The TV Biography: Fill an Hour with Old Photos

By Schroth, Raymond A. | National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

The TV Biography: Fill an Hour with Old Photos


Schroth, Raymond A., National Catholic Reporter


"Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world," writes Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman, her analysis of several biographers' failure to capture the life, spirit and suicide of the tragic poet Sylvia Plath. A biographer is like a burglar, she says. He breaks into a house, rifles through drawers for jewelry and money and takes off with the loot.

The loot: all those things the dead person never wanted known.

Like that other low form of life, the journalist, says Malcolm, the biographer sees himself as successful when he can spill some dirt and ruin a reputation. We who read biographies are voyeurs who shadow the writer from keyhole to keyhole Why else would we put up with such miserable writing -- except for the reward of invading someone's privacy?

The creators of the Arts & Entertainment Network's successful series "Biography" have not yet taken on Sylvia Plath. Nor is there any sign they have been influenced by Malcolm's powerful treatise, which emphasizes the virtual impossibility of an artist's biographer grasping that secret inner reality that makes a person whoever he or she is

No one with that attitude could ever put on a TV show. Before I wrote a biography, I facetiously characterized the process as "You just get a lot of stuff about someone and put it in a book." After watching 25 episodes of "Biography," I suspect their guiding philosophy is: "Quick, get a lot of old photos and film clips about someone famous and shove them into an hour.

If not the depth, then at least the sheer breadth of the program's scope is staggering, with no apparent scale applied to weigh the subject's real importance or impact on world history. The more than 400 shows have included Heidi Fleiss, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Betty Boop, alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Grable, Abbott and Costello, Edward VIII, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Roy Rogers (twice), Gen. George Marshall, Liberace, Timothy McVeigh and Jesus. In short, everyone is equally worthy of the "Biography" treatment. That is, everyone "famous," even if only notorious for last month's string of sex murders.

Indeed, to merit a "biography" it's not even necessary to have existed! Thus, "biographies" of Frankenstein (the monster, not the creator), Dracula, Betty Boop, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes (although Holmes has been recreated so many times, he has accumulated more reality than most real people), and comic book characters like the Phantom.

Among subjects who really did exist, the list is heavy on entertainers, often grouped thematically. Halloween week featured the lives of stars who played monsters: Boris Karloff; poor old, multi-married drug addict Bela Lugosi; and alcoholic Lon Chaney Jr., whose life, as we might have imagined, was not really like that of the little boy portrayed in his father's screen biography, "Man with A Thousand Faces." There have also been weeks devoted to famous comedians and famous gangsters and famous warriors like Saddam Hussein and H. Norman Schwartzkopf.

But are these programs any good? And compared to what? The quality varies. They don't seem to be produced by any one team but rather farmed out to a variety of production companies, so there's no Edward R. Murrow-like standard of excellence applied to them all. As with written biographies, quality depends, too, on the availability of material -- particularly film footage, the openness of archives and the cooperation of families who, for both noble and ignoble reasons, protect the secrets and hide the truth about the famous dead.

But considering that they have to come up with a more or less new documentary every night, "Biography" is one of the best hours on television. Unless we have already read books about these people, we almost always learn something. They often interview leading scholars. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The TV Biography: Fill an Hour with Old Photos
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.