Near the beginning of Jane Campion’s western thriller “The Power of the Dog,” a hard-hearted rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) takes to verbally abusing an effeminate young waiter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Shaken up by the experience, the kid goes outside and lets loose with a hula hoop, twirling away his tension if only for a few moments.
In “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) spending a nightmarish Christmas with the royal family in Norfolk, Diana flashes back to the innocence of her earlier years, which includes, yes, a hula hoop.
They’re not alone: The ancient toy-turned-popular fad has been everywhere this awards season. Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” gets hoop happy in a short auditions scene. And in the much-debated “Ted Lasso” episode “Beard After Hours,” Brendan Hunt’s Coach Beard ends up in a members-only club, where he dazzles with his hooping skills (and impresses his girlfriend).
Though hula hoops gained popularity as a faddish plastic toy in the ‘50s, they’ve actually been around in some shape or form for thousands of years. Writing in “Wired,” Cie McCullough Buschle describes how “as far back as 3000 BCE Egyptians were curving reeds and rattan into circles. These hooped circles were swung around the waist, pushed along the ground by a stick or thrown in the air.”
The modern Native American Hoop Dance was popularized by a dancer named Tony White Cloud, who performed the dance in 1942’s “Valley of the Sun” and 1952’s “Apache Country.” Here the hoop symbolizes the continuous circle of life. As early as the 14th century, English doctors reported treating hoopers for injuries sustained using wooden and metal hoops. The hoop reportedly got its modern name when English sailors visited the Hawaiian Islands in the 1800s and witnessed hip-shaking hula dancing.
The modern hooping craze began in the late ‘50s, when the toy company Wham-O put their marketing muscle behind the cheaply made plastic variation that we know today. This brings us to the movie in which the hula hoop plays a key role, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1994 Frank Capra homage “The Hudsucker Proxy.”
In “Hudsucker,” which starts in 1958, Hudsucker Industries hires Midwestern simpleton Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) to run the company, hoping that the stocks will take a dive and the board can gobble up all the shares. But Norville has an ace up his sleeve. He walks around with a drawing of a circle, offering the simplest of explanations: “You know. For kids.”
Norville’s hula hoop idea flops, until a serendipitous sidewalk encounter between a runaway hoop and a little boy. The boy picks up the hoop and goes to work, twirling it around his waist, his ankle and his neck as a gobsmacked crowd of schoolchildren stand and watch before scampering to the neighborhood toy store to buy their own hoops (which, in a montage within this montage, quickly rise in price). It’s a sequence of pure cinematic joy, although Norville still has plenty of demons to battle before coming up with an idea for a new gizmo: the Frisbee.
Those screaming “Hudsucker” kids instantly saw the appeal of the hula hoop. It’s a toy. It’s a piece of exercise equipment. It can work off stress, as in “The Power of the Dog,” or represent nostalgia, as in “Spencer,” or bring your hair down, as in “Ted Lasso.” Go online today and you’ll see all manner of hula hoops for sale, including weighted hoops for adults and light-up LED hoops, in case you like to twirl in the dark.
So don’t be surprised when you see the hula hoop up there on the big screen. Some fads are just too cool to go out of style.