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. …