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The TV biography: Fill an hour with old photos


"Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world," writes Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman, her analysis of several biographers' failure to capture the life, spirit and suicide of the tragic poet Sylvia Plath. A biographer is like a burglar, she says. He breaks into a house, rifles through drawers for jewelry and money and takes off with the loot.

The loot: all those things the dead person never wanted known.

Like that other low form of life, the journalist, says Malcolm, the biographer sees himself as successful when he can spill some dirt and ruin a reputation. We who read biographies are voyeurs who shadow the writer from keyhole to keyhole. Why else would we put up with such miserable writing -- except for the reward of invading someone's privacy?

The creators of the Arts & Entertainment Network's successful series "Biography" have not yet taken on Sylvia Plath. Nor is there any sign they have been influenced by Malcolm's powerful treatise, which emphasizes the virtual impossibility of an artist's biographer grasping that secret inner reality that makes a person whoever he or she is.

No one with that attitude could ever put on a TV show. Before I wrote a biography, I facetiously characterized the process as "You just get a lot of stuff about someone and put it in a book." After watching 25 episodes of "Biography," I suspect their guiding philosophy is: "Quick, get a lot of old photos and film clips about someone famous and shove them into an hour."

If not the depth, then at least the sheer breadth of the program's scope is staggering, with no apparent scale applied to weigh the subject's real importance or impact on world history. The more than 400 shows have included Heidi Fleiss, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Betty Boop, alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Grable, Abbott and Costello, Edward VIII, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Roy Rogers (twice), Gen. George Marshall, Liberace, Timothy McVeigh and Jesus. In short, everyone is equally worthy of the "Biography" treatment. That is, everyone "famous," even if only notorious for last month's string of sex murders.

Indeed, to merit a "biography" it's not even necessary to have existed! Thus, "biographies" of Frankenstein (the monster, not the creator), Dracula, Betty Boop, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes (although Holmes has been recreated so many times, he has accumulated more reality than most real people), and comic book characters like the Phantom.

Among subjects who really did exist, the list is heavy on entertainers, often grouped thematically. Halloween week featured the lives of stars who played monsters: Boris Karloff; poor old, multimarried drug addict Bela Lugosi; and alcoholic Lon Chaney Jr., whose life, as we might have imagined, was not really like that of the little boy portrayed in his father's screen biography, "Man with A Thousand Faces." There have also been weeks devoted to famous comedians and famous gangsters and famous warriors like Saddam Hussein and H. Norman Schwartzkopf.

But are these programs any good? And compared to what? The quality varies. They don't seem to be produced by any one team but rather farmed out to a variety of production companies, so there's no Edward R. Murrow-like standard of excellence applied to them all. As with written biographies, quality depends, too, on the availability of material -- particularly film footage, the openness of archives and the cooperation of families who, for both noble and ignoble reasons, protect the secrets and hide the truth about the famous dead.

But considering that they have to come up with a more or less new documentary every night, "Biography" is one of the best hours on television. Unless we have already read books about these people, we almost always learn something. They often interview leading scholars. And although I'm not sure an hour with Heidi Fleiss is a good investment of a child's time, the show could help educate our history-deprived younger generation who have never heard of George Marshall, Rosa Parks or even Al Jolson.

Let's look at some of the shows.

I grew up reading Roy Rogers comic books and watching Roy Rogers Republic Studios Trucolor movies at the State Theater in Trenton, N.J., in the 1940s, and I saw Roy and Trigger live at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo when I was in high school, and have seen several documentaries on Roy and Dale Evans in the last few years. Roy has marketed himself as well as any American entertainer, and press coverage has shied away from his right-wing, pro-death penalty and anti-gun control views -- perhaps on the grounds that no one so clean and lovable could be so stupid on any public issue. "Biography" focused on Roy as the hero of American boys like me, especially as he traveled from city to city to ride down Main Street and accept their applause.

Not a word about his handing his name to Marriott for the Roy Rogers restaurants, which bought the name and discarded the image as out of date. I defy anyone to find a Roy Rogers restaurant with a picture of Roy Rogers or any indication for this generation of where the name came from. If the name deserves to live, it is because he was a great cowboy singer. Was? Is. He did an album in his 80s last year. But "Biography" doesn't let him sing! He could have been John Wayne with a sweet face.

"Biography's" two-hour treatment of John Fitzgerald Kennedy focused on his physical frailty, with lots of pictures of a slim, shirtless, young JFK swimming, commanding his PT boat, being macho in spite of the fact that he was several times just this side of death. "Biography" calls the charge that he did not write Profiles in Courage a "false rumor." Gary Wills, in The Kennedy Imprisonment, makes it clear that Kennedy "wrote" Profiles just as he "wrote" his inaugural address -- with a committee of scholars doing all the work and Jack signing the final product. No family members grant interviews. What did his administration accomplish? Ben Bradlee and John Kenneth Galbraith seem to agree that he gave us a sense of hope. Good but not good enough.

The O.J. Simpson bio would help anyone trying to understand how a celebrity sports hero might grow into a murderer. Even in high school, people wanted to be around him. Even in high school, he was stealing hub caps as a gang member. We see him become more and more famous. We see his first marriage and its three children and groan that he now has custody of the two children he had with Nicole. Father of the Year.

Out of 13 "Biography" programs on the British royal family, the one that should make England weep is A & E's treatment of the Prince of Wales Edward VIII, whom most Americans remember for his tearful abdication to marry "the woman I love." But the real issue was his virtually traitorous affection for Hitler's Germany. When he should have been making some feeble contribution to the war effort, he was sunning himself in Portugal or lolling around the Ritz in Madrid. He even tried to convince American writer Fulton Ousler that Hitler was the "right man for Germany." Ugh!

Right before Christmas, the media -- including Jim Lehrer with a Jaroslav Pelikan interview on Mary, a Life special on Mary, and A & E and The Learning Channel specials on Mary and Jesus -- perhaps embarrassed by the crass secularism that has overtaken the holidays, discovered the people responsible for Christmas in the first place.

What we know of Mary of Nazareth historically would fit on a page, but "Biography" has no trouble filling an hour with lots of art work and some speculation. She was an "illiterate teenage girl ... who changed history and transformed the lives of millions for all time." Mary violates her obligation to Joseph and risks her own life (she could have been stoned for adultery) to obey the angel. The documentary is fundamentalistic in that it treats the angel's visitation as an external experience, when it could well have been an internal realization in prayer. It also takes literally the gospel's claim that Mary had lots of other children -- four sons and two daughters. And where the scriptural evidence is missing, it resorts to "according to legend" blah, blah, blah.

Their treatment of Jesus -- which includes interviews with theologians as diverse as John Meier, John R. Donahue, SJ, and John Dominick Crossan -- emphasizes his relationship to John the Baptist, with John as a model for the life of preaching and ultimate death that Jesus would embrace, and on the cleansing of the temple as the final event that made the authorities decide that Jesus must die.

Thus "Biography's" greatest asset, when it has the right topic -- like the Roosevelts; Rosa Parks, who began the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man; and Danny Thomas, the Lebanese Catholic with a Jewish comic routine who promised St. Jude he'd build him a shrine -- is its ability to inspire.

Janet Malcolm was wrong. We don't read about other people's lives to relish their failures. Perhaps we like show biz lives -- like Betty Grable's, who went after other women's husbands (George Raft and Harry James) -- to reassure ourselves that fame doesn't make them happier than we are. But we read and watch public lives to learn how to -- and how not to -- live. How can their struggles give meaning to our own apparent string of flops, scores and flops again?

FDR conquers polio by both fighting it and living with it. Eleanor Roosevelt conquers shyness by discovering the suffering of blacks and the poor and pouring herself out in service. Rosa Parks, in a society that told her she was to accept her status as a seamstress, decided she was not afraid of a bus driver.

That's how to live.

Jesuite Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, biographer of Eric Sevareid, is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997