- Invented Lives, Imagined Communities: The Biopic and American National Identity ed. by William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer
William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer, editors
State U of New York P, 2016, 352 pp. ISBN 978-1438460796, $90.00 hardcover; $24.95 paperback.
The Hollywood biopic has been a staple of film production since before sound film. It came into its own as a prestige product of the Hollywood studios, particularly Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox, in the 1930s. In some respects, the biopic has become the fundamental biographical memory of American society, despite its inflations, conflations, and idealizations of its subjects. In Invented Lives, Imagined Communities: The Biopic and American National Identity, William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer have collected thirteen essays on American biopics, many originally published in a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, along with an introduction and afterword by Epstein.
The book is broken into four sections: "Performers and Showmen," "Hot and Cold Warriors," "Artists and Writers," and "Emancipators and Martyrs." Across the board, significant influence can be attributed to George Custen's 1992 Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History and Dennis Bingham's 2010 Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. There is, however, a broad spectrum of critical approaches, and such disparate subjects as Harry Houdini, Ed Wood, J. Edgar Hoover, and the boxer Jack Johnson. It should be mentioned that the volume does not limit itself to Hollywood products, but includes independent films such as Fur (2006), Bound for Glory (1976), and Sylvia (2003).
One curiosity appears in the essay "Empty Words: Houdini and Houdini" by Murray Pomerance. While many of the essays discuss postmodern approaches to film biography, this is the only essay that utilizes postmodern intertextuality in its own writing, by establishing a cross-connection between the biopic of Harry Houdini and the life of the actor who embodies him, Tony Curtis. Homer B. Petty should also be singled out for his sweeping examination of the multiple interpretations of the legendary gunfighter Wyatt Earp, which relies as much on the true historical record of Earp's life and Earp's own memoirs as it does on the various Earp [End Page 395] films. The fact that Earp was a consultant on many early Hollywood westerns is another exceptional element in the assessment of his life "on film."
The section "Artists and Writers" includes the only three essays on female subjects. Julie Codell's "Nationalizing Abject American Artists: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Jean-Michel Basquiat" gives Lee Krasner her due alongside trenchant analyses of the two male painters. Codell's examination of the life of Basquiat is particularly fascinating as an example of the fame mechanism in contemporary art as recorded in the frequently fame-producing medium of film. Monika Pietrzak-Franger offers a profound analysis of the structuring of Steven Shainberg's Fur (2006), and how that structuring enhances the legendary status of the photographer of the grotesque Diane Arbus. Claire Perkins' "Adapting Plathology: Sylvia (2003)" examines the differing interpretations of the life of Sylvia Plath in the US and in Great Britain.
The most difficult essay for this reviewer was Douglas McFarland's "J. Edgar: Eastwood's Man of Mystery," but I suspect this has more to do with the plodding, unsatisfactory film upon which it is based than on the writing and analysis, which are excellent. Another difficult essay is James Burns and Abel A. Bartley's "The Great White Hope (1970): A Forgotten Biopic," which has to wrestle with one of the thorniest of issues in film criticism: Why did this film fail? The authors find their resolution of this issue within the historical moment of the film's release, but are not afraid to confront the subtext of white American society interpreting issues of and for Black Americans. In the end they offer a fascinating examination of the impact of a subject's place in history on the telling of his or her story in a biopic.
Gabrielle Link's essay on Kinsey (2004) offers an astute analysis of the film's...