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Cindy Fox Aisen
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010

Biopics: Popular film genre evolving, not expiring

March 1, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- Biopics, films that dramatize and explore the lives of the famous, infamous or the previously unknown, have been nominated for and won more Academy Awards than any other type of film. Yet according to Dennis Bingham of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), this vibrant film genre is unfairly maligned as static, formulaic, unchanging and perhaps dying.

Whose Lives Are They Anyway?

Courtesy of Rutgers University Press

Bingham, associate professor of English and director of film studies in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, is the author of the new book Whose Lives Are They Anyway? (Rutgers University Press) which traces and analyzes the evolution of male and female film biography. We watch and will continue to watch biopics "so as to plumb that mystery of humanness, the inability completely to know another person, and the absolute importance of knowing them and ourselves," he wrote.

Biopics have been produced by Hollywood since the silent film era but the number increased significantly after the introduction of sound in the 1920s because of the availability of stage actors who could play these great roles. The genre evolved and changed throughout the Hollywood studio era and the following decades. Since the 1990s, biopics have enjoyed a resurgence of interest by moviemakers, audiences and even critics.

"The biopic as a genre lends itself to literate dialogue and often to elaborate costumes. Hollywood seized upon it very early, realizing the genre's ability to launch and sustain careers as it drew large audiences to movie theatres," said Bingham. "Examples of early highly successful biopics are Edison the Man, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, and The Story of Louis Pasteur -- all films that encourage you to revere men doing great things for society. They educated as well as entertained their viewers."

While a biopic may sometimes teach -- how electricity was discovered or the telephone developed -- biopics are dramatic fiction, not documentaries. "Biopics dramatize a person's life and viewers should not expect documentary detail. There is a certain kind of truth you can get from a dramatized version of a person's life, but it springs from the creative imaginations of the screenwriter, the director and the actors," said Bingham.

He devotes a chapter in Whose Lives Are They Anyway? to 1941 Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst. Kane is not considered a biopic. Yet it transforms the biopic paradigm of the good person serving society. Its influence on the genre, however, wasn't felt until the 1990s, according to Bingham.

While the strong narratives engendered popularity with American audiences, with the exception of Citizen Kane, for many decades biopics were not made by big name directors for a variety of reasons including the lack of acceptance of this type of film as a respected genre, he said.

That changed, according to Bingham, with the filming of his favorite biopic, Lawrence of Arabia, the winner of the Academy Award for best picture in 1962, a film that he observes in the book didn't know whether to celebrate its protagonist or to be critical of him.

And what about the dramatization of female lives? Biopics of women differ significantly from those depicting men. Female biopics -- from the early Queen Christina to the wildly popular Erin Brockovich to the recent Marie Antoinette -- typically find conflict and tragedy in a women's success.

"Madness, hysteria, sexual dependency, the male gaze, and a patriarchal authorship: that is the classical female biopic," Bingham wrote.

After World War II, this melodramatic perspective evolves as the role of women in American society changes. Beginning in the 1950s female biopics dramatized the lives of entertainers. Later the focus, with notable exceptions such as the double bio Julie and Julia, shifted to women as victims although in recent years female directors, such as Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Mary Harron, have tried to steer away from this clichéd portrayal.

Recent films cited by Bingham as exceptional examples of the biopic genre -- far from the static, formulaic and stereotypical -- include Malcolm X and Lumumba, both of which focused on unconventional biopic subjects; Ed Wood and Man on the Moon, which parodied the genre, and Raging Bull and Coal Miner's Daughter, two biopics which he says are "just plain good movies."

In addition to Whose Lives Are They Anyway, Bingham is also the author of Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood (Rutgers University Press, 1994).