Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow,
La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
When George Orwell died in 1950, he requested that no biography be written. It was request that stood for a few decades until scholars began to research one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Now many Orwell biographies have been written, and it is certain more books are on the horizon. While Orwell’s request was followed for a long time, a major public figure would see little point in making the request. Today, we face the trend of the instant biographies of people living and working. More importantly, depictions on TV and in the movies are coming thick and fast. Indeed, the half-life between an event happening and its depiction on the screen used to be decades. The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events on TV screens surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.
That gap has been narrowing and it has become a matter of months before a prominent figure is depicted. At the time of writing Donald Trump – who is still president – has had a raft of books written about him. (Few seem to be interested in the new president Joe Biden.) Donald Trump has had two biographies written about his presidency by the iconic Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, but Woodward’s impact is nothing compared to the impact of TV shows. The Comey Rule is a recently released American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by the former FBI director James Comey. The miniseries has Jeff Daniels playing Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. The remarkable aspect of this series is that it depicted a sitting President in recent events. For Comey’s book, the gap was barely two years.
The impact of these shows is profound. The author of the highly regarded dual biography of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz, The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern noted when watching the newly released film about Herman Mankiewicz: “Movies are so much more evocative than books that I knew no matter how accurate my research, how convincing my writing, and even how widely my book might be read, Mank’s Herman was going to be the Herman Mankiewicz for the ages.”
The same process can be seen in other political figures. For example, the rumour of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover being in a closeted homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson and engaging in cross dressing is widespread. Rumours about Hoover’s homosexuality had circulated for many years as he had lived and worked closely with Clyde Tolson and neither were married. Based on a verbal account, one biographer argued that Hoover was a cross dresser. The account was almost immediately attacked by investigative journalist and Hoover critic Peter Maas soon after the biography was published. He re-interviewed the sources and demonstrated that every piece of evidence to support the case was flawed.Maas believed the stories were nothing more than hearsay.Maas’s conclusions were backed by FBI historian Athan Theoharis, who is also a strident critic of Hoover, and has demonstrated the evidence is particularly weak and it seems unlikely that Hoover was in a homosexual relationship with Tolson. Another Hoover biographer Ronald Kessler has concluded the FBI director simply could not have engaged in homosexual activity at the Plaza with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. “The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy’s claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people”.
So, you would assume that the rumour would be dismissed. However, films trounce books in setting agendas. When J. Edgar Hoover was represented in the 2001 Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, wearing a dress, historians of the period rolled their eyes. Hoover’s cross dressing and supposed homosexuality had hit the silver screen, and no amount of detailed academic research was going to erase a discredited claim. The image had been set in stone by a film.
The impact of movies and TV shows on reputations can have wide ranging consequences. The Crown is a retelling of the rule of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and it is now colouring the perception of the royal family. Camilla and Prince Charles have spent many decades slowly building their reputation, since their divorces and eventual remarriage. The pair have worked hard to gain public trust. The most recent season of the TV series follows the relationship of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, outlining their failing marriage. The creators of the show have declared that the show is historical fiction. This statement may be their intention, but the show is seen as a historical record. Prince Charles is often depicted as being uncaring in the face of Diana’s suffering. The show has created endless debate on the fairness of the depiction, but it is now the version of history against which all must negotiate. More than any other source, a TV series is now shaping Charles’s reputation, who will be King, assuming he lives longer than his mother: Queen Elizabeth II. King Charles III – as he will possibly be called – and Trump’s eventual reputation may not be decided by the political historians and journalists, it may well be decided by the audience response to TV shows such as The Comey Rule and The Crown along with the other series that are sure to follow.
 Sydney Ladensohn Stern, “The Mankiewicz Brothers’ Biographer Weighs in on David Fincher’s Mank,” Literary Hub, 4 December 2020 accessed at https://lithub.com/the-mankiewicz-brothers-biographer-weighs-in-on-david-finchers-mank/ on 7 December 2020.
 Peter Maas, “Setting the Record Straight”. Esquire, May 1993, 119(5), pp. 56 – 59.
 May 1993, Esquire and for a broader perspective see Gerry O’Sullivan “G-Wo/Man – homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover – Against the Grain – Column,”.Humanist. retrieved from FindArticles.com on 4 June 2010.
 Athan G. Theoharis, J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime: An Historical Antidote, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995 . p. 39.