chapter  18
Biopics
Pages 20

T he biographical picture has been a staple of cinema and television since their respectivebeginnings. In the early days of cinema, it was the most obvious way to approachhistory entertainingly, offering the leading stars of the day the opportunity to shine as great names, with the most commonly revisited subjects being Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), with Henry Fonda in the title role, is still rated one of the greatest biopics of all time, and Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoléon (1927) has been recently revived, not least due to its then revolutionary use of hand-held cameras and novel three-screen projection, a system called Polyvision, which pre-dated Cinerama by a quarter of a century.1 As with the whole field of docu-drama (Chapter 15), many directors’ approach to real life subjects is to convey authenticity by the use of documentary techniques. Others have used television’s once liberal documentary franchise to re-imagine lives in dramatic fashion. Coming at the biopic from either side of the notional drama-doc divide, this popular form further demolishes simplistic distinctions between fact and fiction. It is a porous divide, which the revival of cinema documentary and the growth of celebrity culture have done much to further breach. While biopics may have been popular from the 1920s, only a handful were made each year. Between 2000 and 2009, some 1,000 were made according to one listing,2 but it is an inexact term and one chapter cannot attempt a comprehensive review. I shall concentrate here on specific territories that have found in the biopic a fruitful genre, such as music – which has evolved from the lives of the great composers to a current obsession with hip-hop artists – and politics – which has developed from heroic hagiographies of Lincoln to the embrace of less sympathetic subjects, from Hitler and the Baader-Meinhoff gang to Presidents Idi Amin and George W. Bush.