[Access article in PDF]
Major work on the biopic begins with Carolyn Anderson's 1988 bibliographical essay, which treats the genre chronologically as a reflection of the ideologies of the times from the 1930s onward. George F. Custen's landmark 1992 Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History surveys the Hollywood biopic up to 1960. Dennis Bingham's anticipated study of post-studio era film biography is currently under contract with Rutgers University Press, and as Alana Bell's annotated bibliography in this issue makes clear, important individual essays and dissertations have appeared from time to time. But this rich and various genre deserves more textual and contextual analysis than it has hitherto received, and this special issue of Biography is a contribution to the development of this discourse.
Perhaps one reason why this genre has lagged behind other genres in film studies is that biopics have been so much a part of other film genres that they inevitably serve more as illustrations for those other kinds of movies. Though pervasive within the industry, the biopic is often seen first as a western, a musical, a war film, a gangster film, a woman's film, a melodrama, an historical epic, or film noir. Treating the biopic as a genre in itself therefore becomes as problematic as treating the biopic as depicting the life itself. Just as it is not real life but reel life--a representation, a fictionalized or interpretive treatment--so too it is often a film about film, as the life gets folded into, repeats, and transforms the narrative patterns and conventions of other genres and larger schools of narrative such as classical Hollywood cinema. A biopic's production will often take its cue from the cultural/political attitudes of the time, from the philosophy and hallmarks of a particular studio or filmmaker, or even from the personae of its stars.
In other words, a biopic is a mythic expression in which several textual and contextual factors often play a part. If, for example, we look at Bonnie and Clyde (1967), we see that it is not only a biopic, but a gangster film as [End Page v] well, and that the majority of the general public viewed it and remember it as a gangster film. The film also incorporates the standard Hollywood plot patterns of work and romance by playing up the intersection of crime and love in the relationship between Bonnie and Clyde. Furthermore, the film turned out to be a star vehicle for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, to say nothing about its inspired co-stars Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard; and Bonnie and Clyde mirrors the Zeitgeist of its time by depicting its protagonists as heroes rebelling against the system, coming as it did at the height of the counterculture movement, the Vietnam war protests, and the Civil Rights agitation. And finally, the film comments on the mythmaking influence of the media in its references to photographs, newspaper headlines and articles, and Hollywood movies and stars of the 1930s. It should not be surprising, then, that director Arthur Penn would say in an interview after the film was made, that "I don't think the original Bonnie and Clyde are very important except insofar as they motivated the writing of a script and our making of the movie" (7).
A biopic then is not so much a film about a life as it is a film about competing and intersecting discourses, with the life itself being simply one of those discourses that is transformed by the work of the others. A film about Wyatt Earp, for example, is tangentially about the historical Earp, but it is really about the western genre. Certain patterns of this genre dictate departures from historical accuracy. One such pattern is that of the individual versus the community, which contrasts the western hero's rugged individualism and relation to the wilderness to community, marriage, and civilization. The conflict is between the integrity of the individual and the pull toward integration into the community, and both sides are empowered...