. . . all the rage: they feed our desire to know about the private lives of public people, a desire fuelled by new media.
I went to a seminar last Saturday on biopics. We discussed Malcom X, I’m not there (Bob Dylan), Marie Antoinette, Citizen Kane (WR Hearst), All That Jazz (Bob Fosse), American Splendor (Harvey Pekar), The Iron Lady (Margaret Thatcher). Not all these films are ‘cradle to grave’ narratives, which I think would be part of the traditional definition of a biopic. Some so-called biopics just deal with a particular crisis in a public figure’s life, e.g. Spielberg’s Lincoln trying to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution through the House of Representatives – and let’s include at this juncture Ford’s outstanding Young Mr Lincoln, dealing with Lincoln’s life as an obscure young man. Or The Queen, focusing on the crisis in the UK monarchy at the time of the death of Princess Diana. Definitely not a biopic.
1 Shakespeare is our fore-runner here: ‘Richard II’, ‘Henry IV’ 1 and 2, ‘Henry V’, ‘Henry VI’ 1, 2 and 3, ‘Richard III’. These are all ‘bio dramas’ of a kind. ‘Henry V’ is the most ‘cradle to grave’ narrative because we see him as a young man in ‘Henry IV’ and as a king in ‘Henry V’. ‘Richard II’ is the exception: the play revolves round the abdication crisis at the end of his reign. Yet really the drama of Shakespeare’s history cycle is about kingly mortality. We see all these kings die (except for Henry V) and ‘Richard II’ discusses the subject at length.
2 Shakespeare’s plays serve the purpose of Tudor propaganda, which raises the point that all biopics have an agenda to promote. It might be inspirational (Selma), it might be the opposite (Citizen Kane). One of the propaganda purposes of Hollywood biopics is to trumpet American greatness. But it is in fact in an American film that this tension between presentation and actuality, between surface and substance, between fiction and truth, has been most profoundly explored, not in a biopic but in a narrative that sheds much light on the genre: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
3 We should not lose sight of the fact that there are biopics from other countries: Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev for a start (which has its own agenda about Russian greatness, among other things). There’s Andrzei Wajda’s Walesa, a companion piece to Man of Marble and Man of Iron, the three making a sort of Solidarity trilogy. Only with Walesa: Man of Hope, the third film, does Wajda deal with historical people. Ireland’s Neil Jordan has made a very good fist of Michael Collins’s story in his film of that title.
I thought too of Francesco Rosi’s dissections of power in Lucky Luciano, a gangster biopic. More propaganda of a kind. And then there is Sorrentino’s Il Divo about the long-serving Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, further analysis of the corruption of power. Like the Bob Dylan biopic (I’m not there), very difficult to follow if you are ignorant of the subject, but rewarding perhaps if you do.
4 Thinking about the biopic as propaganda brought to mind a favourite biopic of mine: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, a true cradle to grave narrative. It gets my treatment in ‘New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’.
5 The biopic I’d like to see made is on the Czech president following the fall of Soviet Communism, Václav Havel – see http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk/vaclav-havel.