Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Whose Lives Are They Anyway?

Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre

Dennis Bingham
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 432
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Whose Lives Are They Anyway?
    Book Description:

    Through detailed analyses and critiques of nearly twenty biopics,Whose Lives Are They Anyway?proves a critical point: The biopic is a genuine, dynamic genre and an important oneùit narrates, exhibits, and celebrates a subject's life and demonstrates, investigates, or questions his or her importance in the world; it illuminates the finer points of a personality; and, ultimately, it provides a medium for both artist and spectator to discover what it would be like to be that person, or a certain type of person.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4930-9
    Subjects: Film Studies, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-V)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VI-VIII)
    (pp. IX-2)
  4. Introduction: A Respectable Genre of Very Low Repute
    (pp. 3-28)

    At the start ofMan on the Moon(1999), light comes up on a young man, played by Jim Carrey, filmed in black and white, surrounded by darkness. Speaking in an indistinguishable “foreign” accent and high-pitched voice, he looks directly but nervously at the audience, his eyes shifting, like a child making a presentation at school. “Hello,” he says. “I am Andy. And I would like to thank you for coming to my movie. I wish it was better, you know. But it is so stupid. It’s terrible. I do not even like it. All of the most important things...


    • 1 Strachey’s Way, or All’s Well That Ends Welles
      (pp. 31-40)

      The biopic has its foundations in popular forms that range from the lives of saints, national myths, and legends to melodramas and revues (as were, in part, some musical biopics such asThe Great Ziegfeld[1936] andYankee Doodle Dandy[1942]). In the genre’s evolution, however, two figures cast their eccentric and outsize shadows over the biopic’s destiny. With vastly different artistic orientations and influences, they had one quality in common: audacity. They were Lytton Strachey and Orson Welles.

      Lytton Strachey (1879–1932) was a writer in the bohemian London Bloomsbury circle that also included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster....

    • 2 Rembrandt (1936)
      (pp. 41-49)

      If the biopic is a genre based on destiny, then the narrative action of the subject would seem to be the act of dying, for only after death can the great one’s immortality and impact on the world really begin. As I mentioned in the introduction, the affinity of the genre for the story of Christ seems unmistakable. This is complicated, however. Take a film such asGandhi(1982), which begins with the subject’s death and funeral and invites us to witness his life lessas a life(not a mean trick in the case of Gandhi, who did seventy-eight...

    • 3 Citizen Kane and the Biopic
      (pp. 50-71)

      Citizen Kane(1941) has been rarely discussed as a biopic, either in terms of how Orson Welles’s film uses the genre, or ofKane’sinfluence on the development of the biopic decades later. Because it fictionalizes its story,Citizen Kaneis usually not considered a biography at all. It falls outside George Custen’s designation of the biopic, which is “minimally composed of the life, or the portion of a life, of a real person whose name is used” (6).This definition might seem devised to excludeKane.If that was Custen’s aim, one can hardly blame him, since his purpose was...

    • 4 Lawrence of Arabia: “But does he really deserve a place in here?”
      (pp. 72-99)

      Lawrence of Arabia(1962) is significant in the early postclassical development of the biopic. A mostly British-made film with a Hollywood independent producer and backing from Columbia Pictures,Lawrence of Arabiashows the influence of everything from the British “Angry Young Man” school, the Hollywood warts-and-all biopic with its antihero (although this time eschewing star casting), and, most important,Citizen Kane.LikeKane, Lawrencequestions cultural definitions of individuality and accomplishment and the purposes to which a culture puts its great ones. UnlikeKane,it does so in a way that, as the decades have shown, satisfies mainstream audiences’ desire for...

    • 5 Nixon, Oliver Stone, and the Unmaking of the Self-Made Man
      (pp. 100-127)

      Of all the remarkable dialogue inCitizen Kane,these two exchanges, commented on nowhere I know of in the vast literature on Welles’s film, have always stood out for me. They are nonsensical and confounding. Yet they express a certain pathology in American life, one that Richard M. Nixon embodied for many Americans. I have always associated Kane’s delusion with Nixon’s because just after seeingCitizen Kanefor the first time in my twenty-year-old life in an Introduction to Film class early in the evening of 1 May 1974, I returned to my dorm room. I turned on my TV...

    • 6 Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould: Ghost Picture
      (pp. 128-145)

      The protagonist of a 1993 biopic made by some of his fellow Canadians, Glenn Gould (1932–1982) is in many ways the perfect subject for a sympathetic postmodern biography. Gould was a prodigious pianist who had mastered all of Bach’sWell-Tempered Clavierby the time he was ten and maintained a professional concert career before he was out of high school. He emerged, as if by magic, from a stable though ordinary middle-class upbringing in the then-quiescent town of Toronto. Gould burst onto the international music scene in 1956 with his first release for Columbia Records, a recording of the...

    • 7 Ed Wood: The Biopic of Someone Undeserving
      (pp. 146-168)

      In his review ofEd Wood(1994), the first of a series of biopics on unlikely or disreputable subjects written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Jonathan Rosenbaum reminds his readers that the Grade-ZPlan 9 from Outer Space(made in 1956, released in 1959) never played in Los Angeles. However, the biopic of Edward D. Wood, directed by Tim Burton, climaxes with a gala premiere of Wood’s movie, which became a cult classic in the 1980s, at the Pantages Theater, the famous Hollywood Boulevard movie palace where Academy Awards ceremonies were held for several years in the 1950s. Rosenbaum...

    • 8 Spike Lee’s Malcolm X: Appropriation or Assimilation?
      (pp. 169-190)

      Can Hollywood cinema be appropriated? Can a minority filmmaker gain the resources—the genres and production values—of mainstream cinema and use them to tell a story and create an experience from a specifically minority point of view? Is a would-be appropriator bound to be assimilated into the conventions? Or is the assimilation actually part of the appropriation, a bending of the majority, mainstream form to the purposes of a minority?

      In other words, can the classical, celebratory biopic be used against itself? Can it mythologize radical, revolutionary minority figures? Perhaps above all, should it? In African American communities, in...

    • 9 Raoul Peck’s Lumumba: Drama, Documentary, and Postcolonial Appropriation
      (pp. 191-210)

      The two–month prime ministry of Patrice Lumumba in the newly independent Congo in 1960 has been chronicled, discussed, covered up, storied, debated, repressed, researched, and mythologized within the Congo, but much more especially outside it, since the thirty-five-year-old politician’s assassination in January 1961.

      Lumumba’s fate is much too complex to be attributed to any one cause, be it treacherous Belgian colonials, contentious Congolese factions, the haste and unpreparedness with which independence came to the former Belgian Congo, the Cold War, the UN, the CIA, or Lumumba’s own inexperience and poor judgment. Each of these played its part. Alive, Lumumba...


    • 10 Prologue
      (pp. 213-222)

      Biography requires a protagonist who has done something noteworthy in the public world. Women historically have not been encouraged to become the subjects of discourse, at least not of any discourse that is taken seriously by a patriarchal society. Women cannot be consistently posed as the objects of male looks and language and also be the subjects of their own stories. In ways that vary historically somewhat but not nearly to the extent seen in the Great Man films and bios of minority figures, biopics about female subjects catch women up in the contradictions between the public positions—positive or...

    • 11 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story: Toying with the Genre
      (pp. 223-237)

      Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story(Todd Haynes, 1987) opens with a stark title card, white lettering on black: “February 4, 1983.” A shot of a stereo receiver, the type of equipment that amplified Karen Carpenter’s voice in millions of households, launches a handheld subjective camera movement, representing the point of view of Agnes, Karen Carpenter’s mother, as she walks through Karen’s apartment, calling for her daughter. The mother’s voice becomes concerned and then frantic as she fails to find Karen in her bedroom. Finally, accompanied by synthesizer horror music, a cliché in films of the 1980s, she screams at finding...

    • 12 I Want to Live!: Criminal Woman, Male Discourses
      (pp. 238-258)

      I Want to Live!(1958), the personal project of veteran independent producer Walter Wanger, who hired Robert Wise to direct, illustrates the problems of telling lives of women in the genre of film biography. It also demonstrates a way that the genre can be approached, even in a presumptively sexist era. Not many biographies consciously depict the clash between a well-known woman and the culture’s expectations of her, although they may well embody these. Fewer yet are critical of those expectations. In the interests of realism and of rhetoric against capital punishment, however,I Want to Live!takes the side...

    • 13 Barbra and Julie at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius
      (pp. 259-288)

      Barbra Streisand’s defensiveness years later towardFunny Girl(1968) illustrates the tension even she felt between the new kind of smart female stardom she represented in the late sixties and the obsolescent vehicles that established it. The cinema of the epochal cultural year of 1968 gave rough treatment to anything that presented itself as an uncritical, unrevised, or non-ironic rendition of what had been accepted in the past. The term “anachronistic” no longer meant just out of place in historical time; it could also mean out of place in current time.

      Two hard–ticket roadshow musicals that opened within a...

    • 14 Hacked: Gorillas in the Mist and Other Female Biopics of the 1980s
      (pp. 289-310)

      A professor of English literature used to scoff at students who disdained his specialty, the eighteenth century. “How can you dislike an entire century?” he’d ask. A hundred years of literary works probably can’t be written off, no matter how uninteresting one finds them. If there is a decade that most film critics, scholars, and fans would just as soon forget, however, it is by consensus the 1980s; A. O. Scott of theNew York Timescasually called the 1980s “at the moment [2007] everybody’s least favorite decade in the history of American cinema” (“Francis”). A confluence of factors made...

    • 15 An Angel at My Table: Re-Framing the Female Biography
      (pp. 311-331)

      In discussing the “body too much” in the female biopic, a thorny but inescapable issue is beauty. Each of the subjects covered in this section is played by an actress no older than forty who embodies cultural standards of beauty. In some cases such as Julie Andrews for Gertrude Lawrence and Sigourney Weaver for Dian Fossey, the actress is more conventionally “beautiful” than the subject. Fossey joked with Arnold Glimcher in 1985 that she wanted to be played as a youth by Brooke Shields and as an older woman by Elizabeth Taylor (Lessem 416). Since she was reportedly unhappy about...

    • 16 Erin Brockovich: Hollywood Feminist Revisionism, after a Fashion
      (pp. 332-347)

      Erin Brockovichpremiered soon after the turn of the millennium, in March 2000. A torn-from-the-headlines biopic about a contemporary subject, the film tells the kind of unlikely real-life story no fiction writer could invent. In 1991 Erin Brockovich, a thirty-one-year-old, twice-divorced single mother of three landed a job as a file clerk at the Los Angeles law firm of Masry & Vititoe, which had represented her in a lawsuit following an auto accident. While filing a case concerning the purchase by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) of a residence in Hinkley, California, Brockovich noticed that there were medical records and...

    • 17 Twenty-First-Century Women
      (pp. 348-376)

      As we look into the future at the beginning of the twenty-first century’s second decade, the prospects for the female biopic are murky. The most bravura film of the 2000s wasLa Môme(American title:La Vie en Rose) (2007), a childhood-to-death biopic of the iconic French singer Edith Piaf.La Môme, directed by Olivier Dahan, is a French-made movie, of course. The film and the performance by thirty-one-year-old actress Marion Cotillard are tours-de-forces in such a familiar Hollywood mode that Cotillard won the Oscar for Best Actress, despite hers being only the third Oscar-winning non-English-language performance in the eighty years of...

  7. 18 I’m Not There: Some Conclusions on a Book Concerning Biopics
    (pp. 377-404)

    I hope that this book has left little doubt that the biopic continues to matter as a theatrical film genre. Biopics materialize out of a filmmaker’s desire to create drama out of the lives of someone he or she finds interesting. Biopics are a form of celebrity culture. They are made not in order to tell what James Welsh called “entertaining lies” (86), but to find truth out of invention, recreating the most dramatic and characteristic stretch(es) of a person’s life by creating a structure and scenes, hiring actors, building sets, and all the other means of cinematic creation. It...

    (pp. 405-420)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 421-432)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 433-433)