Post–World War II cinema focused on more contemporary biographical subjects—and on the audience as consumers of popular culture—and displayed a more overt reflexivity about its identity as historical spectacle. One direction for the biopic dealt with the lives of entertainers, particularly musicians, and sports figures, as The Babe Ruth Story (1948), The Great Caruso (1950), With a Song in My Heart (1952), The Glenn Miller Story (1953), and The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), about the actor Lon Chaney (1883–1930). The Great Caruso followed a chronological trajectory to underscore Caruso's "natural" genius, portraying his gradual rise to fame as a vindication of his talent in the face of social class distinctions and economic obstacles. The identification of the aspiring opera singer and movie star Mario Lanza (1921–1959) with Caruso signaled a shift in the ethnic clichés of Latinos as womanizers, exotic dancers, and gangsters; by contrast, Lanza's life and operatic career is integrated into mainstream American culture. His body, voice, and working-class credentials identified Lanza with the regeneration of the "American dream," as an exemplification of the power of "people's capitalism" touted in ads of the 1950s.

Concomitantly, the biopic began to portray eccentric literary figures whose scandalous heterosexual and homosexual behavior had been censored, omitted, or doctored in earlier forms of the genre (for example, in the 1946 biopic of Cole Porter, Night and Day ). Biopics such as The Bad Lord Byron (1948) depicted the scandalous heterosexual affairs of the writer, and by 1960, The Green Carnation (1960), a biopic about Oscar Wilde, confronted the writer's homosexuality. Biopics about transgressive women were not new: Madame Dubarry , Queen Christina , and The Scarlet Empress , all from the 1930s, had portrayed the lives of "promiscuous" women. But the postwar biopic was inclined to focus on the scandalous behavior of less illustrious women, signaling the fusion of the biopic with the social problem film by linking marginal behavior to problematic social conditions. Susan Hayward (1918–1975), whose star image was associated with a stormy personal life that made headlines, appeared in two biopics that capitalized on her bad-girl image and best exemplified the fusion of genres. I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) portrayed Lillian Roth's alcohol addiction, fall from fame, and personal recuperation. I Want to Live (1958) depicted "social misfit" Barbara Graham's connections to the underworld and her arrest, trial, and execution for murder; the film's tone is sympathetic, with scenes that portray her sexual encounters with men, her run-ins with the law, and the injustice of capital punishment. Yield to the Night (1956), another indictment of capital punishment, was a veiled story of Ruth Ellis, who was tried and executed for the murder of her lover. It featured Diana Dors (1931–1984), another female star identified with a turbulent and much publicized personal life.

Biopics about deranged, promiscuous, and violent women (and about homosexuals) survived into the 1980s. Dance with a Stranger (1985), another biopic about Ruth Ellis, focused on her working-class background, her struggles to survive economically with her son as a woman on her own, her exploitation by her upper-class lover David Blakely and his snobbish friends, the desperation that led her to shoot and kill Blakely, the drama of her trial, and her sentence to death by hanging. Prick Up Your Ears (1987) portrayed the unstable, and ultimately violent, homosexual relationship of the gifted playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, which resulted in Orton's death. Other biopics portrayed corruption in high places (for example, Scandal , 1988). The tempestuous relationship between the writer T. S. Eliot with his mentally unstable first wife, Vivian, was dramatized in Tom and Viv (1994). If these biopics were a form of social history, they were indicative of the intertextual character of the biopic as it engaged with the effects of contemporary politics, the ongoing struggles of the film industry in the international market, the impact of television with its endless sensational reportage, and changing discourses of sexual, national, and gendered identity.

Television offers another opportunity to experiment with biography. In addition to his 1950 film about St. Francis, Francesco guillare di deo ( Francis, God's Jester , 1950), which was an antihagiographic treatment of the saint, Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977) directed for television The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966), in which the king is likened to a theatrical director who transforms social life into spectacle. Ken Russell (b. 1927), a prolific director of biographical television programs and films, has also experimented with the form, in Elgar (1962), The Music Lovers (1971), Lisztomania (1975), and Valentino (1977).

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1977) and Marlene (Maximilian Schell, 1983) are other alternative treatments of biography on film. Using a montage of clips from films, commentaries and monologues by various personages, impersonations, fictional figures, cartoons, documentary footage, allusions to legends, pornography, and inserts of icons, Hitler is a critical investigation of the German nation and the media that created Hitler. The ostensible subject becomes a vehicle for the deconstruction of the individual "great man" and a depiction of the legendary sources of his construction. Marlene avoids images of the dying diva, but through dubbed narration (as if she were already dead) becomes a meditation on the biopic and death, on relations between filmmaker and biographical subject, and on film as history. Similarly, the Hong Kong film Centre Stage (1991) is an index to contemporary reconstructions of the biopic in its uses of Brechtian distancing, its creation of multiple viewing positions, and its investigative probing of the clichés of public fame, authenticity, and the conventional biopic's treatment of time, narration, memory, and history.

The Hollywood biopic has continued to thrive in the films of Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), Spike Lee (b. 1957), and Oliver Stone (b. 1946). Schindler's List (1993), a blockbuster biopic and a contribution to the growing number of films (and works of critical literature) that memorialize the Holocaust, does not foreground familiar Nazis (though some are present). Rather, the biopic follows the fortunes of a benign member of the Nazi party, Oskar Schindler, a savior of many Jews whose altruism is the pretext for this elegiac treatment of the Holocaust. Malcolm X (1992) follows the familiar narrative trajectory of the biopic, portraying Malcolm's early brushes with the law, his conversion to Islam, and his rise to prominence, as well as the opposition to him that results in his assassination. As a biopic that purports to create an image of the man and his era, the film also situates Malcolm in the context of Black Power, the struggle against racism, and as a contrast to Martin Luther King Jr.

b. Southampton, England, 3 July 1927

Ken Russell has had a multifaceted career as a dancer, photographer, actor, and producer-director at the BBC, where he was responsible for a series of artist biographies including Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964), and The Debussy Film (1965). French Dressing (1963) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967) were his first films, but it was Women in Love (1969) that marked his coming out as a controversial British filmmaker. Based on D. H. Lawrence's novel and starring Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, and Oliver Reed, it revealed Russell's highly theatrical style and his use of visually compelling images of the eroticized body. Russell would return to Lawrence in a 1989 adaptation of The Rainbow with the same stars.

Russell's fascination with the gothic and with sexually transgressive subjects continued in The Devils (1971), his adaptation of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon . Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, this study of corruption by church and state outraged critics with its visually vivid sensual depiction of sadistic and masochistic sexuality in a seventeenth-century French convent. The Music Lovers (1971), a musical biopic, probed Tchaikovsky's creativity through a stylized and theatrical depiction of the composer's incestuous and homosexual relationships. Mahler (1974), a film about another tormented composer with whom Russell identified, treated its subject in grotesque and dreamlike images and revealed the filmmaker's self-reflexive investment in his biopics. Lisztomania (1975) uses fantasy, horror, satire, and intertextual allusions to other films and composers in its depiction of Franz Liszt as a precursor of the rock star.

Maintaining the focus on fame and popular culture, The Boy Friend (1972) is an homage to Hollywood's Busby Berkeley, while Tommy (1975) is a countercultural classic, a rock opera about youth, stardom, and the fusion of popular music and cinema. Unlike the exuberant style of Lisztomania , Valentino (1977), another star biopic, explores the legend of the star Rudolph Valentino in a sympathetic and more restrained style than Russell's other biopics, recalling Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). In his contamination and critical treatment of genre forms, Russell challenges cultural taboos; his experimental treatments of narrative and of visual and sound images are examples of experimental filmmaking that crosses national boundaries and does not comfortably fit the mold of classical genres, realism, or heritage cinema.


Elgar (1962), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Music Lovers (1971), Mahler (1974), Lisztomania (1975), The Boy Friend (1972), Tommy (1975), Lair of the White Worm (1988), The Rainbow (1989)


Baxter, John. An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell . London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Hanke, Ken. Ken Russell's Films . Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Phillips, Gene D. Ken Russell . Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Russell, Ken. Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell . New York: Bantam, 1991.

——. Fire over England: The British Cinema Comes under Friendly Fire . London: Hutchinson, 1993.

Marcia Landy

Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) raised conventional expectations for the biopic but revealed another form for the treatment of historical events on film. The film relied on the public's knowledge of the life of John F. Kennedy, choosing, like a crime detection film, to investigate the investigators of the assassination. JFK called attention to the questions of conspiracy and cover-up that are attached to the president's death, and, hence, took a critical view of American politics. Nixon (1995), also by Stone, is closer to the genre of the biopic in its depiction of the man's rise and fall from power. Beginning with the disgrace of the Watergate scandal,

Ken Russell.

the film uses flashbacks to offer another disastrous view of US political corruption.

Another permutation of the biopic is the "heritage film," exemplified by works such as Gandhi (1982), Another Country (1984), Carrington (1995), Shadowlands (1993), Restoration (1996), The Madness of King George (1997), Elizabeth (1998), and Shakespeare in Love (1998). This hybrid film form, which combines biography with costume drama, literary adaptation, and melodrama, has returned to the spectacular dimension of the earlier biopic. Marketed to appeal to audiences across cultural, economic, national, and generational divides, the films feature theatrical forms of acting and display, lavish period costumes and furnishings, and a forthright treatment of romance and sexual and gender conflicts in the context of an earlier period.

Other articles you might like:

Follow Founder
on our Forum or Twitter

Also read article about Biography from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: