Much more than modern writing, which grew more fragmented and experimental in the early years of the last century, movies were the heir to nineteenth-century traditions of storytelling. Whether exploring matters of fact or fiction, movies, like the novels that preceded them, have always been interested in the arc of individual lives, the intricate unfolding of relationships and careers, and the tensions between our inner feelings and the face we put on for the world at large. The nineteenth century was a great era for novels and biographies but an iron discretion kept them in separate spheres. There could then be no equivalent of Citizen Kane, a made-up story that closely shadowed the life of a real person, or of film biographies, from Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon of 1927 to Oliver Stone’s equally grandiose Alexander, that laced history with the pulpy trappings of fiction. Hollywood has always had a ravenous appetite for material and an imperial confidence in its ability to reprocess the world into pictures that improved on the original. Nathanael West made a poker-faced mockery of this in The Day of the Locust as he described the disastrous filming of the Battle of Waterloo on a studio lot. But from the beginnings of the sound era, American movies pillaged history and biography for colorful life histories that could never have worked as well on the stage.
Up until the last election, after the unprecedented success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, it looked like the year of the political documentary. But the media wars ultimately had less influence than old-fashioned, get-out-the-vote campaigns, and by the end of the year most of the major American movies turned out to be “biopics,” biographies of real people from the recent or distant past, from Jesus of Nazereth and Alexander the Great to Alfred C. Kinsey, Howard Hughes, and Ray Charles. There are many reasons for Hollywood’s enduring attraction to potted biographies. Middlebrow to the core, they lend themselves to tintypes of period dress, vintage transportation, and exotic settings. With the help of a good location, a lavish set, intimate close-ups, and an expensive cast of stars and extras, even mediocre movies can achieve a verisimilitude beyond anything on the stage or page. Nor do these stories need to be strictly believable. Costume dramas, especially those set in the ancient world, often resemble animated cartoons; production design overwhelms personality. Though biopics sometimes celebrate a Man of the People (such as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory) and even radicals or revolutionaries (as in The Life of Emile Zola, Spartacus, or Viva Zapata), their politics are basically conservative, because they are thoroughly devoted to the Great Man theory of history, to an unquestioned individualism, and their safely canonized troublemakers usually belong to a distant era.
Biopics first came into vogue ...
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