September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

When does life begin? The 1998 answer is, during prime time. In the past year, the business of the biography has grown to, you might say, larger-than-life proportions. On cable, there are more than a dozen shows devoted to in-depth profiling of everyone from Madonna to Mussolini, including Lifetime’s Intimate Portraits, VH1’s Behind the Music, The E! True Hollywood Story, and the granddaddy of them all, A&E’s Biography. And many of cable’s made-for-TV ”event” movies have told juicy real-life tales (HBO’s The Rat Pack, TNT’s George Wallace).

Television’s fixation on the factual isn’t that difficult to understand. The shows, as a rule, are cheap to produce (while a typical prime-time drama can cost $1 million per episode, cable channels can whip up a 60-minute bio-doc for around $200,000), the films are often critically acclaimed (Wallace is up for an Emmy), and, most important, they clean up in the Nielsens (Biography is A&E’s most-watched program; Behind the Music is VH1’s top-rated show).

Why is real life suddenly so sweet? Some industryites say it’s a natural extension of today’s celeb-obsessed media culture; others argue that aging baby boomers are becoming more interested in history. But all agree that true-life tales run circles around fiction. ”You can’t make this stuff up,” says Betsy Rott, VP of programming and development at E! Entertainment Television. ”Who could make up Princess Diana? Who could make up O.J.?” Another theory: ”We’re going toward the psychic Niagara Falls of the millennium, and it makes us reflect,” says director Pen Densham, whose Houdini bows on TNT in December. ”We’re trying to figure out if our lives were valuable, and if we look at other people’s lives, we draw inferences of who we are.”

TV execs aren’t the only ones celebrating the moments of our lives. Feature filmmakers, maybe taking a cue from the small screen, have jumped onto the bio bandwagon. Consider these tony projects:

· Without Limits, the story of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, opens Sept. 11

· Jim Carrey is currently filming the Andy Kaufman biopic Man in the Moon

· Meryl Streep just signed to play violinist Roberta Tzavaras in Wes Craven’s 50 Violins

· Brian De Palma will direct Nicolas Cage as Howard Hughes.

In addition, there’s the Orson Welles story with Edward Norton, the Evel Knievel film starring Matthew McConaughey, and producer Irwin Winkler’s film of Lush Life, the bio of jazz artist Billy Strayhorn written by EW general editor David Hajdu. There’s even a movie in the pipeline about Hanson (we’re guessing it’s a short film).

But it’s questionable whether the film world can duplicate TV’s success, since biopics traditionally die at the box office (1995’s Nixon and 1992’s Chaplin earned a paltry $13.6 million and $9.4 million, respectively). ”Going to the movies is a more mythic experience than TV,” says director Gregory Nava (Selena). ”A true story has a news quality, so people find it easier to relate to on the tube.”

Why, then, does Hollywood continue to pour millions into big-screen bios? Could be because when they do work, they work big. ”Lots of successful movies have been made from true stories,” says Nava, ”like Gandhi or Schindler’s List.” And if reality-inspired films can’t all make Titanic money, they often bring prestige (Nixon and Chaplin won Oscar nods for respective leads Anthony Hopkins and Robert Downey Jr.). ”The challenge,” adds Nava, ”is to elevate it to the mythic.””

But when ”mythic” manifests itself in the form of the just-announced Monica Lewinsky movie The Washington Intern, to be directed by Clyde Ware, hasn’t bio-mania gone too far? ”Maybe we’ll hit the wall and people won’t want to know anything about anyone,” says Rott. ”But I don’t think that’s coming.” Life, in other words, goes on.

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