Movie Genres: Biopics in the 1990s–Revisionism of Popular Genre

Watching Immortal Beloved, and a whole slate of biopictures, released recently, made me think of the changes in the conventions and style of this time-honored genre.

Biopictures, one of Hollywood’s most prestigious and popular genres, used to celebrate their heroes in a noble, uplifting manner. Though they were usually rise-and-fall (and often death) sagas, their goal was to inspire audiences, make them feel-good, even as they shed a tear or two at the end.

Think of Pride of the Yankees (1942), in which Gary Cooper played the beloved baseball star Lou Gehrig, who fell victim to a rare neurological disease.  Or The Glenn Miller Story (1954), in which Jimmy Stewart was most convincingly cast as the bandleader-and devoted family man–who died in an air crash.

But no more: The new bio-pictures focus on personalities that are not exactly sympathetic or inspirational. Each of the three new movies round, each representing an honorable attempt at capturing an intriguingly complex figure.

In Cobb, Tommy Lee Jones gives a volcanic, over the top performance as Tyrus Raymond Cobb, arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived. But Cobb astonished–even horrified–everyone he met with his aggressive racism and sexism; harsh in his personal life, he was a psychotic bigot. Biographer Al Stump describes him as “the most feared, castigated and acclaimed figure” in baseball history.

To his credit, writer-director Ron Shelton doesn’t whitewash his (anti) hero. But the film lacks sharp focus–Stump’s love-hate relationship with Cobb serves as a frame for an ambitious, though not totally rewarding film. It’s also not an easy or pleasant experience; the material is more suitable for the printed page than the big screen.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is Alan Rudolph’s account of Dorothy Parker, the acerbic, boozy writer, who went from one unhappy affair to another and even attempted suicide. The movie takes a disenchanted view of Mrs. Parker and her literary club, the noted Algonquin Round Table.

Lacking depth, the movie is at its best in conveying the group’s frivolous life: How they boozed, played infantile games, wasted their talents. With so much fun and partying around, you may wonder when they had time to produce any work. Though lovingly recreating the cultural milieu, Rudolph’s approach is judgmental, presenting the group as shallow.

Parker continues to drink and joke as her personal life falls to pieces. The problem is that Parker doesn’t change much as a character: she’s just as dissolute and alcoholic in l9l9 as she is in l937–or when the movie ends, rather arbitrarily, in the l960s.

Still, taken as a group, these movies tell us something about our own curiosity to know–and willingness to accept–darker aspects of our heroes. Whether you like these pictures or not, you cannot deny their effort to shy away from the more conventionally shaped bio-pictures that had clearer narratives and emotionally satisfying resolutions; in all three, moral ambiguity prevails.

The new movies also reflect changes in the ways that our mass media cover, worship, and criticize celebrities, ranging from Tonya Harding to O.J. Simpson.

All three moves provide a more critical, sort of a behind-the-scenes look at their heroes. Despite their matter-of-fact approach and innovative style, however, I find it strange that these films still use a rather simplistic Freudian perspective, dwelling on the turbulent childhood of their protagonists as an explanation for their problematic adult lives.