AS A COLLEGE FILM PROFESSOR, my most popular class is movie genres. Each week we tackle a different type of film, such as fantasy, gangster, film noir, dark comedy, Westerns, and so on. Yet, my favorite part of the course comes late each semester when more nontraditional genres are explored, from cult movies like "The Princess Bride" (1987) and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994), to problem films such as "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967) and "The China Syndrome" (1979).
My personal favorite, however, among the nonmainstream genres, is the biography film. Undoubtedly, part of my attraction to this movie type comes from the fact that I have written a great number of print biographies. Pulling me in even more is the fact that all my profile books are about entertainers--also the most popular occupation to be tapped into for film biographies.
One could argue, though, that profile pictures soon might be considered yet another mainstream genre. In recent years, several biography films have scored impressive critical and commercial successes, including: "Ray" (Ray Charles, 2004), "Finding Neverland" (Peter Pan author James M. Barrie, 2004), "Walk the Line" (Johnny Cash, 2005), and "The Last King of Scotland" (Idi Amin, 2006).
Naturally, one could argue that "bio pies" always have been a part of American cinema, producing such classics as "The Life of Emile Zola" (celebrated French writer, 1937), "Pride of the Yankees" (baseball legend Lou Gehrig, 1941), and "Madame Curie" (famed female scientist, 1943). In recent years, though. American pop culture seems to have become obsessed with the lives of high-prone individuals, fueling an increase in biographies peppered throughout several types of media outlets, including print, various cable formats (such as "Biography," and "Behind the Music"), online, and in the movies.
There are numerous explanations for this attraction, starting with the most basic of the genre. Biography is "history made personal." For instance, you might have little general interest in World War II, but George C. Scott's amazing title character performance in "Patton" (1970) just sucks you into the subject. Maybe you had not thought much about 20th-century Mexican art, but actress and producer Salma Hayek's amazing "Frida" (2002), the brilliant telling of Frida Kaholo's passionate and turbulent life with fellow artist Diego Rivera, is the most engaging tutorial on the subject.
Biography also is the...