought they can’t survive, lapsing instead into gross mutations of their former selves. Narcissism and elaborate expectations of never-ending stardom decay these former actresses from the inside out, while the biz moves on without a care in the world, leaving them to live through their own decomposition. These films warn that, more often than not, Hollywood beginnings don’t mean Hollywood endings.

The idea that dreams of the American kind are made in California forms the backbone for so many anti-Dream movies. These films investigate the extent of California’s beauty and the American Dream’s truth, finding the first to be only veneer-deep and the second downright deceptive, ultimately collapsing the whole house of cards. The milk and honey go sour, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow turns out to be nothing more than a humbled street busker’s tin can of coppers. While California is where dreamers go, these films show us that it is also where dreams die.

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.