BIOPICS: GENRE OR SUB-GENRE?
Biographies or biopics, as they are more commonly known, are a sub-genre of film that dramatizes the life of a non-fictional or historically based person (or group). Their aim is to explore and unravel the real life stories of significant individuals, the famous and the non-famous, the dead and the living. Often the narratives told are comprehensive and chronological, yet there is a notion and expectation within the audience that some parts are fabricated to heighten the film’s drama. Biopics have existed since the earliest days of silent cinema in movies such as George Meiles’ Jeanne D’arc (1916) and Lloyd Ingraham’s Jesse James (1927). Present day biopics present a similar, yet simple and defined narrative arc that chronicles an individual’s rise and demise of success. However, since their inception, biopics have been the centre of controversy among critics, especially when it concerns whether they constitute their own genre or not. Some, like Glenn Man, argue “that biopics have been so much a part of other film genres that they inevitably serve more as illustrations for those other kinds of movies”. For example Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is a biopic but serves the purpose of a gangster film; and as Man recalls, the film is remembered by the public for being just that. It incorporates the conventional Hollywood plot of love and work, while playing up the couple’s movement between the two plots. The film also propelled the careers for Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, which could be argued as being a trope of the genre as biopic films are typically perceived as ‘Oscar bait’ and achieve high critical acclaim.
It seems absurd that such successful films, like the recently Academy Award winning biopic The Theory of Everything (2015), are discredited in terms of genre. Yet it cannot be denied that when compared to other genres like romantic comedies, the biopic does not fulfil its purpose to guide audience expectations. The genre depends entirely on what the subject is, whether it be about war e.g. American Sniper (2014), music e.g. Nowhere Boy (2009) or technology e.g. Steve Jobs (2015). This becomes problematic as the genre doesn’t limit its expectations to identify and differentiate between themes that appeal to completely different demographics. Professor Rick Altman is one of the leading academics on this issue. In his book Film/Genre (1999) he argues that the most important attributes for audiences to acknowledge are iconography or emotion. For example, sci-fi conjures imagery of aliens, spaceships and super technological outfits (iconography), while comedies evoke an emotional response from the audience (emotion). Altman calls these two differentiating factors the semantic and syntactic. Using this philosophy, biographies constitute their own genre—although only slightly. They don’t have any syntactical qualities e.g. props that we can identify the genre to, but do comply with semantic conventions. Biographies often include flashbacks, voice overs and montage in attempts to convey the truth. One convention that biopics often adhere to is the expectation that the viewers are likely to discover a previously hidden secret about the subject. For example, in the highly anticipated Steve Jobs biopic we are given an in depth background to the man that many of us just know as the creator of the iPhone. We are given ‘the hidden truth’ about his relationship with his daughter and the kind of person he was, allowing the audience to gain further insight into his life.
The biopic doesn’t constitute its own genre, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be academically studied and appreciated. It is a very influential category of film and has catapulted the careers of many actors and actresses. In fact out of all film genres, apart from documentaries, biopics give audiences more than just a pleasurable experience, they teach them something. They give them lessons in history and provide a didactic message of the American Dream, and in the case of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane it is that money isn’t everything.
SURVEYING THE AMERICAN DREAM: IS ECONOMIC SUCCESS ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE?
If biopics are a sub-genre and serve as illustrations to other genres then they cannot be studied as a whole (as the content is too vast). Yet, all biopics seem to share the convention of discussing the American Dream; however, they all focus on different aspects of it. In this blog post I am going to concentrate on biopics portrayal of the American Dream through economic success. In recent years, financial prosperity has become a central theme in biopics such as The Social Network (2010) and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Both films revolve around real-life people, Mark Zuckerburg and Jordan Belfort, and chronicle their attempts to achieve financial prosperity in two very competitive markets. Both films had high critical success—The Wolf of Wall Street being nominated for five academy awards and The Social Network winning three, enforcing the idea that biopics are considered ‘highbrow’. Karen Sternheimer of the LA Times notes that “The core of the American dream teaches us that the formula for achieving wealth involves hard work, determination and luck”; and both films show how hard it is to achieve success and not simultaneously create enemies. One technique both films use to portray this is realism. Defined as “an accurate, unembellished, and detailed depiction of nature or contemporary life”, the movement prefers an observation of physical appearance rather than imagination or idealization. Of course there are elements of fabrication in biographies, but with films concerning wealth, there appears to be a high sense of authenticity. We aren’t meant to believe that the business world is easy. Even for our protagonists, we see the damage the unrelenting need and acquisition of power does to an individual. For Jordan Belfort, his life escalates into cocaine fuelled illegal embezzlement campaign where the aim is to acquire more money than he knows what to do with, to numb his pain of loneliness. DiCaprio’s fast paced voiceovers and monologues enforce the sense of urgency and show how even men, who are considered the stronger sex, need drugs to survive Wall Street.
Perhaps in a rom-com, Naomi and Jordan (the films main couple) would stay together and work out their issues. However, in biopics truth is of the utmost importance, and the idea that not every narrative has a happily ever after is a central theme. As well as portraying the life of the individual in question, biopics are also expected to represent society at the time. A period remembered as a time of strong economic growth, steady job creation, low inflation and rising productivity, the 1990s (in which both films are set) appeared to rejuvenate bankers and hopeful businessmen into believing they could ‘hit the jackpot’. Wealth is one of the predominant factors in recognising whether someone has achieved the American Dream, and it becomes even more apparent when they are compared to those who have been unable to. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed she uncovers the lives of those living below the poverty line, surviving from pay check to pay check. Their lives don’t seem to serve a purpose like Zuckerburg and Belfort’s do, yet in terms of happiness they seem to be better off. At the end of Ehrenreich’s investigative book, which surveys the impact of the 1996 welfare reform act, she finds that these working class men and women are content in their position. When Ehrenreich encourages them to seek social change through movements and protests, they resist. She concludes her story by writing that all low-wage workers are not simply living off the generosity of others, but that we live off theirs.
“The “working poor” … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society…They endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone”.
Although achieving the American Dream is perceived as achieving ultimate happiness, by the end of both films, the protagonists are seen looking forlorn and are left facing severe legal and personal battles; suggesting that with power comes a great price. The fear of this is seen most reverently in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a drama film examining the life and legacy of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional millionaire and newspaper magnate. Although by no means a biopic, it does convey the conventions of, and tells the story of Kane as if it were; and is furthered by the idea that Kane is based on William Randolph Hearst, publisher of ‘The San Francisco Examiner’ and ‘The New York Journal’ in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Widely successful with a number of houses to his name, Welles constantly reminds the audience of Kane’s unhappiness; “You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” This notion is carried throughout the film, and is ultimately what his last dying word ‘rosebud’ symbolises. He was happier when he was poor, living with his parents and enjoying the simpler things in life.
The characterisation of the American Dream will never change, yet through the use of realism and depiction of real life America, biographies and biopics are able to demonstrate the contrary and truly illustrate of the dream that is so sought after.