Biography



THE BIOPIC IN WAR

Directly or indirectly, the Hollywood wartime biopic justified national involvement in war, dramatizing the essentially peaceful and moral nature of the American male and distinguishing him from the enemy. Sergeant York (1941), starring Gary Cooper (1901–1961), is an example of the biopic's linking its biographical subject to national crises, and also of the genre's malleability to changing historical circumstances. Set during World War I but clearly making analogies with World War II, the film focuses on the transformation of an uneducated and problematic figure, a "hillbilly," to a wartime hero. Cooper's star image as a shy, modest, and inarticulate American male, slow but sure to rise to action, serves the demands of the York character and of the narrative's ideological designs. In a series of dramatic encounters with the community, his minister, and his military superiors, York fights a series of moral and personal battles that bring him finally to a spiritual conversion that enables him to renounce pacifism and serve the nation. Similarly, in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Cooper reincarnates his star persona: Cooper takes on Gehrig's persona, but Gehrig becomes Cooper the star. Heroism is played down, becoming all the more prominent for its being muted. In its focus on Gehrig's fatal illness and his equanimity in facing death, the biopic offers a model of heroism transferable to the home front and battlefield, offering a strategy to cope with death. This self-effacing form of masculinity accords with a proper conception of stardom during the war and with the studio's conception of moral responsibility to its audiences at a critical time for the nation.

British biopics of wartime such as Young Mr. Pitt (1942), starring Robert Donat (1905–1958), are more polemic, drawing on allegory to create parallels between the Napoleonic wars and the war with the Nazis. Donat's portrait of Pitt is unmistakably hagiographic; Pitt becomes a martyr to the nation, a monument and testimonial to the British national character, and a figure of wisdom and sacrifice in the interests of national unity and mobilization.

A further development of the biopic came from the German cinema of the interwar and Nazi era, in which the illustrious man's view of history was deployed in the interests of propaganda. Among the biopics depicting the lives of monarchs, political leaders, artists, and scientists, the most notable were Friedrich Schiller (1940), Bismarck (1940), Ohm Krüger (1941), and Paracelsus (1943). These men of genius and prophetic vision realized heroism in the service of their nation against seemingly overwhelming odds. The film narratives are constructed with an escalation of conflicts involving private and public life that portray the protagonists' indomitable will and indefatigable ability

Ken Russell's The Music Lovers (1971) depicts the conflicted sexuality of the composer Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain).
to overcome the constraints of the commonplace and everyday world. Built on oppositions between life and fiction, escapism and realism, these biopics rely on the spectators' extratextual memories from schoolbooks, paintings, and architecture. The films utilize costume, musical accompaniment, period settings, props, makeup, and actor's poses to distinguish the individual from the mass.

Emil Jannings (1884–1950), known for his roles in such films as The Last Laugh (1924) and Variety (1935), lent his prestige to The Old and the Young King (1935) and Ohm Krüger . The protagonists of these films realize heroism in the service of their nation but in a manner that separates them and places them above the common people. Despite their ostensible similarity to the conventions of the Hollywood biopic, these biopics reversed the process of humanizing the historical protagonist, portraying him instead as a monument, an immortal being who has risen above history. While they are self-consciously intertextual and rely on conventions of the biographical film, these biopics are not reflexive about their uses of history and their status as film.



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