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 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.
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,
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 (l997), 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.
far the most biographized contemporary figure is Princess Diana. But very few celebrities escape media treatment. There is an emphasis on their private lives, highlighting their troubled childhoods, struggles to succeed, fame, marriages and divorces, illnesses, and deaths. The televisual biopic proffers the lives of the famous and infamous by means of "documentary" footage of their lives and times, commentary by their biographers, family members, colleagues, and friends, and, in the case of film stars, clips from their films. The biographies benefit from controversial material, scandals, and conflicts with the law. Thus it seems that the "biopic" is alive and well: the unabated flow of media biography is testimony to its continuing popularity, its profitability, and its responsiveness to changing cultural and social conditions.
see also Genre; Historical Films; Stars
The biopic continues to thrive not only in the cinema but also on TV, on the Arts and Entertainment Network and the Biography Channel, and in docudramas about celebrities, royals, and politicians, as well as on the Internet. By further reading
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999.
Anderson, Carolyn. "Biographical Film.'' In Handbook of American Film Genres, edited by Wes D. Gehring, 331—353. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Bingham, Dennis. ''I Do Want to Live: Female Voices, Male Discourse, and Hollywood Biopics.'' Cinema Journal 38, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 3-26.
Custen, George F. Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. '''Any Resemblance to Persons Living and Dead': Film and the Challenge to Authenticity." Yale Review 76, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 457-482.
Elsaesser, Thomas. ''Film History as Social History: The Dieterle/Warner Brothers Bio-pic.'' Wide Angle 8. no. 2 (1986): 15-32.
Hanson, Cynthia. ''The Hollywood Musical Biopic and the Regressive Performer.'' Wide Angle 10, no. 2 (1988): 15-23.
Higson, Andrew. English Heritage/English Cinema. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Landy, Marcia. Cinematic Uses of the Past. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Mann, Glenn, ed. ''The Biopic.'' Biography 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): v-x.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000.
Schulte-Sasse, Linda. Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1996.
Stringer, Julian. ''Center Stage: Reconstructing the Biopic.'' Cineaction 42 (1997): 28-39.
Was this article helpful?
If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.