“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
If Socrates is right about this (and far be it for me to disagree with him), he has provided the greatest possible justification for the art of biography.
Biography, of course, is all about the examination of lives. It is the art of stitching together the facts of an individual’s life into a coherent and credible narrative. At the same time, the biographer makes a pitch for the specialness of a person, and the extraordinariness of their existence. A subject’s life is a micro history, a way of understanding the way things were in a certain place and time. A tall order.
“‘Verbo caro factum est.’ said Ormerod Goode opaquely. ‘The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.’ (A.S Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale)
Biography is a mistrusted art. The worst of biography is prurient, exploitative grave-robbery. It is dull sycophancy. It is composed, if not of bald-faced lies, then of euphemisms, twisted facts and half-truths.
Because the public exposure to a dramatised life is greater, and perhaps because the impact of watching a facsimile version of a famous person can be more intense than reading about them on the page, the criticisms levelled at screen biography tend to be amplified. The squabbles between filmmakers and families of biographical subjects are great tabloid fodder.
But the criticisms of biography of all kind only serve to underline our fascination with the lives of important people, the private selves behind the public facades. For the film and television industries, biopics are “pre-sold” materials for audiences not that into superheroes. For film and television makers, biopics are an opportunity to use the film form to probe deeply into various kinds of human experience, or to use an individual life to explore a moment in time. For performers, it is the opportunity to inhabit the spirit of subject, and try to emulate their behaviour and personality. Or to win an Oscar.
I’ve been interested screen biographies for some years now. This stems from my work as a scholar of contemporary British cinema and television. The biopic has been a key genre for UK film for decades, and has provided a large number of critical and commercial successes. In some ways, it ticks all the cliched boxes for British film: heritage subject matter, refined acting skills on display, offering opportunities for aestheticised period detail, tasteful and middlebrow.
I’m interested in the stories within and behind these life stories on screen. What version of this famous life is being portrayed, and why? How are their lives narrated? How do performers attempt to capture their essence? What devices are used to imply that this version of the life is authentic (or otherwise)?
In this blog, I’ll be analysing screen biographies, both for film and television, and writing about the issues and ideas I have come across in my efforts to understand them better. Your comments, disagreements and own interpretations are more than welcome – I’m always on the lookout for new angles on biopics!