Note: This article focuses specifically on biographies about silent film personalities, rather than their autobiographies–which in some ways are a whole ‘nother ballgame.
Every film fan wants to find out more about their favorite silent film stars or even directors. I know I always do, even though I always run the risk of dashing all my rosy preconceptions (“so in real life that sweet dimpled actress was actually a thrice-married drug smuggling blackmailer who drank a quart of whiskey a day and ran a dog fighting ring? DANG it!”). However, this hasn’t stopped me from devouring as much information as possible about my favorites. During this process it became clear to me: Think Before You Read.
Think Before You Read–a worthy choice for a mantra. There are, unfortunately, books out there that focus more on telling a sensationalized story (crafted to sell) than in exploring who their subject really was. For whatever reason, an unimaginable amount of effort will be spent on putting even the most saintly of subjects in a bad light. It’s one thing if the subject really was a bad egg–but it’s another thing entirely if he wasn’t.
A frustrating thing is that not everything published as “nonfiction” is the unvarnished truth–not even if it’s backed up with pages of sources. With these kinds of books, some sources are merely “sources”: vague word-of-mouth anecdotes, ugly fabrications from unscrupulous old movie magazines, or even outright lies that have been passed around so often that many mistake them for the truth.
Admittedly, even the bad books can include some useful things (unless they’re Exhibit A). Sometimes they’ll have a newly-found interview or some additions to a filmography. This is true enough. But it’s also true that the worst biographies can fuel nasty rumors that can take decades to erase–if they can be erased at all.
Now, what are the signs of an untrustworthy biography?
1. It judges people solely through a modern-day lens.
Times, they were different then. Beyond the obvious differences, such as clothing, hairstyles, and the tendency to put raw eggs in milkshakes, there were distinct differences in how people thought about things and how they regarded others. For instance, while today we have it engraved in kids’ minds to be wary of strangers, in 1913 it was technically legal to mail a child.
But there are some biographies that just don’t make that kind of distinction. Historical context is everything. Leaving it out (or doing very little digging if it’s researched at all) deprives the reader of the full picture. Imagine researchers of the future trying to decipher today’s Internet memes without looking at our historical context. It’s literally impossible.
For good or ill, the facts are always more complicated than we imagine and certainly more fascinating than the classic “people were so uptight and politically incorrect back then!” complaint.
Here’s a useful term that I find very intriguing: presentism.
2. It focuses too much on a subject’s personal life.
Few things will tip you off to a biography’s quality more than excessive focus on “who dated who” or “who married who and then divorced them in less than a month” or what have you. It’s incredibly easy for this to fall into the territory of gossip and hearsay. And woe to the subject who is still regarded as very attractive today, for then the focus will be relentless.
As a way of illustrating how unprofessional this kind of focus can get, let me give the following example: Let’s say your great-grandfather was a brilliant inventor, to the point of being quite famous and revered in engineering circles today. Let’s say he, I don’t know, invented a formula to keep banana peels from being slippery. During his lifetime, your great-grandfather had been well-known for his complete, enthusiastic, and frankly eccentric dedication to his work, as well as for the many complex (and patent pending) machines he created to find a way to de-slick a banana peel. Your family is proud of your famous relative and his amazing formula (turns out he had found a type of germ that made things slippery–who da thunk it?). A writer contacts you, saying he is writing a biography on your great-grandfather, and would you like to be interviewed about him? The book is released, you all read it–only to see that much of your great-grandfather’s work is glossed over in favor of padding a couple of anecdotes about some of his old girlfriends to almost romance-novel proportions. His work–which was most important to him, the thing he was most remembered for–is tossed aside in favor of some gossipy trifles.
There is, you can see, a problem here.
3. It describes things that the author couldn’t possibly know.
Also known as a “tabloid biography” (a term that I made up). It goes hand in hand with too much focus on personal lives. Signs of a tabloid biography are easy to spot. The writer will include whole dramatic conversations, verbatim, that were supposedly had between people who spoke in private decades ago. The writer will allege that the subject felt a certain way at a certain time, or purport to know what they were thinking, and other things that they could never, ever possibly know. If the subject came to a tragic end, often the whole style of writing will slowly grow more and more emotional, much like a novel (Marilyn Monroe biographies are especially susceptible to this).
However, don’t rule out the fact that a biographer can have a prosy style and still create a wonderful biography. Such authors might be the exception rather than the norm, because it’s not an easy feat to pull off while still remaining credible (as you might guess).
4. It’s always quoting “a source.”
If you ever see a sensational quote or story attributed to “a source” (often phrased as “a source close to the star at the time“) this is code for “I made this up,” or, “I read about this weird rumor once and thought turning it into a fact would add spice to my book–who‘s going to know the difference, anyway?”
Now you do. The second your eyes hit the words “a source” (and this can mar even some of the better books) put on your skepticism hat. If you keep running into it, consider putting the book down and finding a more worthy use for it, such as a chew toy for your puppy so he’ll leave your precious Roger Ebert literature shelf alone. Sometimes writers will be clever and instead of saying “a source” they will say “an actress” or “a relative” or something like that. Do not let down your guard, noble reader.
By the way, those ridiculous supermarket tabloids thrive on “sources.”
5. It makes assumptions based on faulty (or non existent) evidence.
So take one biography that cares an awful lot about who might’ve dated who but not much about historical context, gets its info from rumor magazines and people who pass around rumors in person, adds a hearty helping of creative embellishment and what do you get? For one thing, an awful lot of questionable assumptions.
No way of knowing how a subject was feeling at a certain time? Just declare he or she was “unrepentant” or “angry” or “anguished” while relating different anecdotes.
No way of finding out how many relationships a subject had? Find a couple interviews where two separate people say the same subject was known to be attractive and you can say “numerous women were infatuated with him” or “many men tried to become her lovers.”
Not enough scandal in a subject’s life? By the great white Prussian uniform of Erich von Stroheim, you shall not rest until you’ve turned up the shakiest of evidence to support theories that you probably came up with yourself.
Now with all this in mind, as you’re probably suspecting:
A good biography is going to be the opposite of all these things.
A good biography will have a load of rock-solid sources–not just secondhand accounts, but primary sources too (like census records, original photographs, etc.). It will have found them through careful and thorough research, covering as many bases as possible. It will not shy away from asking questions, taking care to separate fact from fiction and at times even admitting that maybe the answer cannot be found. In its quest for the truth it will try to verify statements subjects made in interviews (which other books might just assume is all Gospel truth).
The tone will be professional. Historical context will be taken into account, since it was basically the air the subject breathed, and it will be done so as objectively as possible. Ideally, it will cover as much ground of the subject’s life as it can.
The ultimate goal will be to present a fair, balanced, and above all truthful portrait of the subject as he/she actually was–not as how the writer would prefer to view them.
Can any one book be said to be a “perfect” biography? Due to the incredible amount of work involved, and the fact that new information tends to turn up all the time, maybe “perfection” is a tall order. But in my opinion there’s a few books out there that sure come close.
If you like learning about the lives of film personalities, read as many biographies as you can. Maybe even throw caution to the wind a glance through a few of the bad books, just for comparative purposes (but get ’em used). For the more information you soak up the quicker you’ll become a savvy consumer, being able to tell fact from what is obviously fiction.