Biography on film #1

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

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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).

I could add to this short list Biography as Message, Biography as Instruction, Biography as Ambiguity, and so on.

If you are not yet convinced that biography has a function to play in society, let us turn to a list of films released during the Trump Administration from 2017 to 2021, and specifically, biopics about African Americans and African American history: Detroit (2017) (Figure 9), BlacKkKlansman (2018), Green Book (2018), When They See Us (2019), One Night in Miami (2020), Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) (Figure 8)—Hidden Figures (2016), and I Am Not Your Negro (2016) just miss the cut-off date; and When They See Us is a TV mini-series; but allow me some leeway. Indeed, Moonlight (2016)—more leeway—was based on an unpublished semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Now, my next point isn’t that these movies were produced as a direct challenge to the post-truth, fake-news, racist, and sexist administration of Donald Trump and the media that gave him the leeway which you reluctantly give me. But they were produced, in part, as a response to the times (including #OscarsSoWhite: 2015–present); our times. Not the times they are set in—they possibly represent those times with as much dimensionality as Tarantino represented Sharon Tate.

These films perform a number of functions, education, entertainment, memorialising, mythologizing, activism, catharsis. The point of including them here is to demonstrate the way in which a society (or given the size of the US and the complicated make-up of its cities and states, I’ll use the plural: societies) can use the biography genre to address their histories, and the multiple ways biography informs and interacts with the present. BlacKkKlansman, as an example, uses media footage of Black Lives Matter (2013–Present) protests to make this mirroring obvious. Whether or not the films are good is moot. There are more important metrics in the world than good and bad.

Figure 8. Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday (dir. Lee Daniels).

Figure 9. Anthony Mackie in Detroit (dir. Kathryn Bigelow).

The same point can be made for recent biopics on and about LBGT+ characters and history; whether the events portrayed are in the recent- (Milk, 2008) or semi-distant-past (Ammonite, 2020). Likewise, it can be made for biopics on women’s liberation (historic and present) and its intersection with the #MeToo movement (2006, and 2017–present): The Glorias (2020) or The Morning Show (2019–present).

In some ways, these movies are a visual form of “Dummies guide to…”—is that mean? Fair?—“Dummies guide to Gloria Steinem”, “Dummies guide to Martin Luther King”? History is complex, incomplete, unfinished (points that some of these films are, for sure, highlighting), and it cannot easily fit into under two hours running length. As “history”, these films are only ever historical documents of the year they are produced (even if they hope to attain period verisimilitude and win a plethora of awards). A comparative study of the portrayal and portraits of Gloria Steinem across media (and her long career) would reveal, I suggest, a great deal about the changing time periods they are produced within, than perhaps the person herself (we have her own biographies for that; though we can also approach them critically).

Why is any of this granular nit-picking important?

Because it shows that history (and biography) are not static, but instead evolving forms.

Why is this important?

Because it means we can stop thinking about history in terms of truth, and instead in terms of effect and experience.

Why is this important?

Because it highlights human need and situates humans with their cultures.

And why is this important?

Because it (a function of biography and history) can bring about empathy and change.

Biography, in the medium of film and television, is a way to ensure a distribution of visibility for those traditionally invisible within society. Or, in the case of The Crown (2016­­–present) it can also serve to feed Imperial myths and segregations.

Not all biographies encourage empathy and change. There are thousands of proficient, or snoozy, or self-contained, or pleasant, or random, or thrilling, or fascinating biographies out there that will not function in any of the ways mentioned above. And for some reason, biographies (excluding documentaries) about artists seem to rest firmly is this camp—some of these movies, e.g. My Left Foot (1989), Love is the Devil (1998), and Maudie (2016), might be very good, but they are self-contained; they don’t converse with worlds outside their own.

So, where does this leave us? Have I ruined biographies for you forever? Taken all the fun out of them? I hope not.

One approach could be to stop seeing biography as history (and I do think that in our current era; because we have all stopped reading and the visual medium is the predominant one, we do see biopics as history) and instead approach it as we might approach a night in the theatre with Julius Caesar (Figure 10) or Richard III: we understand that what we are watching is not comprehensive history, but we hope it might contain a grain of truth.

Figure 10. Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, 1953 (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz).


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