INTRODUCTION: Genre & Style

I have recommenced giving Acting Classes here in Adelaide, with the addition of a new class that focuses on Genre and Style. The following is what I hope will be the first of a number or articles devoted to this topic.

 This first article offers definitions of Genre and Style, followed by an introduction to the Genre of Historical Drama in 20th and 21st Century film. Subsequent articles will focus primarily on two Sub-Genres of Historical Drama in English-speaking films – the Bio-Pic and the Musical Bio-Pic. Considering the massive number of films that fall in the category of Historical Drama, and particularly the Bio-Pic, it is possible to argue that Historical Drama is the dominant film Genre in English-speaking film, and quite possibly in world cinema.

Genre

Genre may be regarded as part of the Given Circumstances of a particular play or film. Subsequently, knowledge of Genre can greatly assist an actor in preparation of a role. Generally, Genre is determined by narrative, the particular type of story that is being told.  Originating from ancient classical Greece there were initially just two distinctive dramatic genres – Tragedy and Comedy. Through the ages this has evolved and expanded so that today there are multiple types of dramatic Genre, exemplified in world cinema by such genres as  Crime Drama, Horror, Action, Science-Fiction, Film Noir, and Romantic-Comedy.

Genre can also refer to the scale of a production, such as Epic,  and Low-Budget. It can also refer to the type of audience for whom a particular dramatic work is created; for example, Children’s Theatre. Genre is also related to function and purpose of a particular work and/or production; as expressed by Aristotle in his Poetics , the function and purpose of Tragedy was not only to present mankind at its noblest, but also to stimulate a cathartic release of emotions, particular ‘pity’ and ‘terror’.

It is quite possible that within one dramatic story, whilst it may be overall one specific Genre, it may also borrow from others. For example, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex  is a Classical Tragedy, however, it has also been identified as an Historical Drama as well as Crime Drama. As a Crime Drama it falls into a specific Sub-Genre being the world’s first Detective Drama. King Oedipus operates like a modern-day detective in his hunt for the killer of his predecessor, King Laius; the twist being that it is Oedipus himself who is the killer.

Style

If Genre refers to narrative, the story, function and purpose, then what is Style? This is a term that is often loosely used in regard to how a particular story is told. It is not uncommon for actors to receive directives such as ‘Do it in a ‘melodramatic’ style!’, ‘Make it more ‘Tarrantino-esque’!’, ‘It needs to be more Shakespearean in ‘Style’, or ‘Chekhovian’, or ‘It’s a very Hitchcock moment’, or ‘The scene should have a Pinter-esque atmosphere’. These are, however, somewhat vague generalizations, the use of which is very much determined by the individual actor’s knowledge and subsequent interpretation of such things. Pinter himself loathed the term ‘Pinter-esque’, regarding it as something that was essentially ‘meaningless’. Nonetheless, such directives highlight that Style and Genre are somewhat relatively closely linked in regards attempting to articulate required dramatic expression.

Style is closely linked to Genre in that it relates to the particular ‘imagined world’ of play or film and its production. Michel Saint Denis, one of the 20th Centuries most influential acting teacher-directors emphasizes this point in his book The Rediscovery of Style (1963). Saint-Denis refers to Style as the ‘reality’ of the ‘imagined world’ of a particular play,  and/or production, in which an actor may find them-self. Each play has its own ‘imagined truth’, even though there may be a number of plays by the same writer. For example, the world of Romeo and Juliet is different from the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream even though both plays are by Shakespeare; they each have their own unique ‘imagined truth’. Like Genre, understanding the numerous variations of dramatic Style can be seen as part of the Given Circumstances in preparing for a particular play or film, and its production.

Broadening ones knowledge and appreciation of Genre and Style offers a way to add depth and meaning to a particular acting challenge; it stimulates the imagination and subsequently can operate as an ‘entry point’ into a particular imaginary world of a play or film. It can reveal how to solve a particular acting problem, honouring the world of the specific play or film, enhancing creativity, and delivering a character from that world that has a strong and dynamic range of expression.

HISTORICAL DRAMA – In Film

The American writer Gore Vidal in his extended essay Screening History (1992) states that our modern visual understanding of ‘History’ is primarily due to the movies. In the movies the various representations of the Genre of Historical Drama reveals specific times, places, people and events from ‘History’ as interpreted and reinvented through a specific Style. For Vidal, as well as for me, this is one of the most thrilling, stimulating, rewarding and important things about the movies.

The_Story_of_the_Kelly_Gang_-_Poster-1The birth of the movies begins with a work of Historical Drama – the Australian silent film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) acknowledged as the world’s first feature length film. The evolution of Historical Drama in ‘Western’ English-speaking film can be explored by looking at the films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This includes the most recent recipient of this Award, Spotlight (2015). Whilst arguably this may not be a true reflection of the depth and range of World-Cinema, nonetheless, as a measure of successful populist entertainment as well as artistic achievement it is relatively concise and revealing.

Within this select group are 19 films that fall into the Sub-Genre of the Bio-Picincluding two that are a Musical Bio-Pic. These imaginative and dramatic re-workings of historical fact and re-inventions of historical figures have been told in a variety of Styles, dependent upon the world of its subject matter as well as the intention behind its creation and the particular vision and ‘eye’ of its creators. They include:

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) – d. Frank Lloyd

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) – d. Robert Z. Leonard

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) – d. William Dieterle

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – d. David Lean

The Sound of Music (1965) – d. Robert Wise

A Man for All Seasons (1966) – d. Fred Zimmermann

Patton (1970) – d. Franklin J.Schaffner

The French Connection (1971) -d. William Friedkin

Chariots of Fire (1981) – d. Hugh Hudson

Gandhi (1982) – d. Richard Attenborough

Amadeus (1984) – d. Milos Forman

Out of Africa (1985) – d. Sydney Pollack

The Last Emperor (1987) – d. Bernardo Bertolucci

Schindler’s List (1993) – d. Steven Spielberg

Braveheart (1995) – d. Mel Gibson

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – d. Ron Howard

The King’s Speech (2010) – d. Tom Hooper

Argo (2012) – d. Ben Affleck

Spotlight (2015) – d. Tom McCarthy

19 films – directed by a considerable range of directors with their own individual ‘eye’, which is the unique artistry and vision of a particular director, as well as his artistic collaborators. Very often this comprises a team of colleagues with whom the director is familiar and has worked with previously, and whom share a mutual empathy and ease in the collaborative working relationship. This includes screenwriters, editors, directors of photography, art directors, costume designers, make-up artists, and more – much more.

As is evident in the respective films cited, the vast majority of Historical Drama has overwhelmingly made by men. The ‘female eye’ in regard to the imaginative re-invention of History is under-represented. Notable exceptions are Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008),  Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), Barbara Streisand’s Yentl (1983), and Lina Wertmuller’s Love and Anarchy (1973) and Seven Beauties (1975). 

 

There is also the considerable work by directors Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong, as well as prolific screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvalar.

 Jane Campions work includes An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), and Bright Star (2009). 

 

Gillian Armstrong’s films include, My Brilliant Career (1979),  Mrs Soffel (1984), Little Women (1994), Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Charlotte Gray (2001), and Death Defying Acts (2007). There is also her documentaries, particularly Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006). 

 

Ruth Prawer  Jhabvala was a Booker Prize winning novelist. She wrote numerous screenplays primarily for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory beginning in the 1960s, such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965).  Spanning nearly forty years, the Merchant-Ivory producer-director collaboration is the longest and most successful in world cinema. One reason for their longevity and success is due to the additional collaboration of their main screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Many of her screenplays for Merchant-Ivory were adaptations of novels, including her own 1975 Booker Prize novel, Heat and Dust (1983). She particularly favoured and was skilled in adapting the work of Henry James and E. M. Forster, which includes The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984), A Room With A View (1986),  Howard’s End (1992), and The Golden Bowl (2000);  there is also her screenplay adaption of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize winning romantic pre-WW2 novel, Remains of the Day (1993).

 

What is noteworthy and something that Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have in common, based on their respective body of work, is a seeming interest and affinity for the 19th Century, which all three women have successfully explored a number of times in different ways with different historical narratives. It would presumptuous of me to say why, especially when I don’t know, and nor does that really matter. Their respective  interpretation and reinvention of this historical era (as well as others) are individually unique glimpses of imagined history through a particular ‘female eye’.

Despite this under-representation the ‘female eye’ in the filmic interpretation of History, nonetheless, the overwhelming ‘male eye’ includes virtually all of the 20th Century’s most influential film directors and producers.

This includes: D. W. Griffiths, Sergei Eisenstein, Charles Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, John Ford, Walt Disney, Ernst Lubitsch, W. S.Van Dyke, Victor Fleming, Irving Thalberg, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, David O. Selznick, Jean Renior, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Max Ophuls, Michael Curtiz, John Houston, Fritz Lang, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Jean Vigo, Jacques Feyder, Jean Epstein, Rene Clair, Marcel Pagnol, Marcel Carne, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Alexander Korda, Laurence Olivier, Billy Wilder, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Vincente Minnelli, David Lean, Douglas Sirk, Samuel Bronston, Anthony Mann, John Frankenheimer, John Schlesinger, Sidney Lumet, Fred Zimmermann, Vittorio De Sica, Roman Polanski, Robert Bresson, Henri-Georges Clouzet, Alain Resnais, Andrzej Wajda, Robert Aldrich, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer, Stanley Donen, Joseph Losey, Anthony Asquith, Carrol Read, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin, Robert Wise, Michael Powell, Michael Cacoyannis, Costa-Gavras, Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Sergio Leone, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Frederico Fellini, Franco Zeffirelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Grigori Chukhray, Mikhail Kalatozov, Jack Clayton, Richard Lester, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Bryan Forbes, Tony Richardson, Stanley Kubrick, Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Satyajit Ray, John Boorman, Sydney Pollack, Richard Attenborough, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Bille August, Karel Reisz, Jan Troell, Don Chaffey, Ray Harryhausen, Bob Fosse, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, John Waters, Mel Brooks, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Paul Mazursky, Norman Jewison, Peter Bogdanovich, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos, Jiri Menzel, Milos Forman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Lasse Hallstrom, Gabriel Axel, Nikita Mikhalkov, Peter Yates, Peter Greenaway, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, Philip Kaufman, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, George Miller, David Putnam, Hugh Hudson, Martin Ritt, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Luc Besson, David Cronenberg, Barbet Schroeder, Patrice Leconte, Oliver Stone, Jim Sheridan, Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Michael Mann, Mel Gibson, James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Epstein, Todd Haynes, Patrice Chereau, Claude Berri, Elem Klimov, Pavel, Chukray, Shekhar Kapur, Marc Foster, Tom Tykwer, Stephen Frears, John Madden, Guy Ritchie, Kenneth Branagh, Rolf de Heer, Peter Jackson, Carlos Saura, Pedro Almodovar, Alejandra Amenabar, Guillermo del Toro, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Pavel Lungin, Sam Mendes, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Coen, Zang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Kim Ki-duk, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Jang Hoon, Ang Lee, and Monty Python.

I did say ‘overwhelming’! I am well aware that most will scan and just give up reading through the names of the film directors and producers. It is there to prove a point. All these directors have made at least one Historical Drama of note, and most cases more than one. It adds further proof to the contention that Historical Drama is the dominant Genre, not only in English-speaking cinema but World Cinema. .

It is primarily through the films of these male directors and producers that are not only primarily responsible for evolution and development of Historical Drama in film in the 20th and 21st Century. Their respective films, which collectively runs into the thousands, their imaginative re-interpretations and re-inventions more often than not stands in the collective conscience as the main contemporary visual impression of History. This is also due to the respective collaboration of their screenwriters, art directors, costume designers, and actors, along with many others. It is their work, collectively massive in number, scale and achievement, that is the body of work that Gore Vidal (and others) mean in regard to the importance and brilliance, as well as myth-making, in Screening History.

ORSON WELLES – and the “Multi-Tasker” Director.

To take just one of these directors to represent the whole seems ridiculous, and yet necessary re space. Subsequently, I chose  ORSON WELLES (1915-1985) – a monumental figure as big as above list. As well as looking at Welles in all his magnificent glory, he is also an example of a particular type of director, the brilliant ‘multi-tasker’ of which there are a few, who can also be referenced here.

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), often listed as the best American film ever made,is an Historical Drama partly based on the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. This was Welles’ first film. What many of his subsequent films reveal is Welles’ particular interest in history and Historical Drama, that tend to dominate and characterize his impressive body of work, part of his directorial ‘eye’. This includes The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), as well as his versions of Shakespeare’s plays, such Macbeth (1948), Othello( 1952), and Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff (1966). It also complements his producing and acting career.

Essentially Welles produced most of his work, although very much with the assistance of others; not everything was made at the same time, such as his Othello. Prior to Citizen Kane he did a number of productions, all regarded as innovative and radical for the times. This included for the Federal Theater a African-American ‘voodoo’ version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as well as Marc Blizstein’s controversial political musical The Cradle Will Rock (1937). 

The extraordinary story behind the first performance of The Cradle Will Rock, that includes the actors who had been prohibited from performing it on-stage performing it from the auditorium with Blizstein on-stage playing a piano, was dramatically realized in the film by Tim Robbins, Cradle Will Rock (1999), with the character of Orson Welles being played by Angus MacFayden. Whilst romanticizing many of the facts around this real-life incident, nonetheless, Robbins’ film captures the courage and bravery of the moment when the actors begin to sing from the auditorium in defiance of the ban.

In 1937 Orson Welles and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theater, whose productions include Caesar (1937), a radical ‘modern-dress’ version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The story behind this production was re-told in Richard Linklater’s delightful ‘independent’ film  Me and Orson Welles (2008), with Christian McKay giving a terrific award winning performance as Orson Welles.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing that Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre did, however, was Welles’ radio adaption of H. G. Wells’ apocalyptic  science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds (1897), which was broadcast on Sunday 30 October, 1938, with Orson Welles as the narrator. What then occurred was unexpected and unpredicted. Welles’ adaption and narration was in immediate present time, as if the invasion of the aliens was happening as he was speaking over the radio. He stylistically  modeled his narration and the whole broadcast on the contemporary March of Time radio news series that was popular at the time.. The effect of this was that in certain parts of the USA it was taken as an actual ‘real-life’ broadcast of an alien invasion that was currently and truly happening, subsequently causing a level of public panic. Whilst there was considerable public backlash and outcry in the subsequent aftermath of the broadcast, nonetheless, it firmly, if somewhat controversially established the 23 year old Orson Welles in the national eye of the USA.

Citizen Kane – there is not the time nor space to go into any considerable depth in regard to this film. Besides, many others have dissected, discussed and analyzed this truly amazing film. Suffice to say that I first saw this film when I was a teenager, and it is a film that I have subsequently watched again numerous times. What I love about this film is that every time I watch it I invariably find something new, something that I hadn’t noticed before, and/or something that in the context to the time re-watching it strikes a particular resonance. It is complex, challenging, brilliant and inspirational – as all great art should be. Furthermore, I stand in awe in respect and admiration of the fact that Orson Welles co-wrote the screenplay (with Herman J. Mankiewicz), produced, directed, as well starred in it, playing the title character, Charles Foster Kane, from early adulthood to old age and death – all at the age of 26 years old!

Such demanding ‘multi-tasking’ in vital roles on relatively big-budget major motion picture is a challenge against the odds of super-human proportions. That the subsequent film is a success, publicly, critically, and artistically, to the extent that it wins national and international awards and world-wide acclaim is remarkable, a truly magnificent  achievement of epic proportions matching the size and scale of the film. What is also remarkable about this particular ‘multi-tasking’ in regard to film is that is is essentially the domain of the actor.

Before Orson Welles there really are only two others that were also actor-producer-director-writer with a significant large body of work – George M. Cohan (1878-1942) and Charles Chaplin (1889-1977), both of whom, like Welles, are larger than life and extremely influential.

George M. Cohan is known as the ‘father of musical theatre’, and is synonymous with the New York ‘Broadway’ theatre. There is only one statue in New York’s Times Square, the heart of the Broadway ‘theatre district’, and that is of George M. Cohan. For many, however, the actor James Cagney is the memorable image and impression of George M. Cohan due to Cagney’s electrifying Academy Award winning performance of George M. Cohan in the Musical Bio-Pic Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). 

As for Charles Chaplin? He is a Genre and Style of his own; a ‘Genius’ and ‘Giant’. For me, he is like Shakespeare, and is perhaps the only other ‘genius’ of the performing arts who occupies the position that Ben Jonson wrote when eulogizing Shakespeare, ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’.

 

There are, however, other actors who have also successfully performed multiple roles as actor as well as director, producer and/or writer, in regard to one or more works. This includes, Laurence Olivier with his Academy Award Best Film winning production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1948), as well as Henry V (1948) and Richard III (1955). Similarly, Kenneth Branagh and his screen adaptions of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1989), Hamlet (1996), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), whilst with his version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (2006) he played the multiple roles of producer, director, and screenplay adaptor, but did not act in this film. Furthermore, in regard to Shakespeare on film, Ralph Finnes was actor-director-producer for his version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (2011). Whilst it may seem a bit of a cheat with Olivier and Branagh, and Welles, claiming writer credit, nonetheless, adapting Shakespeare’s plays for the screen is a considerable challenge, from what is essentially in Genre and Style a language based play to a visual medium.

Along with Chaplin, Welles, Olivier, and Branagh, the actors Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Ben Affleck, have respectively taken on the enormous challenge of actor-director-producer, and being highly successful with four major Bio-Pic films – Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), and Affleck’s Argo (2012).

There is also Barbara Streisand.

Beginning with A Star is Born (1976), the third version of this film of this ‘back-stage’ Hollywood story, Barbara Streisand has produced as well as starred in the majority of her subsequent films. However, with Yentl (1983),  Streisand operated as  lead actor/singer-producer-director-writer. Yentl is a Musical Historical Drama, based on a short story set in late-19th Century Poland called Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy by Nobel Prize winner Polish Yiddish author Issac Bashevis Singer. In 1975 Singer, in collaboration with Leah Napolin,  turned his short story into a play, simply titled – Yentl. It was this play version that Barbara Streisand primarily used as the basis for her musical film version.

The film, Yentl, was a ‘labour of love’ and a triumph for Streisand. As early as 1968, after her meteoric success in Funny Girl (1968) she has wanted to do a film version of this story of young Polish girl dressing as a man in order to to further her education in Talmudic Law. It took her 16 years to realize this dream, after facing numerous obstacles. These included, studio delays and doubts and cancelations about Streisand’s vision, the cost, and her ability to direct a relatively big-budget film musical. There was also the perceived inappropriateness of the role by respective production studios, business colleagues and associates, as well as herself, due to age difference, Streisand’s dressing up as a man in contrast to her current popular feminine ‘star’ persona, and not only was the story lacking in commercial appeal it was also deemed to be ‘too ethnic’. Nonetheless, through all the set backs and false-starts, Barbara Streisand remained committed to the project, assisted by her friends and song lyrisists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, in turning Yentl in to a film musical. Her passionate dedicated commitment paid off as in 1982 Yentl was made, with Streisand as leading actor/singer, screenwriter, producer and director.

 

When Yentl was finally released in November, 1983, despite being a major success at the box-office world-wide, there was a polarization in regard to its critical reception. Some loved it, others hated it; exemplified by it winning numerous film awards, particularly for the music and songs, and Barbara Streisand becoming the first woman to win a Best Director Golden Globe Award. However, she was not included in Academy Award nominations for Best Director, and in the Golden Raspberry Awards (the “Razzies”), it was nominated for Worst Score, and Barbara Streisand for Worst Actor, because of her performance of Yentl playing a man.

Amongst the ‘haters’ was Issac Bashevis Singer. This was because Barbara Streisand had significantly altered the ending of his short story and play. In the ending of original story when it is revealed that Yentl is a woman in disguise as a man, she states ‘she is neither one sex or the other’, and that ‘she has the soul of man in the body of a woman’, and decides to remain being Anshel, her male alter-ego. In Streisand’s film, however, Yentl resumes and reclaims her womanhood, and leaves Poland for a new life in the ‘New World’, which in the late-19th Century was the USA.

Arguably, as it was debated at the time, this was a kind of modern feminist ending complementing such humanist based thinking of the 1980s -independence, freedom, and liberty. Whilst it may be a 1980s feminist ending in contrast to Singer’s original, which involves loss or confusion in regard to gender identity, Streisand’s relatively optimistic ending complements a number of American issues. First, providing this musical with an up-beat positivity lies in general accordance with the convention of ‘happy endings’ in American Musical Comedy. Second, it is historically accurate as the USA in the late-19th Century was regarded as a ‘New World’, called and identified as such by the dreams of many European immigrants at this time, particularly displaced Jews. Singer set Yentl in Poland in the year 1873. That Streisand subsequently has the character leave for the US, complements the historically true significant increase in immigration to the US from Northern Europe at this time, resulting in 1875 ‘Page Act’, which was the USA’s first immigration law. Finally, it complements romantic American idealism, which although at times questionable, sometimes sentimental, nonetheless, are cherished inspirational and aspirational values – liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Barbara Streisand is taking not only a justifiable conventional optimistic musical theatre ending, as well as a humanist-feminist stance, she is also being an American patriot. I don’t have a problem with that, egotistical though it may be. Furthermore, it works – and provides an up-beating ending to this Film Musical.

Issac Basevis Singer, however, made a striking comment and criticism about Barbara Streisand, one that could apply to the other ‘multi-tasking’ actor-director-producer-writers, such as Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, and Ben Affleck: “When an actor is also the producer and the director and the writer he would have to be exceedingly wise to curb his appetites. I must say that Miss Streisand was exceedingly kind to herself. The result is that Miss Streisand is always present, while poor Yentl is absent.”

 

 

Whilst there may be an element of truth in this, and Singer’s opinion is one that is understandably defensive, his ‘poor Yentl is absent’ is a lament for the seeming loss of the original character by the original creator. It is also, however, an acknowledgment of American individualism that is perhaps an inescapable aspect of what is, essentially, an American film; or at the very least, and American-Jewish re-interpretation of a Polish-Jewish story. A culture clash of a type. Two different sensibilities, two truths – neither completely wrong, neither completely right. The difference being more one associated with Genre and Style; one a Polish-Jewish Short Story with its own truth, reality and Style relative to Singer; the other an American-Jewish Film Musical, also with it own truth, reality and Style. Whilst the original Creator (Singer) may claim status due to precedence, his comment about the Modern Female Re-Inventer (Streisand) is also perhaps a little naive and smacking of European superior and judgement. It’s an big American movie made by a major American star! Considering the person(s) involved – what else could it be? That doesn’t make is a lesser work, just different from the Short Story; and some may say an improvement. It is, however, the acceptance of difference, a particular type of distance relative to scale as well as interpretation, and one based also based on national themes, as well as personal vision.

What is important to me, and I think others, is the question does the film justify the price of admission, the car-park fee, the cost of the dinner, and the price of the baby-sitter?

Furthermore, as with the other film-makers, but particularly for Streisand who did, as a woman, have to contend with considerable adversity in getting her film made, that there is an element of egotism in their respective work whilst true does not necessarily negate the enormous artistic achievement. It is these respective film-maker’s passion, dedication, commitment and bravery, as well as their talent and skill, which includes taking on multiple roles and having the ability to collaborate with and inspire others to work at their very best, as well delivering a film of such high standard that is popular with audiences and critics – that is something to applaud, respect and admire.

Collectively, the 19 films cited above point to the Bio-Pic being the dominate artistic as well as commercially most successful genre in the English-speaking cinema. This position is strengthened when looking at the respective Bio-Pic films that were nominated for Best  Picture but did not win. This includes: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1932), The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street (1934), Cleopatra (1934), The House of Rothschild (1934), Viva Villa! (1934), The Life of Louis Pasteur (1936)All This and Heaven Too (1940), Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942)Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Madame Curie (1943), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Wilson (1944), Henry V (1946), Julius Caesar (1953), The King and I (1956), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Diary of Ann Frank (1959), The Nun’s Story (1959), The Alamo (1960), The Longest Day (1962), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), America America (1963), Cleopatra (1963), Becket (1964), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Funny Girl (1968), The Lion in Winter (1968), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Z (1969), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Lenny (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Bound for Glory (1976), Julia (1977), Midnight Express (1978), All That Jazz (1979), Norma Rae (1979), The Coal-Miner’s Daughter (1980), Raging Bull (1980), The Elephant Man (1980), Reds (1981), Missing (1982), The Right Stuff (1983), The Killing Fields (1984), Hope and Glory (1987), Mississippi Burning (1988), Born of the 4th of July (1989), My Left Foot (1989), Awakenings (1990), Goodfellas (1990), Bugsy (1991), JFK (1991), In the Name of the Father (1993), Quiz Show (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), Shine (1996), Elizabeth (1998),  The Insider (1999), Erin Brockovich, (2000), Gangs of New York (2002), Seabiscuit (2003), The Aviator (2004), Finding Neverland (2004), Ray (2004), Capote (2005), Munich (2005), Goodnight and Good Luck (2005), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), The Queen (2006), Frost/Nixon(2008), Milk (2008), The Blind Side (2009), An Education (2009), 127 Hours (2010), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), Lincoln (2012), Twelve Years a Slave (2013), Captain Phillips (2013), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), American Sniper (2014), The Imitation Game (2014), The Theory of Everything (2014), Selma (2014), The Big Short (2015).

This is an exhaustive and yet comprehensive list of Bio-Pic films. It is, however, just the tip of the Historical Drama mountain. The list expands even further if one allows for other films that centre on a central historical events, yet the characters are fictionalized. This includes some of the greatest American film ‘epics’ ever made, such as: Gone With the Wind (1939)Quo Vadis (1951)Ben-Hur (1959)Titanic (1997), and Gladiator (2000). 

 

The list of Historical Drama  expands again to even more epic proportions when one adds those from other countries.

 

Faced with all these extraordinary films it is easy to see that Historical Drama occupies an overwhelming dominant position in the History of Cinema.

The range of Bio-Pics covers a number of other dramatic genres and styles, but what is particularly noticeable is the frequency of the epic as the preferred generic and stylistic form.  Arguably, the notion of the epic being synonymous with Historical Drama stems from the early silent films. This is especially so considering the influence of such early innovative film-makers as D. W. Griffiths, exemplified by his monumental and multi-layered film  Intolerance (1916), and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).

 

There are, however, other influences, notably that a number of Bio-Pics are based on and are adaptations of published novels, biographies, auto-biographies, and previously performed plays and musicals. There are also the dramatic styles of ‘melodrama’ and ‘naturalism’, first seen and developed in the theatre and carried over to film. Each film is also influenced by its ‘historical context’, reflecting contemporary concerns, tastes, attitudes, and business.

It should never be forgotten that the movies are an important part of ‘show-biz’; ‘show’ being the art, and ‘biz’ the business of making money. Furthermore, in regard to the business of the movies, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, it complements the infamous assessment by Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States 1923-29, which is here quoted in full, ‘After all, the business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses in our life’.

All the above influences are apparent in the films of the 1930s, the first decade of the ‘talkies’. This will be the subject of the next ‘occasional piece’ – Historical Drama 1929-1939 – the first decade of the ‘Talkies’. In many ways the films from this period set the tone, style, and format in regard to narrative structure in subsequent films in later decades.What is of particular interest to me, however, is the acting.

As with a number of cases, particularly in regard to the Bio-Pic and Musical Bio-Pic, the director and producer casts an actor that complements their vision of the historical figure in accordance with the screenplay. Invariably, in the Hollywood system this involves the ‘star’ performer who has a particular persona that is utilized in different films playing different characters although the persona invariably remains the same. This is exemplified by such 1930s actors as Clark Gable and William Powell in their respective Academy Award winning films Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The  Great Ziegfeld (1936). The popularity of such actors is also connected to idealized perceptions of male and female sexuality of the time. There is, however, another type of ‘star’ performer, one who is known as subsequently employed for their talent, skill and ability to transform physically and emotionally into a character. This exemplified by Charles Laughton and Paul Muni in respectively Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). This difference will also be discussed further, not to place one above the other as both types have harmoniously existed together since the beginning of recorded performance in the Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre. It was also the case in the 1930s as exemplified by Clark Gable and Charles Laughton sharing the lead in Mutiny on the Bounty, and remains a constant feature in today’s modern film.