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History is often told and understood through the lives of famous individuals. This summer at the Cineplex, you can find big screen portrayals of writers, musicians and painters, great artists of every sort. Our film critic, Bob Mondello, says all the films have something in common.

BOB MONDELLO: When did we decide that creative types weren't really all that creative - that singers who croon about pain must live anguished lives? That authors whose history are a little obscure probably lived their plot? That Shakespeare, for instance, was able to write "Romeo and Juliet" because he was Shakespeare in love?

Last week, the movie "Goya's Ghost" pushed the notion that the darkness of Goya's 17th-century paintings have less to do with varnish yellowing than with the cruelty of the Spanish inquisition. And in last month's musical biography "La Vie En Rose," it was hard to escape the conclusion that that distinctive quaver in Edith Piaf's voice...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. EDITH PIAF (Singer): (Singing) (French Spoken)

MONDELLO: …had a lot do with her crippling arthritis and her broken heart.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PIAF: (Singing) (French Spoken)

MONDELLO: This week, along comes "Moliere," a sumptuous costume comedy that fills in a gaping hole in our knowledge of the great French playwright. When he was young, he disappeared for a while and the film decides that he hid his true identity under priestly robes. And when his employer's wife asked who he was…

(Soundbite of film, "Moliere")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): Votre nom, monsieur?

MONDELLO: What's the name he came up with?

(Soundbite of "Moliere")

Mr. ROMAIN DURIS (Actor): (As Moliere) Tartuffe, Monsieur Tartuffe.

MONDELLO: Tartuffe, the hypocritical priest and title character in the most famous comedy that this very Moliere would someday write.

Now, well, you don't have to know the playwright's plays is to enjoy this movie. Fans who do will get a bonus as plot points and character names sail by. What's being demonstrated, though, is how clever the screenwriters are, not how clever Moliere was. The suggestion is that France's grandmaster of comedy was more or less transcribing his plays from memory rather than inventing them.

And next week, the movie "Becoming Jane" will suggest something similar about Jane Austen, even creating a Mr. Darcy-type for her to swoon over.

(Soundbite of movie, "Becoming Jane")

Mr. JAMES McAVOY (Actor): (As Tom Lefroy) I have learned of Mr. Wisley's marriage proposal.

Ms. ANNE HATHAWAY (Actress): (As Jane Austen) Is there an alternative for a well-educated young woman of small fortune?

Mr. McAVOY: (As Tom Lefroy) How can you have him, even with his thousands and hi houses? How can you, of all people, dispose of yourself without affection?

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Jane Austen) How can I dispose of myself with it?

MONDELLO: The names are all real, and it's an amusing notion, but it's an invented biography, a riff suggesting that, that high school admonition writers always get - to write what they know is all that's at work in creative expression. Not like conventional biographies, say, "Capote," which explain an artist's art through biographical details. And not like entirely made-up biographies, say, "Amadeus" that create fictional conflicts around an artist's work.

These new films occupy a middle ground, where the screenwriters aren't really inventing anything. They're mixing and matching from the art they so admire. "Finding Neverland" and "Miss Potter" making up book-based fantasy lives for the creators of "Peter Pan" and "Peter Rabbit," for instance.

And where does this in-between form leave fans of the original work? Well, in the case of "Moliere," I suppose it leaves them laughing, and in the case of "Becoming Jane," it leaves them giddy with romance.

And it leaves me wondering which style of biography I'll be watching when Janis Joplin and Coco Chanel come to life on screen next year.

I don't suppose it really matters, though, it would be nice if the filmmakers end up suggesting that creating art is actually work. Conventional biographies always do that, as do entirely made-up ones, which sometimes overstate the agony of creation. These in-between ones, though, tend to make art look easy. And if art were easy, a lot more of us would be artists.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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