Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre

Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre

Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre

Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre


The biopic presents a profound paradox--its own conventions and historical stages of development, disintegration, investigation, parody, and revival have not gained respect in the world of film studies. That is, until now.

Whose Lives Are They Anyway? boldly proves a critical point: The biopic is a genuine, dynamic genre and an important one--it narrates, exhibits, and celebrates a subject's life and demonstrates, investigates, or questions his or her importance in the world; it illuminates the finer points of a personality; and, ultimately, it provides a medium for both artist and spectator to discover what it would be like to be that person, or a certain type of person.

Through detailed analyses and critiques of nearly twenty biopics, Dennis Bingham explores what is at their core--the urge to dramatize real life and find a version of the truth within it. The genre's charge, which dates back to the salad days of the Hollywood studio era, is to introduce the biographical subject into the pantheon of cultural mythology and, above all, to show that he or she belongs there. It means to discover what we learn about our culture from the heroes who rise and the leaders who emerge from cinematic representations.

Bingham also zooms in on distinctions between cinematic portrayals of men and women. Films about men have evolved from celebratory warts-and-all to investigatory to postmodern and parodic. At the same time, women in biopics have been burdened by myths of suffering, victimization, and failure from which they are only now being liberated.

To explore the evolution and lifecycle changes of the biopic and develop an appreciation for subgenres contained within it, there is no better source than Whose Lives Are They Anyway?


[I] tried to stay human and true to this man [George W. Bush]. It’s supposed to
be a fair and true portrait. People get me confused with my outspoken citizen
side, but I am a dramatist first and foremost.

—OLIVER stone, 2008

At the start of Man on the Moon (1999), light comes up on a young man, played by Jim Carrey, filmed in black and white, surrounded by darkness. Speaking in an indistinguishable “foreign” accent and high-pitched voice, he looks directly but nervously at the audience, his eyes shifting, like a child making a presentation at school. “Hello,” he says. “I am Andy. and I would like to thank you for coming to my movie. I wish it was better, you know. But it is so stupid. It’s terrible. I do not even like it. All of the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for, um, [really struggles to get out this next phrase] dramatic purposes.” Announcing that he has “decided to cut out all the baloney,” “Andy” tells the unheard, unseen audience, “Now the movie is much shorter. in fact, this is the end of the movie. Thank you very much.” When the audience fails to leave, the man moves awkwardly to a child’s suitcase phonograph from the 1950s, which plays the “The Theme from Lassie” while the film’s actual end credits roll. Increasingly desperate, “Andy” tries playing the 45 rpm record over and over, until he gives up, shuts the lid on the “suitcase,” and the screen goes black.

After several seconds go by, the man slowly pokes his head into the frame . . .

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