- Writing Biopics and Docudramas: From Chariots of Fire to The King’s Speech by Alan Rosenthal
Alan Rosenthal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014, 197 pp.
Alan Rosenthal’s Writing Biopics and Docudramas: From Chariots of Fire to The King’s Speech gives us a timely update of his earlier Writing Docudrama (1995). Writing Biopics builds on the strengths of its predecessor, grounding its overview of this specific kind of screenwriting practice in case studies and extensive interviews with the writers and producers who realize these works. Rosenthal’s new book expands its attention to the biopic, a logical, necessary move in light of the increasing importance of the mode.
One need look no further than a few recent rounds of Academy Awards to see how much Hollywood and, by extension, its audiences value the biopic. Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture in 2014, five were docudramas, and the award went to 12 Years a Slave. Four of the Best Actor nominees performed in biopics, with Matthew McConaughey winning for his portrayal of the main character in Dallas Buyers Club. Similar results came in for other main award categories. Daniel Day-Lewis received the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Lincoln. The year before, Meryl Streep won the award for Best Actress for channeling Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady—certainly well-deserved compensation for her performance of Julia Child in Julia and Julia losing to Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side two years earlier. In 2011, of the record ten Best Picture nominees, four were biopics, including The Social Network, 127 Hours, The Fighter, and the award winner, The King’s Speech, a film that also garnered acting nominations for all of its leads.
To help us better understand what drives the audience and producer attraction for the mode, Rosenthal’s pragmatic approach takes its place alongside two key critical studies of the biopic, George Custen’s Bio/Pics (1992) and Dennis Bingham’s examination of more recent works in Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre (2010). Taken together, these two earlier historical/ analytic studies establish the biopic as genre, first as Custen surveys the biopic’s formative processes and its functions as a product of the classic Hollywood studio system and then through a subsequent several-decade evolution of the biopic’s generic codes that Bingham finds in its representations of male and female subjects.
The key to what makes a biopic tick, the fact that it performs the life of an actual person, creates specific demands on how such a story must be shaped by its writer. Writing Biopics and Docudramas illustrates clearly and thoroughly the nature of these demands particular to selecting, framing, and writing the material of the real in feature-film form. Rosenthal grounds the expertise he brings to this new work in a lengthy career focused on writing and directing documentaries as well as docudrama, balanced with his extensive scholarship in both modes. His Writing Docudrama was the first to address practical considerations that the form raises for potential scriptwriters. His subsequent anthology Why Docudrama? (1999) marks the wide spectrum of basic issues relevant to the history and manifestation of docudramatic material in both film and TV. This anthology of essays covers a comprehensive range of historical and theoretical issues through diverse case studies. Writing Biopics and Docudramas adheres to the same logical structure Rosenthal employed effectively in the earlier Writing Docudrama, with extensive and [End Page 55] updated examples serving well the surge in biopic and docudrama production that television and feature-film screens have offered over the last two decades. It is not surprising that fresh from the successful development, production, and distribution of his feature-length biopic on Ikey Solomon titled The First Fagin, Rosenthal turns frequently to his experience with this recent project to provide firsthand illustration of the elements of docudrama workflow. He draws amply on The First Fagin’s preproduction materials to illustrate in-depth the tasks of proposal writing, historical research, forming dramatic structure...