Biography and Meeting Our Expectations

Report for Narrative Strategies of Non-narrative Television

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A&E's Biography is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month. For a decade now this program has provided the American audience with the story of a real person's life five nights every week. Biography illustrates itself as a simple, straight-forward program that does little more than present the accomplishments and struggles of famous people in a fashion that is entertaining as well as educational. However, like all narratives that people construct A&E's Biography does not exist within a vacuum. George Custen's book Bio/Pics explains how the Hollywood genre of the bio/pic constructed a "nearly monochromatic view of history" that continuously distorted facts about the histories being told. Custen's concept of the Hollywood bio/pic as constructing history into entertainment by fitting the facts into a formulated mold creates myths which support the views of history that dominant culture wants to believe.

The concepts presented within Custen's argument about the bio/pic are not only significant for understanding the construction of shows such as Biography, but also for observing how American culture creates and accepts myths. The average American moviegoer can typically see a similar story and plot development within most major Hollywood films. As an Indian man that I once worked with stated, "I saw probably ten American films once I got here, and then I figured I knew the story and I didn't see anymore." The Hollywood studio is a site of American culture synthesis, but it is above all a multi-million dollar industry. It seeks to reach the largest number of people possible within the context of each film. Thus it creates films for the lowest common denominator with formulated plots. Custen explains that biographical films adhere to these same rules. Bio/pics by no means whatsoever break from the formula of the classical Hollywood cinema. The author makes an illustration with the famous Hollywood producer Daryl F. Zanuck stating that, "Zanuck recycled plots, characterizations, and stars because of a firm belief that these bio/pic star-genre formulations tapped into audience's conceptions of what life should be like." (Custen p. 142) Custen states that although case studies of the research processes for bio/pics reveal that historical research did create a significant component for the films, it was typically only the backdrop for the story. Verisimilitude of an historical presentation lies extensively on the superficial level. Historical accuracy could be seen greatly in the costumes and the set designs, but the over all vision of the producer often bypassed any attention to historical accuracy. "And since these men thought of history in terms of the history of what films had succeeded with the public, a bio/pic life would have more in common with other models of film biography than it would with sources outside Hollywood's discourse." (Custen p. 142)

Stressed by Custen and in close relation to the previous point is the use of intertextual references. Bio/pics were made with a greater reference to the world inside of the studio system than to the historical world. Producers like Zanuck knew that people came to the theaters primarily to be entertained, and the relevance of any historical knowledge gained took a definite back seat to the escapist qualities of the bio/pic. This meant that a producer, in order to fill the theaters, had to encapsulate history into a certain mold. The relationship between entertainment and history coalesced so that history, "became a history of entertainment, a strange ontological slant that limited the description of bio/pic fame to the plots found in a few movies that had found favor with audiences." (Custen p. 145) The intertextual relationship between the bio/pic and history has another important impact in that it instills the images into the mind of the viewer. That is to say that the connection between Jeff Bridges and Preston Thomas Tucker is created in the minds of the viewers when watching Tucker. The intertextual relationship is such that if the viewer were to ever talk about car manufacturing during World War II that any mention of Preston Tucker and the introduction of automobile safety features would bring to mind Jeff Bridges.

Biography is presented as a documentary, but is definitely in-line with Custen's concept of the bio/pic. That is to say that the bio/pic presents itself as an historical document as well. "Unlike most films, almost every bio/pic opens with title cards that place the piece in context or with a voice-over narration that historically 'sets up' the film." (Custen p. 51) The relevance of this is gargantuan. The typical American spends probably hundreds of hours in front of the television for each hour spent reading. When this is taken in perspective that most Americans, when reading, are not reading academic texts on history leaves them in a position that is highly susceptible to accept the version of history presented to them on television. "One possible explanation may lie with people's expectations about television and its role as a mediator of fame." (Custen p. 219) If a particular view of history is presented on television, the viewer is likely to believe because of the precept that if it is on television it must be important. This might sound far-fetched but consider the context within which it is presented. "Television is the ultimate version of the twentieth-century myth making. The tales it tells are suited to the reading habits of its audience." (Custen p. 219) Biography presents a text that is more about reinforcing existing concepts and versions of history than any that might oppose.

Intertextual connections are made quite overtly in Biography. The subjects alone are one point of intertextual relations. Biography episodes frequently profile television and movie stars. Some of the episodes viewed before writing this paper include profiles of television and movie stars such as Mel Gibson, Shirley Temple, Tim Allen and Lance Ito. The fact that Biography sees movie and television stars as significant biographical topics alone suggests a bizarre perspective in relationship to history. Granted, Biography is not a show that is set out to solely present historical figures. It is still unusual to view new actors and figures that are only seen on television (Lance Ito) as relevant subjects for an hour-long profile when compared to the lives of people such as Genghis Khan, Henry VIII, Richard the Lionheart, The Shah of Iran, or Fidel Castro. A show could very well be about Peter Graves, the usual host of Biography, as it could be about anyone else. However, the subjects are usually of a politically safe nature. It would be highly unlikely to see an episode on Richard Nixon or Ho Chi Min.

The best example of intertextual connections though is the guest hosts. On the episode about Henry VIII, Roger Rees was the guest host of the show and the person to whom questions were directed. He was introduced as "thoroughly British actor." This connection of Roger Rees as an authority on Henry VIII because he is a recognized British actor is as relevant as commercials presenting actors who play doctors on television and recommend a certain brand of aspirin. Even more interesting are the ways in which Rees answers the questions poised by Peter Graves. In response to, "Did you think the king was self-absorbed or was he, by that time, just plain mad?" Rees stated that:

I was once lucky enough to perform Hamlet and I heard someone in the audience say, "Oh, well he's obviously mad," and the other person said, "Oh, no. He's just pretending," and to get both answers at the same time was wonderful, and I think it's true of him. I think he's both things at once. I think he's crazy and he's self-absorbed, and he's self-absorbed because he's crazy.

Rees uses a constructed fictional narrative; in this case the play of Hamlet, to make sense of Henry VIII's life and later compares his life to "a royal soap opera" and that he is "remembered as a comic opera figure." This method of using fiction to understand history is fine on the allegorical level, but it does not allow for many of the complexities about an issue to be explained.

Custen's concept as television as a modern myth generator possesses the most critical implications when examining a program such as Biography. As stated before, people will tend to believe an account of past events when it is presented in a fashion that the viewer is accustomed to. An excellent example of this can be seen in the relation between what Kenneth Stampp describes in his book The Era of Reconstruction and D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation. Stampp describes how Professor William Dunning in the early part of the twentieth-century, along with a number of other professors and graduate students, wrote a series of monographs which outlined a rather impassioned view of the Reconstruction period. His interpretation viewed Abraham Lincoln as a great and kind-hearted man, and the Radical Republicans as a group, "motivated by hatred of the South, by selfish political ambitions, and by crass economic interests, the radicals tried to make the process of reconstruction as humiliating, as difficult, and as prolonged as they possibly could." (Stampp p. 7) The perspective of history that created Birth of a Nation was widely viewed as the truth simply because people accepted it as that. Dominant culture wanted to believe this view of Reconstruction even though historical evidence suggested a story that was quite different.

Biography is by no means as far stretching from reality as Birth of a Nation. However, it presents itself as an accurate text. It is probably fairer to describe Biography as a myth perpetuator than as a myth generator. The episode "Shirley Temple: Hollywood's Little Princess" makes this function of the program rather obvious. All but the last ten minutes of the hour-long program is dedicated to Temple's career as a child actor. In essence, this program is not about Shirley Temple the person, but it is rather about Shirley Temple the loved child star who fell largely out of the public eye after the age of twelve. Throughout the show she is presented as perfect. Every few minutes there is a cutaway to a testimonial segment where someone states over and over that Shirley Temple was absolutely "perfect", "adorable", "she knew everything." The construction of the episode revolves around her, but does not really deal with her. This episode is no where nearly as much as a personal profile of Shirley Temple as the episodes about Fidel Castro, Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis, or even Richard the Lionheart or Henry VIII. There are hints to negative aspects within Temple's life, but these are made quickly and then dropped. These are topics that would seem to be very pertinent to Temple's life story and to a profile of her life. Something that would seem important to expand upon such as Shirley's mother, Gertrude Temple, who wanted desperately to have a life in show business but failed, and seemed to be trying to live this life vicariously through her daughter. Or how Gertrude strictly monitored Shirley's meals, friends, and studies, or how she started Shirley in show business at the age of four in baby burlesque pictures that used very young children in farcical and sexual manners never receive attention. This is because bourgeois Americans have a particular view of Shirley Temple which cannot and dare not be tarnished by anything.

Custen's explanation about the construction of the Hollywood bio/pic illustrates how this genre has entwined history and entertainment. How the bio/pic has created a very limited perspective through which history can be created onto the screen. The bio/pic has created an archetype for what a film or television biographical presentation should be. This formula is used in the presentations such as A&E's Biography to reinforce the views of history that dominant culture wants to believe.

Custen, George F. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877.
New York: Vintage Books, 1965.