Motion pictures and television have adapted the form of biography to their own needs. With Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, or Spencer Tracy as Thomas Edison, films retraced for new audiences, although often in a romanticized fashion, the paths to success taken by men of intelligence and character: the old Plutarchian formula. Documentary biographies, composed of newsreel clips and photographs, have been made about public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duke of Windsor, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two innovations of television are the dramatic documentary ("docudrama") and the interview. Ken Russell's film essays, commissioned by the British Broadcasting Company (1965–70), on Elgar, Rossetti, Delius, Richard Strauss, and Isadora Duncan attempted to convey the essence of a person's character and work rather than just the facts of his life. Homage to Plutarch was evident again in the format of Edward R. Murrow's interview program, Person to Person (1953–59), where guests like Marilyn Monroe and Sir Thomas Beecham were deliberately paired.
The television interview was expanded by such talk show hosts as Dick Cavett, David Frost, and Charlie Rose, who have led their usually well-known guests to talk about their lives for an hour or longer. The expansion of oral history programs, in which prominent figures record their reminiscences, are also providing a body of primary biographical source material. With the advent of cable television, biography became a daily staple of various channels and biographies were offered as part of the programming on channels devoted to a number of special subjects, e.g., history and education.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.