Biography on film #1

A free-wheeling piece on biopics, history, and the function of biography in culture.

—If you enjoy this post consider sharing it using the social tags, bottom left of the page.

Figure 1. Albert Dieudonné in Napoléon (dir. Abel Gance).

The biography film (or biopic) holds a unique position within the library of cinema genres. Love it or loathe it, it has endured from silent film, e.g. Napoléon (1927) (Figure 1) into the present day, Respect (2021).

Biography the category, like most categories, is something of a shapeshifter. In printed form, publishers and consumers are quick to both differentiate and conflate its variants: memoir, autobiography, life writing, auto theory, diaries, letters, group biography, portraits etc. Cinema continues in blurring these boundaries, but this is more often done with respect to content instead of form, which remains… formulaic.

Innovative biopics are more likely to be found in the realm of artist film—e.g. Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) or Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, (1998)—though recently, some innovative mainstream productions have emerged. I’m thinking here, in an open-minded way, of Sergio Da Costa's Bird Island (2019), Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2020) and Bo Burnham's Inside (2021)—Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015) could be a musical equivalent, though biographies in musicals have their own lineage: Cabaret (1966) Evita (1978), Jersey Boys (2004), Grey Gardens (2006), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (2013), etc.

With the above examples, and the next film discussed, we should note that not everything that is biographical is a biography.

For example, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019) (Figure 2), which is well-constructed and menacing, is not a biography; though its plot-twist relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge of a real-life massacre. (It is barely, in parts, biographical). Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) (Figure 3) also relies on the audience’s knowledge of the 1999 Columbine massacre to instil a sense of dread in his more restrained film, and the biographical tightrope he walks is less explosive or exploitative as Once Upon A Time.

Figure 2. Margot Robbie in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Figure 3. Alicia Miles and John Robinson in Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant).

So, we’re now at the point in a conversation where we should argue about what a biography is or isn't. Or is such an argument futile? The point, if it's not clear already, is that the category defies clear parameters. If we can’t agree on the parameters, we can at least agree on some of the terrain? The above examples, as well as those that follow, as different as they are, feature, or are based on, real-life characters and events.

IMDb, in a regularly updated 2015 listicle, writes about 'Upcoming Biographies and Fact-Based Films'. The term Fact-based (factum: deed, basis: to step) has even more latitude than biography (bios: life, grapho: write). Fact, of course, does not mean truth, for to say that something exists says nothing of the wayin which it exists. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood steals facts from history, and any plot- or intellectual pay-off relies on the audiences’ basic knowledge of the original events. In my view, this is Fiction’s—and Tarantino’s—cheap and cold exploitation of fact. Facts which should be honourable become sullied.

I would like to press upon you the difference between a biography and the biographical. That is, biography as a completed (though in-complete) product—think Helen Mirren’s In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures (2008) or Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls (1992)— and the biographical as a framework or approach to a subject, e.g. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928)/ film (1992) (Figure 4) or Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998)/ film (2002) (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Tilda Swinton in Orlando (dir. Sally Potter).

Figure 5. Julianne Moore in The Hours (dir. Stephen Daldry)

The difference between the two is not simply that biography stems from fact, and the biographical is co-opted into fiction. One can adopt a biographical approach to forms that do not trade in fiction, from the arts (dance, music, sculpture, painting, tapestry) to science and psychology. You can also have a biography that is totally, or in-part, invention: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003) or The Bible (dates unknown).

At this point, you might say: “Well, isn’t everything either a biography or biographical, then?”

No. Of course not.

But, you are right to say that “the biography genre is so ubiquitous that, hiding in plain sight, we may forget to question its function within, and impact on society and culture.” Anything that takes time and money to produce—and we know cinema and books gobble up both—is driven by desire and need that is not purely about a return on investment, nor simply sharing a story.

“Eh. What are you getting at?”

What I’m getting at is that Biography (rather than the Biographical; which is, for the most part, a technique; a ploy; in the same way that dialogue is: “Ah. I See.”) plays a function in society and culture.

What I’m also getting at is that, given this embarrassment of riches of biopics in recent years, we might expect a cause-and-effect response, in particular some cultural commentary or in-depth analysis of how the genre operates within and across cultures in the present day. (It might be out there: but I haven’t seen it).

What I’m getting at is that we might want to be more critical as consumers, because criticality ensures distance, and distance ensures safety and, importantly, perspective.

What I’m getting at is that biography exists in multiple forms, which are not mutually exclusive:

Biography as History (Ron Howard’s Apollo 13)

Biography as Memory (Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, 2000)

Biography as Activism (David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, 2017)

Biography as Documentary (Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, 2004)

Biography as Education (Ava DuVernay’s Selma, 2014)

Biography as Ideology (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, 2012) (Figure 7)

Biography as Nation-building (Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour 2017) (Figure 6)

Biography as Warning (BBC, PBS’ Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World, 2021)

Figure 6. Gary Oldman (and friends) in Darkest Hour (dir. Joe Wright).

Figure 7. Daniel Day Lewis (and friends) in Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg).