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Biography 23.1 (2000) 127-159

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The Mechanical Life in the Age of Human Reproduction: American Biopics, 1961-1980

George F. Custen

A Sign of the Times

Despite the elegant but grammatically incorrect slogan Howard Dietz devised for MGM ("Ars Gratia Artis"), Southern California was the land of Mayer, not Pater. Hollywood's wise men read people, rather than books, and they thus knew that art never existed for its own sake. What was the point? And if somehow a film managed against all odds to have a long existence, this was counterbalanced by the undeniable fact that in Hollywood, most careers were short. Most attenuated of all was collective memory.

Take that famous symbol of Hollywood, the sign atop Mount Lee. It was erected in 1923 to promote "Hollywoodland," a real estate venture. After the war, the area's cachet faded, and people forgot who had erected it--and why. But as Nabokov realized, memory can "speak" to us in many evocations, can employ many voices and forms, so in the crepuscular postwar years of Hollywood's empire, the elongated shadows cast by the oversized, fifty foot letters spelled out, in equal scale, fantasies and projections held by the people below--dreams, in fact, that had been fostered by the movies. The sign, for all its tackiness, asserted a kind of truth about American culture: it publicly declared the omnipotence of movie life. Here was the omnipresent vision of life-as-constructed-by-Hollywood, a world above other imaginary worlds. It had shaped our conceptions of the self, defined both history and greatness. Above all, it had colonized our imaginations. After all those nights spent in the thrall of those patterned distortions, the movies have taught us, Neal Gabler observed, an important lesson: "how to escape from life into life" (6). [End Page 127]

This essay is about one particular escape route. It charts an imaginary journey moviegoers in the post-studio years 1961-1980 might have taken: that which led them to visit the world of the Hollywood film biography, or biopic. The films based on the lives of actual people--or even an occasional non-human like the race horse Seabiscuit--might be either prestige productions like MGM's Marie Antoinette (1938) or Madame Curie (1943), or one of those sausages ground out and put on the shelf for quick consumption, like the biopic of Eva Tanguay, The I Don't Care Girl (1952). The biopic's forms, and the roster of luminaries impersonating other luminaries, were, like the destiny of all Hollywood films, tied directly to the nature and health of the studio system, an enterprise whose products reflected the visions and goals (and insecurities and vendettas) of the men who orchestrated its policy, its executives. "Movies," observed Hortense Powdermaker, one of the few anthropologists to look closely at the culture of moviemakers, "are made by many people" (3). And while Margaret Mead believed that as the result of group effort Hollywood's products were more representative of the patterns of its host culture than say the work of a single author, having studied the "tribe" of Hollywood chieftains up close for a year, Powdermaker was clearheaded enough to reach a conclusion at odds with her mentor's. 1 Powdermaker was certain that though movies were "big industry," this did not reduce the bulk of the "cast" of players to the role of faceless bureaucrat or factory worker. Within this world, the dictates of the "dream factory" most often bowed to the demands of industry realpolitik, and "certain individuals have power to strongly influence them, while others are relatively powerless" (3).

When in 1956 one of those with this power, Darryl F. Zanuck, departed Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio he founded and ran for twenty-one years, it was because the way of making movies Powdermaker had studied had changed. It was, he noted, no longer fun. While his public utterances declared faith in Hollywood's ability to survive, privately he told confidantes like writer/director Philip Dunne that he doubted that it...


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