It's hard to quantify Norman Rockwell's impact on Hollywood. The artist and illustrator (1894--1978) idealized 20th-century America on thousands of magazine covers (especially Boy's Life and The Saturday Evening Post). He was an axiom of Americana whose images of Free Speech and Thanksgiving told stories in a single image. With the possible exception of Grant Wood, no other American artist has been so frequently referenced in the movies. Rockwell's framing and lighting , not to mention his subject matter, inspired generations of directors from Frank Capra and John Ford to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Not only are Lucas and Spielberg influenced by Rockwell, they are devoted collectors of his work. Their Rockwells will be on view from July to January at the Smithsonian. Pictured is "High Dive," owned by Spielberg, a comic image of everyday terror.
Like Walt Disney (and Lucas and Spielberg) Rockwell has inspired equal amounts of admiration and contempt. Richard Halpern's 2006 Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, puts it best: "To his admirers, Rockwell's paintings of mischievous boys, swimming holes, and small-town life offer a reassuringly wholesome if somewhat nostalgic vision that wards off the sordid, threatening aspects of modern existence. To his detractors, this same vision betrays both social and artistic naivete, a kitschy sentimentality that promotes a sanitized view of the world." In his fine book, Halpern argues that both these views miss the mark. "..that Rockwell's paintings are darker and more complex than most viewers are willing to acknowledge." (A claim likewise made by admirers of Lucas and Spielberg.)
For me, Rockwell fascinates because of his ability to disarm and disturb at the same time. In "High Dive," he induces the fear of heights while making us laugh at the universal fear of taking a leap. Some dismiss that quality in Spielberg, but it is not the shadows under the sun-dappled surface of E.T. that still unsettle us? Rockwell and Spielberg are simultaneously light and dark.
"Steven Spielberg staged a scene in Empire of the Sun where the parents put Christian Bale to bed with the father holding newspaper while the mother tucked Bale into bed is a conscious citation of Rockwell's 'Freedom from Fear, ' "says Virginia Mecklenburg, the Smithsonian curator who organized the forthcoming show. For her, the most important correspondences between Rockwell and Lucas/Spielberg are not in the compositions but in the values expressed. Paraphrasing Spielberg, she cites the important connections between the filmmakers and Rockwell' in the images of "community, civic responsibilty and respect for neighbors."
Which film used Rockwell best? My top-of-head response is Gary Ross's Pleasantville (1998), a deconstruction of Rockwell family values. Your thoughts?