Hollywood Biopics - Concluding Observations
Analysis of this body of films, the Hollywood biopics, considers the geographic setting for such films, the occupations portrayed, time and sex biases, ideology, historical accuracy and the race, culture and ethnicity of the biopic subjects. In some instances, the conclusions of the author of the earlier work in this area (George Custin's Bio/Pics) are compared with those of the more contemporary study. In other instances, this later study places an emphasis on different issues which are critical in gaining an understanding of the Hollywood-based U.S. film industry.
Geography--As Custen points out, "[i]n their projection of biography onto a world map, Hollywood created a distorted view of accomplishment that sustained an image of history that . . . made it appear that entire domains of achievement had been invented by Americans . . . " Custen's study of biopics, which only surveyed the genre through the middle of the century, reveals that "[t]wo-thirds of all biopics are either about Americans or set in America . . . " and "[a]fter the United States, Europe appears to be the center of the biographical universe, with 22 percent of films set there." As Custen pointed out for his study, if " . . . the American and European totals (are combined) . . . 89 percent of all famous people are either American or European . . . Asia and Africa account for only 3 percent of all biopics (in Custen's study) . . . "
Custen's study also revealed that " . . . America's (former) . . . rival, the U.S.S.R, as well as uncolonized Asia . . . " were "[n]oticeably under-represented . . . " Custin points out that these " . . . enormous voids represent a kind of cinematic equivalent to isolationism, a willful ignoring of entire nations whose ethnicity, race, ideology, or, dangerously, all three prevented them from gaining the credentials needed for entering biographyland." In Custen's study "[f]ilms set in Japan and China (less than 1 percent) take place either in the long ago past (The Adventures of Marco Polo), or present Asian nationals as outmoded resisters to the voice of American modernity . . . "
The weighted geographic distribution appears to have continued (and even increased) in more contemporary biopics. This later study of Hollywood biopics reveals that the films focusing on American subjects were far greater in number than any other country or continent. There were 324 Hollywood biopics with American subjects. The next significant level of subjects came from Europe (101), and considering the European heritage of many of those in the Hollywood film community, that is not surprising. The American and European subjects combined (from my more recent expanded study) account for slightly more than 95% of the biopics in this larger study. The next highest number of subjects from an area of the world was the Middle East with 9 films and then Australia and Asia with 3 each. Biopic subjects from Africa and India were featured in 2 films per country. There were also only 2 films featuring subjects from our nearest neighbor to the south, Mexico. There was only one Hollywood biopic featuring a subject from Greece. None of the biopics focused on a subject from our nearest neighbor to the north, Canada. There were also none from any of the Central or South American countries.
Occupations--As Custen reports the " . . . great man as a tragic or grand royal figure or the famous statesman, popular before World War II (was) . . . replaced by the great man as a giant of some branch of the entertainment industry. While military figures and gangsters would be honored equally with biopics, particularly during the 1950s, the era of the biopic of the statesman vanished with the close of the war." Custen reported that " . . . by weighting the universe offame so that it is numerically biased in favor of fame in the performing or creative fields, the movies justify their own system, lending credibility to idols of consumption rather than idols of production. In short, the dominance of performer biopics is a grand justification for the legitimacy of popular entertainment."
Leo Lowenthal observed similar tendencies in his 1944 study of magazine biographies. In seeking to discern in magazines, biographical patterns over time, Lowenthal noted " . . . a shift both in the subjects of biography and in the explanations proffered for why a particular life was meritorious. His content analysis of 1,003 issues of Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, covering sixteen sample years, found that while magazines of the first decades of the century had focused their attention on the biographies of what he called 'idols of production' (captains of industry, the military, and other members of conventional ruling elites), later magazines, inspired by the new media, radio and the motion picture, chose to highlight what Lowenthal called 'idols of consumption.' In this change from idols of production to idols of consumption, he detected a shift in American values and a shift in the morality lessons--'lessons of history'--that readers might derive from these magazines. Power through the making of the world had been replaced by power through ownership of its coveted items." "Lowenthal shared (with others of his day, including Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Max Horkheimer) a fearful contempt for the products of the mass media, which according to his view, increasingly manipulated audience members into an authoritarian view of history . . . 'corrupting the educational conscience by delivering goods which bear an educational trademark but are not the genuine article . . . '"
Continuing to reflect the interests of Hollywood filmmakers, this more recent expanded biopic study also revealed that the most common occupation for biopic subjects was people in the entertainment field, including actors, actresses, singers, musicians and composers. There were 130 (29%) of those. The next most common occupation favored by Hollywood was the criminal/gangster/outlaw at 50 (11%), thus the criminal/gangster/outlaw biopic has now surpassed the military hero. In some instances the gangsters and entertainers were also involved with each other. The criminal/gangster/outlaw and entertainer biopics combined accounted for 40% of all occupations portrayed in Hollywood motion picture biographies covering an 82 year period.
Another favorite Hollywood biopic topic was the Western. There were 38 of those, including the 7 of the Custen study that could easily be identified as Westerns from their titles only (see footnote). Also, 6 of these Western biopics focused on Indian subjects. Then there were 30 (7%) athletes featured in the biopics (20--white; 6--black; 1--Indian; 1--woman; and 2-- horses). Unfortunately, there were no American women athletes honored with Hollywood biopics throughout the period covered. Also, working back from the lower end of the numerical spectrum, there were 25 military heroes (6%), 24 royalty (5%), 22 politicians or government leaders, 18 writers (including poets and playwrights), 14 religious leaders, 8 biopic subjects from law enforcement, 8 aviators, 7 businessmen, 7 dentists and doctors, 6 spies, 6 journalist/reporters, 5 inventors, 5 scientists, 4 artist/painters, 4 ambassador/diplomats, 4 nurses, 3 explorers, 1 banker, 1 teacher and 1 Supreme Court Justice represented.
Men vs Women--In Custen's study of studio biopics he discovered that there " . . . are almost two and a half times as many male biographies as females. Moreover, the bulk of female biographies are of entertainers and paramours." Custen noted that " . . . in general, the distribution of power in society is mirrored by the distribution and limitation of the lives women are allowed to depict." Custen's study showed that " . . . men have numeric superiority in twelve careers (while) . . . films on women dominate only four areas. After paramour and educator, they are royalty and medical . . . the biography of the single famous woman accounts for only one- quarter (25.8%) of all biopics (in Custen's study) . . . men alone account for 65 percent of all biographies, more than twice the number of biopics than women . . . " "One might also add that . . . three categories--entertainer, royalty, paramour--make the female the object of a male gaze." Those trends were altered even more in favor of men in the more contemporary study, which revealed that 83% of the subjects were male and only 17% were female. Even though the mistress, entertainer, Royalty and nurse categories dominated among women in the later study, other occupational fields like writer, poet, intern, governess, athlete, orphanage founder, gangster, scientist, aviator, were included along with peasant girl, wife and groupie.
Time Bias--Custen's study also revealed a "time bias" in Hollywood biopics. He reported that " . . . 59 percent of all films set in the United States take place in the twentieth century, 39 percent in the nineteenth century, and only 2 percent in the seventeenth century. This is in contrast to Europe, where only 8.5 percent of all films are set in the twentieth century." As Custen reports, " . . . biographies of those before the Renaissance are rare indeed (4 percent), and limited to charismatic biblical figures or Egyptian or Greek royalty." "More than 80 percent of all entertainment biopics . . . " in Custen's study " . . . are set in the eighty years between 1880 and 1960. Of these entertainer biopics, almost a third are about vaudevillians . . . " Custen determined that if the subject of the biopic spoke German, chances are that such a person " . . . lived in the nineteenth century (the 'good' Germany) and composed music (Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss) or were a scientist (Erlich), or a humanitarian entrepreneur whose fondest wish was for 'one world' (Julius Reuter)." On the other hand, if the subject of the biopic was French, such a person " . . . lived in the nineteenth century, or (was) . . . either an intensely romantic eighteenth-century female (Madame Du Barry, Marie Antoniette, etc.) or an intensely political writer (Zola), statesman, and military figure (Napoleon), or, in the case of Louis Pasteur, a man dedicated almost equally to the advancement of science and the honor of France."
In addition, Both the Zola and Ehrlich biographies dealt with anti-Semitism. Paul Ehrlich, the scientist " . . . who discovered a treatment for syphilis, was consciously selected as a subject for a biopic (Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet) because he was both German and a Jew. As Warners story editor Finally McDermid explained to Will Hays (who was concerned with the explicitness of the 'syphilis' angle in Ehrlich), 'the reason for picking Ehrlich as a protagonist had very little to do with syphilis and its cure. Ehrlich happened to be a great humanitarian and a German Jew'."
Ideology--Political orientation is one of the areas that cannot always be ascertained by a review of a film's synopsis. For example, there were only 23 readily identifiable political liberals in the expanded sample of biopics. Even so, the liberals significantly outnumbered the political conservatives, since their were only 4 of the latter. The portrayal of the major political parties of U.S. Presidents was much closer, with 7 biopics of Democratic presidents and 6 of Republicans,although only one of the Republican presidents was in office in the last forty years (Eisenhower 1952-1960).
The Soviet Union, and its overall absence from Custen's study of studio biopics " . . . cannot easily be explained (as racist) . . . Here, the barrier to representation is ideological . . . with studio heads being even more afraid of Communism than they were of the threat of the Nazis. Thus, 'Russia' (represented in eight films of Custen's study) had to mean pre-revolutionary Russia . . . The incredible cinematic possibilities available in the Russian Revolution are of course, off- limits to the virulently anti-Communist industry . . . Moreover, many of the early movie moguls were immigrants from Russian or Eastern Europe, where as Jews, they were subject to a variety of forms of discrimination and persecution."
Of course, the film industry was not as "virulently anti-Communist" as Custen would suggest since it is well-known that many Communists worked in the industry (primarily as writers, actors and directors) before the anti-communist purges in the 1950s. In addition, the studio house-cleanings came only after the studio heads began to fear that the public furor over communists might negatively impact the amount of money that could be earned at the box office with their movies. In other words, it would be more accurate to say that many on the creative side of the film industry were Communists or sympathetic, whereas the studio heads themselves were either anti-Communist or simply pragmatic.
Custen further suggests, however, that many forces militated " . . . against producing any biopic of a Communist or totalitarian leader. Although ideological censorship may seem to be the most obvious explanation for these absences . . . " there are other reasons. For example, a " . . . substantial number of biopics explain famous people with reference to their families, their neighborhood or home roots, their education and friends. Such humanizing touches might render the lives of these charismatic but forbidden lives emphatic, perhaps even providing social explanations for their 'evil' behavior that might seem to excuse it . . . Being masters at propaganda, Hollywood realized that the normal biopic treatment simply could not be used for these (Communist) figures." Of course, the Hollywood decision-makers have had no similar hesitation in providing "social explanations" for the "evil behavior" of the many criminals, gangsters and outlaws they have chosen to portray in their biopics and other films.
Historical Accuracy--Few if any of the biopics in Custen's or this more recent and broader study can be considered historically accurate. Part of the reason for that, of course, was the attitude of the studio executives. Darryl Zanuck, for example, expressed his belief in a memo dated July 28, 1936 that historical inaccuracies in biopics do not " . . . cause any trouble." For example, he said, in the biopic 'Rothschild' he " . . . made Rothschild (from the Jewish banking family) an English Baron and there never was a Rothschild a Baron." Zanuck went on to say that he " . . . had the King of England give (Rothschild) . . . the honor, and that at this time there was no King of England as the king was in the insane asylum . . . "
Hayden White also noted that "[n]o history, visual or verbal, 'mirrors' all or even the greater parts of the events or scenes of which it purports to be an account . . . " In addition, Daniel Leab points out, that "[t]ruth, accuracy, and a proper respect for history . . . have been routinely subordinated to the need for dramatic effect and even the whims of filmmakers."
On the other hand, in the sample of 100 biopics Custen used for " . . . content analysis, 90 percent . . . were prefaced by a written, spoken introduction . . . that asserted the truth status of the narrative that was about to unfold." Despite such blatantly false Hollywood promotional claims, the various reviews of Hollywood biopics commonly state that a given film is only "loosely based" on the truth, or that it is "fictionalized", "unhistorical", "romanticized" or only "moderately truthful". Thus, there appears to have been a significant difference between the film industry's marketing claims with respect to the historical accuracy of its biopics and what actually is portrayed on the screen, a difference that may rise to the level of irresponsible misrepresentations, and a difference that appears to carry over to the film industry's advertising of its other movies as well (see discussion of "The World's Greatest PR Machine" in How the Movie Wars Were Won).
In addition, this consistent historical inaccuracy in motion picture biographies raises even more questions about why the patterns of Hollywood bias toward the subjects chosen exists. After all, if the moviemakers are free to substantially fictionalize, almost anyone's life story could be made of interest to moviegoers (i.e., commercial). In other words, any attempt by Hollywood decision-makers to explain that certain subjects were not chosen for biopic treatment because there was nothing of interest to the typical moviegoer in the proposed subject's background, can now be recognized for exactly what it is: Hollywood rationalization and doubletalk!
Custen ultimately concluded that " . . . Hollywood biography is to history what Caesar's Palace is to architectural history: an enormous, engaging distortion, which after a time convinces us of its own kind of authenticity. Hollywood biographies are real not because they are believable. Rather, one must treat them as real because despite the obvious distortions ranging from the minor to the outright camp, Hollywood films are believed to be real by many viewers." "The biographical film (the 'biopic') routinely integrates disparate historical episodes of selected individual lives into a nearly monochromatic 'Hollywood view of history' . . . These films build a pattern of narrative that is selective in its attention to profession, differential in the role it assigns to gender, and limited in its historical settings."
As stated earlier in this work and its companion volume Patterns of Bias in Motion Picture Content, "movies mirror the values, interests, cultural perspectives and prejudices of their makers". Custen pointed out that the biopics of his study appear to be " . . . in-house reflections of the community of producers . . . " that made them. For example, he cites the relationship between Jewish performer George Jessel's background as a vaudeville performer and his " . . . production of six biographies for Zanuck at Fox . . . all (of which) placed vaudeville at the center of the universe . . . " Custen also observed that the studio biopics " . . . are the product of institutional pressures that located authority in the hands of one or more powerful figures whose world view was . . . remarkably narrow . . . " and that " . . . the producers of (the Hollywood biopics) . . . often filtered the content of a great life through the sieve of their own experiences, values, and personalities." In any case, the " . . . studios tried to control, through various means, the attempts of others to shape their making of history. They accomplished this--in part for reasons of efficiency, in part for ideological purposes . . . " This more current and extended study of the Hollywood biopics suggests that these phenomena continue without significant change.
In addition to historical inaccuracy (in the extreme in some cases), there are at least two other aspects of the Hollywood biopics which stand out, as this body of films are reviewed: (1) quite commonly Hollywood tends to place a great deal of emphasis on the subject's romantic involvements, regardless of how significant such relationships were to the individual in real life, and (2) many of the subjects are relatively obscure or little known individuals. One further characteristic of the Hollywood biopic, as with other films produced by entities in the U.S. film capital, is the involvement of a disproportionate number of producers, directors, writers, actors and actresses of Jewish heritage, adding further support for the contention that a movie industry controlled by a small group of Jewish males of European heritage, who are politically liberal and not very religious (who also routinely engage in nepotism, favoritism, cronyism, blacklisting and other forms of discrimination), do tend to favor those who share their religious/cultural background and routinely deny opportunities to those who do not (see How the Movie Wars Were Won).
Race, Culture and Ethnicity--In Custen's study of biopics there were only twelve films (4%) made about non-white North Americans. "Only two professions, athlete and professional entertainer, are associated with black Americans, representing in a simplistic way many people's perceptions of the limited careers open to blacks. Native Americans are represented largely as defeated warriors, victims of superior white military strength." Although, this more contemporary study reveals a few more biopics featuring favorable portrayals of Indians (6 biopics focused on American Indians), only 16 biopics in total featured African-Americans and only 5 of those portrayed African-Americans who were not athletes or entertainers. In addition, there were no other U.S. Hispanic/Latino subjects honored other than the 1 entertainer featured in La Bamba (1987). To put this in perspective, (to graphically illustrate whose lives are worthy of a biopic) there were more Hollywood biopics of criminals, gangsters and outlaws (51) than for all American Indians, African-Americans and Hispanic/Latinos put together. This one component of Hollywood's bias is a national disgrace!
In contrast, and continuing to mirror the makeup of Hollywood, the biopics from 1912 to 1994 included at least 53 (12%) Jewish subjects (a conservative estimate, since no person in this study is identified as being Jewish or having a Jewish heritage without published authority such as Lyman, Friedman, Katz, Erens, Dinnerstein, Gabler, Lacey, Johnson, etc.). Another 32 biopics (7%) included significant roles played by Jewish characters. In addition, 27 of the biopics in the contemporary study contained subjects which may be fairly characterized as "Jewish heroes" (i.e., non-Jews who took significant actions that favored Jewish interests), while another 12 of these biopics may be characterized as films featuring Jewish "enemies" (i.e., negative portrayals of people who were considered hostile toward Jews). Thus, a total of 124 (28%) of the biopics in the contemporary study featured Jewish subjects, Jews in significant roles, "Jewish heroes" or Jewish "enemies". Also, in contrast to the above record, only 26 people from the American South were featured in Hollywood biopics and they were mostly portrayed in a negative manner, as gangsters, outlaws or country-western entertainers. Thus, this study of Hollywood biopics further confirms a significant Hollywood prejudice towards persons from the American South as well as other religious, ethnic, cultural, racial or regional groups arbitrarily excluded from the Hollywood insiders club (the persons who control Hollywood and share a common background, i.e., Jewish males of European heritage who are politically liberal and not very religious).
Looking at the participation of persons of Jewish heritage in the creation of these biopics, we see a similar pattern. At least 65 (15%) of the Hollywood biopics in the more contemporary study were directed by directors of Jewish heritage. Actors or actresses of Jewish heritage appeared in 119 or 27%. Producers of Jewish heritage produced some 72 or 16% of these films and at least 46 or 10% of the biopics were based on scripts written by writers of Jewish heritage. In total, 269 of the 443 Hollywood biopics in this study (61%) involved the efforts of creative persons of Jewish heritage. Again, this 61% figure does not count Jewish studio executives, composers, editors, cinematographers or others of Jewish background not listed above who may have participated in the creation of these films. Also, this study does not go so far as to do so, but if the films with Jewish creative elements were to be combined with the biopics featuring Jewish subjects, significant roles for Jewish characters, "Jewish heroes" and Jewish "enemies", the applicable percentage of the entire body of Hollywood biopics with Jewish elements would likely reach into the 70 percentage range, an incredibly disproportionate number for an industry supposedly based on merit.
As can be seen from the analysis of the background of the filmmakers of the biopics discussed above, in many instances, some combination of multiple participants (i.e, studio executives, producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and/or actresses) shared a Jewish background. Under such circumstances, no credible person could seriously assert that such instances could actually result in a true free market system, unhindered by powerful anti- competitive forces. After working through this material relating to motion picture biographies, it seems clear that the Hollywood-based U.S. film industry is actually a privately controlled culture promotion machine, at least inadvertently supported by U.S. federal policy and the financial contributions of the mass movie-going public that has been duped into believing that movies are merely entertainment, when in fact, Hollywood movies taken as a whole, and because of their consistent patterns of bias over time, actually rise to the level of special interest propaganda.
In other words, it appears to be quite clear that the Hollywood-based U.S. film industry has always been (and continues to be) controlled by a small group of Jewish males of European heritage, who are politically liberal and not very religious. And, that among other things, this control group has engaged in extensive nepotism, favoritism and cronyism, in addition to reciprocal preferences, primarily based on the Jewish heritage of the beneficiaries of those forms of discrimination (see How the Movie Wars Were Won). In addition, it is clear that as a result of that control, Hollywood movies have consistently portrayed people, places and things associated with the Jewish culture in a more favorable manner, while at the same time, consistently portraying people, places and things that are not Jewish in a more negative manner, and because of its consistency over time, this pattern of bias rises to the level of propaganda, in fact, a privately-controlled culture promotion machine.
Of course, others have been forewarned that following the publication of this book, there is a very good chance that someone will step forward and make the accusation that its contents are anti-Semitic. Aside from being an entirely false accusation without any evidentiary basis, the truth of the matter is, that the circumstances of Hollywood were created by others. This book and the other works cited herein, are primarily reports of observations, along with descriptions of the circumstances that actually exist in Hollywood. In other words, such writers are merely the messengers who are describing the real-life factual circumstances created by others. It may be, on the other hand, that this presentation has been more honest than most of the other writings about Hollywood in the past and more accurate (or more specific) than others in many of the reported observations. Neither the additional level of honesty nor the increased accuracy or specificity, however, can form a reasonable basis for a charge of anti-Semitism. This book has merely attempted to discuss and make reasonable judgments based on the facts relating to who controls Hollywood and how that control reveals itself with respect to who gets to participate in the making of Hollywood movies, which movies get made and the content of those movies; all circumstances controlled by third parties, and circumstances that have merely been observed and reported here with more honesty and accuracy.
As the 100th year anniversary of the film industry comes and goes, it is time that this privately controlled culture-promotion machine be dismantled, so that all segments of this nation's multi-cultural society have an equal opportunity to tell their important cultural stories through this significant medium for the communication of ideas. After all, it is also clear that regardless of who controls Hollywood and with what results, it is absolutely inappropriate in our multi-cultural society for any readily identifiable interest group (whether the group identity is based on ethnicity, culture, religion, race, class or otherwise) to be allowed to dominate or control this, or any other important communications medium.