"Based upon a Life": The Biopic Genre in Question

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LISA e-journal

"Based upon a Life": The Biopic Genre in Question
LISA e-journal
Deadline for proposals: 1 July 2015

While George F. Custen defines a biopic (biographical film) as a depiction of "the life of a historical person, past or present" (Bio/Pics, How Hollywood Constructed Public History, 1992, p. 5), he also considers the impact of celebrities and stars as "key historical figures" whose public persona may interfere with the genre's historical discourse. More recently, Ellen Cheshire has asked if this "maligned and misunderstood genre" is, in reality, a genre of its own (Bio-Pics: A Life in Pictures, 2015, p. 3). Biopics have indeed sparked off a number of on-going debates, not merely due to their claims of veracity, but through their practice of gender politics, intertextuality, reflexivity, and their hagiographic roots capable of impacting the narrative modes, visual and discursive strategies perpetuated by contemporary "life stories" on screen.
In this issue of Revue LISA/LISA e-journal (http://lisa.revues.org/), we invite contributors to explore the various mechanisms, conventions and patterns underlying the construction of "exceptional destinies" on screen (cinema/television). Not only should we question the type of person chosen as subject for biopic portrayals, but we also aim to prompt reflection on the ideological discourse conveyed by the genre. Whether they relate the lives of men and women embroiled in politics (Alice Paul, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, John F. Kennedy, etc.), or, as in the subcategory of artist biopics, those of emblematic creators (Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, etc.), biopics seem to promote an image of society that highlights the achievements of exemplary individuals -- be they politically engaged or artistically acclaimed. Moreover, although relying on authentic sources (biographies, autobiographical accounts, historical narratives, documentaries, newspaper articles, etc.), biopics are often decried as a popular genre that constantly blurs the boundary between public and personal history, History- and storytelling.
We call for papers that examine the ongoing mutations of this problematic film genre which Tom Brown and Belén Vidal qualify as "troublesome" in The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture (2014). While the genre provides a number of filmic portrayals of heads of state and other well-known political figures, some biopics actually challenge historical facts by drawing attention on minority figures whose struggle for identity and political rights receives a positive treatment (Iron Jawed Angels, Harvey Milk, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, 12 Years a Slave, etc.). Despite its tendency to set up ideals, the biopic does not seem to freeze History, but digs into the flaws of existing portraits and texts, exploring the problematic relationship between the viewed object and the looking subject.

Some possible avenues of research may include:
- The impact of the biographed characters over the chosen narrative structures and filming strategies (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John Reed, JFK, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, George W. Bush, Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Lawrence Of Arabia, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, Henry V, etc.)
- Biopic codes and conventions and the world of business and industry (Preston Tucker, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs, Jordan Belfort, etc.)
- Writers (William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald), artists and stars representing the world of music and showbiz (Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, James Brown, John Lennon, Louis Valdez, etc.) and cinema (Oscar Micheaux, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Ed Wood, etc.)
- The singular careers of sportsmen (Jake Lamotta, Babe Ruth, Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, Jim Brown, Chariots of Fire, etc.) and of killers raised to fame thanks to the media (Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bugsy Siegel, etc.).
- Repetition and variation, canonization and subversion within the biopic treatments of historical truth.
- Hybridization of the biopic genre (for instance) with animation films (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, 1989); the blending of the historical with the fantastic (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012).
- Biographical films and censorship.
- The role of biopics in promoting public debates on social issues, especially regarding questions of gender, race and class.
- The biopic canon in the era of mass entertainment and commercial imperatives: epic quests or post-mortem tributes of a new kind?
- The relationship between biopic and star/celebrity studies.

Proposals not exceeding 500 words and including a short biographical notice should be addressed by July 1, 2015 to:
- Delphine Letort (Delphine.Letort@univ-lemans.fr)
- and Taïna Tuhkunen (Taina.Tuhkunen@univ-angers.fr).
Completed essays will be due November 15, 2015.