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Beyond Biography The Cultural History of 'American Masters'

By Shelley Gabert

AMERICAN MASTERS: Marilyn Monroe: 'Still Life' premieres on PBS. This photo was taken during the filming of 'The Misfits' in 1960. Copyright: Inge Morath.

While the biopic has always been part of Hollywood filmmaking, with the recent successes of Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Walk the Line, the genre is more popular than ever. That's great news to Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of PBS' American Masters, the award-winning and critically acclaimed biography series celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

"Those films provide an opportunity for new and future generations to find out about these amazing people and their contributions," says Lacy. "That's what we've been doing at American Masters, too, but we're way beyond biography. We're an American cultural history series and we're telling it though the lives and works of these creative geniuses."

The new season, which began in May, launched with the premiere of John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and The Legend (Kenneth Bowser, prod./wtr.; Sam Pollard, dir.), a look at the Hollywood icons' 50-year friendship and collaboration. Upcoming premieres include Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (Catherine Tatge, dir./prod./wtr.) on July 19, Walter Cronkite (Gail Levin, dir./prod./wtr.) on July 26, Sketches of Frank Gehry (Sydney Pollack, dir./prod.; Ultan Guilfoyle, prod.) on September 20 and Andy Warhol (Ric Burns, dir./prod./rt.; James Sanders, wtr.; Donald Rosenfeld, Daniel Wolf, prods. ) on September 27 and 28 .

Produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York, the American Masters series has won six Peabody Awards, 16 Emmysincluding five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Seriesa Grammy and an Oscar. The series boasts an extensive library of more than 130 profiles of notables from Martha Graham to Lucille Ball to Richard Avedon to Ray Charles. As executive producer, Lacy has received Emmys for Lillian Gish: The Actor's Life for Me (Terry Sanders, dir.), Broadway's Dreamers: The Legacy of The Group Theater (David Heeley, dir./prod.; Joan Kramer, Joanne Woodward, prods.), Unknown Chaplin (Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, dirs.), Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, dirs.) and Edward R. Murrow: This Reporter (Susan Steinberg, dir./prod.).

In addition to executive-producing the series, Lacy wrote, directed and produced Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind and Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note, for which she won an Emmy Award . She earned another Emmy for writing Judy Garland: By Myself, which she also directed, and she produced the Peabody Award-winning Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time (Susan Steinberg, dir.). She also directed and produced Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval and Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice.

"There was the sense early on that people just didn't know what this program could be," Lacy recalls. "But I wanted to approach the documentaries like feature films, match talented filmmakers with great stories and give them the budgets and time to dig and get the greatest material.

"We're not looking for just cradle-to-grave types of programs," she continues. "We want these films to go very deep, and we're always looking for that nugget, that moment where we understand what this person is all about. In doing so we will hopefully find a new and inspiring way to tell their story."

Currently Lacy is developing, co-producing or producing anywhere from 40 to 50 projects. The only film she acquired for the new season is The World of Nat King Cole (Ian A. Hunt, dir./prod), which premiered in May; the upcoming Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land (Peter Frumkin, dir./prod./wtr.), scheduled to air July 12, is a co-production. Since American Masters is a regular series, it owns as many films as possible in order to bring them back to the airwaves, as it is doing this season, with profiles of George Gershwin and Cole Porter slated for June along with last year's highly rated No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, an international co-production directed by Martin Scorsese, and produced by Lacy, Jeff Rosen, Nigel Sinclair and Anthony Wall. Profiles on Willie Nelson, Albert Einstein, Edward R. Murrow and Judy Garland air in August.

"When we first started out there wasn't much to buy, and if we weren't making it happen it wasn't happening," says Lacy. "But I'm completely open to a great co-production or an acquisition. The most important thing is who is making the film, not what the deal is. It's really about the right sensibility that is being brought to bear. There are lots of great journeyman out there, but I'm looking for great filmmakers."

Anne Makepeace, for example, spent a decade making the co-production Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians (2000) and was commissioned by American Masters to make Robert Capa: In Love and War (2003) .

"I love the way she handles photographs, and she's also written screenplays, so she knows how to deal with drama and storytelling," Lacy notes. "That's why she was the best choice to make the film on Robert Capa, the famous war photographer."

The late Charlotte Zwerin, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, had made many films about music legends, including Thelonious Monk and Vladamir Horowitz; for American Masters, she made Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For. Ric Burns directed the Warhol film, the first to explore in depth the immense archives at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The film on photographer Annie Leibovitz, premiering this fall in conjunction with the release of her new book and a major exhibition of her work, was made by her sister, Barbara, who has made films for PBS and Discovery. "Annie will reflect on her life, her work, her decision to have children, and we felt that her sister might add an intimacy that might be hard to get from another filmmaker," Lacy maintains.

Architect Frank Gehry had been approached many times by filmmakers, but he chose his close friend, producer and director Sydney Pollack, to make the film on him. Pollack's first documentary, a co-production with American Masters, Sketches of Frank Gehry captures Gehry's whimsical nature and offers viewers a chance to see him at work, designing the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The film was released theatrically in May through Sony Pictures Classics and will air on PBS in September.

"Gehry allowed us into his creative process, and that's normally very private, but we really see what drives him," says Lacy. "A lot of artists who won't do interviews really trust that we're not trying to exploit them, that our series and our filmmakers genuinely care about the artist and their work."

Obtaining rights can sometimes take longer than making the film itself, which usually averages between nine months and a year. But some take longer than others. Lacy has been working on a profile of Johnny Cash for years, and the Dylan film took 10 years of phone calls and negotiations. Generally, she works with filmmakers on a treatment and then allows them the freedom to immerse themselves in the subject's life. Unlike other biography series that use a host or format to provide continuity, Lacy doesn't want the show to work under any constraints.

"I have enormous respect for filmmakers and what they bring to the process, and I give them a lot of room to be creative," she maintains. "From the very beginning, I wanted each film to be as individual as the people we're making films about and not be hampered by any kind of formula."

Some films, like No Direction Home, focus only on a specific periodin this case, Dylan's life and work up to 1966while others take on a literary achievement, like next year's TheAmerican Novel/The American Dream (Michael Epstein, dir./prod./wtr.). "In the Dylan film, we felt like the key to his creative life were those six years [1961-1966], and we also happened to have the most footage of that time period," Lacy explains. "Sometimes the materials we have or can access definitely dictate the end result."

Other films focus on the collaboration and conflicts between two artists who are linked together by a pivotal episode in American history. American Masters has featured Miller, Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin, to be repeated on August 23, and Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood (both by Michael Epstein, dir./prod./wtr.).

The upcoming film on Marilyn Monroe, which is an in-house production, is told through photographs of her, and includes Gloria Steinem and Norman Mailer reading from their writings on the icon. "Marilyn Monroe is probably one of the most photographed people in the world, so we decided to do a film that explores her iconography through photos," says Lacy.

Certainly there is more pressure to profile contemporary artists to increase viewership, which explains many of the documentaries premiering this season, but American Masters will never be a "flavor of the month" type of series. Lacy does follow certain criteria in the selection process. "We want to do people who have changed the form of their art, who have influenced everything that came after them," she affirms.

But even more than the individual artists being selected, and their many connections to each other, what holds the series together is the library. It's the collection or whole of all of the films that is its legacy. "We don't want to spend a year making these films if they're only going to run once or twice," says Lacy. "It's building the library that really matters. It's the accessibility and availability of this library to future generations that insures that these great figures won't die.

"It hasn't always been easy, and it's a constant struggle to find money, but I'm really proud of what we've accomplished," Lacy continues. "I've loved collaborating with some of the most talented filmmakers in America, and PBS has been very supportive. Whatever the longevity of this series, I share it with Channel Thirteen, the filmmakers and our entire team."