Tuesday 10 December 2019

Stranger than truth: when biopics stray too far from facts

Poetic licence: Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the new biopic
Poetic licence: Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the new biopic
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Biopics are all the rage at the minute, from Clint Eastwood's Sully to Nate Parker's slave saga Birth of a Nation and Mel Gibson's wartime tale Hacksaw Ridge. Biographical dramas in the works include films about characters as wildly diverse as Freddie Mercury, Silvio Berlusconi, Dick Cheney, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ernest Shackleton, Sam Phillips, Janis Joplin and Alexander McQueen. Then there's Jackie, out here next week and already being talked about as an Oscar contender.

Pablo Larraín's sumptuous drama is set in late 1963, just after the assassination of John Kennedy and stars Natalie Portman as his young widow Jackie, who must figure out a new way of being in the world after she finds herself alone. Portman is exceptional in the role, giving a nuanced portrayal of a woman who more or less invented herself and was very hard to pin down and define.

But how accurate are these biopics in terms of history? Jackie, for instance, though based around a real interview that Jackie Kennedy did with Life magazine in which she first spun the Camelot myth, does invent whole conversations between her, Bobby Kennedy and an imaginary priest. So does it really matter if biopics embellish the truth a little now and then?

The data-based website Information is Beautiful made an interesting contribution to this debate last month by ranking a number of high-profile Hollywood biopics in terms of their historical accuracy. They chose 14 films that had been Oscar contenders over the last six years and rated their verisimilitude.

Spotlight, the Oscar-winning thriller about the Boston clerical sex-abuse investigations, scored an impressive 81.6pc, Stephen Spielberg's Bridge of Spies earned a 90pc rating, while Ava DuVernay's very fine Martin Luther King biopic Selma was awarded 100pc, the seal of total truthfulness.

Other biopics did not fare so well, however. Philomena, which struck such a chord in this country, scored 69.8pc on the truth meter, 1980s Aids drama The Dallas Buyers Club got 61.4pc, and the much-lauded Imitation Game was awarded a frankly shocking 41.4pc.

That film, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and dramatised the life of mathematician Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma Code, was severely reprimanded for its cavalier attitude to the facts, and does seem to have been invented wholesale in the search for dramatic tension. Writing in The Guardian, historian Alex von Tunzelmann was very exercised by the fact that Imitation Game had falsely accused Turing of shielding a known Soviet spy, and called the film "a garbled mess".

But that's just the problem, because while Imitation Game may have been a mess historically speaking, dramatically it worked perfectly, and was one of the most compelling films of 2014.

So how far are film-makers justified in stretching the truth to help a story, and does it really matter anyway if a great movie is the end product? Well, it sort of depends.

Movie-makers have always bent the facts to suit their stories. In The Al Jolson Story (1946), one of the finest biopics ever made, 1920s singing star Jolson's life is vividly recreated, as we watch him tread the boards as a kid before getting his break after a blackface performer falls down drunk and Al is sent on instead. He becomes a big star, falls in love with a dancer called Julie, and tries to settle down, but the call of the stage is too strong.

Only trouble is, the real Al was married four times, and quite the run-around. The long-suffering Jewish mother so memorably portrayed by Tamara Shayne in the movie actually died when Jolson was very young: he was mainly brought up by his sister, and there is absolutely no evidence that he worked as a child performer.

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most celebrated biopics of them all, but is full of wild flights of fancy. The famous attack on the Ottoman Turk-held port of Aqaba is heavily fictionalised, other characters are conflated or invented, much of the film's military detail is based not on history but on Lawrence's own, very unreliable memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Oh, and Peter O'Toole was 6ft 2in, while the real Lawrence was a not so imposing 5ft 4in

But Lawrence of Arabia is a great film, true, one could argue, in spirit to its subject. And there have been some far more egregious examples of history being shamelessly bent to the dramatist's will.

In Amadeus, which won a basket of Oscars back in the mid-1980s but is among the silliest films ever made, F Murray Abraham played Antonio Salieri, court composer to the Holy Roman Emperor, a man who describes himself as "the patron saint of mediocrity", despises Mozart for his talent and conspires to bring about his downfall.

The real Salieri was a kindly, well-regarded composer who helped train the likes of Schubert and Beethoven and had a warm and respectful relationship with Mozart. He did not go mad, as the film suggests, but suffered dementia in the last year of his long and fruitful life. So much for Amadeus.

Mel Gibson's Braveheart gave the Irish economy a shot in the arm and did big business at the box office back in 1995, but historically it's as problematic as Mr Gibson's dodgy Scottish accent. His love affair with Sophie Marceau's character, Princess Isabella of France, seems unlikely given the fact that she was two at the time when the movie is set, while the real William Wallace was a knight and gentleman who did not wear a kilt or paint his face, and might not have been quite so chirpy as Mel was immediately after being disembowelled. In the film, he practically broke into song.

The De Valera so memorably portrayed by the late Alan Rickman in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins will have greatly pleased some civil war aficionados and infuriated others.

The notion of Dev as a scheming spider in his web who lets Collins go to London knowing that the Treaty talks will fail is appealing, but rather simplistic, history laced with a huge dollop of hindsight. And Jordan's film really did a number on the man who, after all, played a huge role in the foundation and stabilisation of the State. Harry Boland did not die at a sniper's hands while trying to swim across the Liffey: he fell during a messy skirmish outside a hotel in Skerries, and his dying words were probably not "have they got Mick Collins yet?" Makes for a better story, though.

Mark Zuckerberg's public image suffered a body blow after the release of David Fincher's 2010 biopic, The Social Network, which seemed to portray him as a spiteful, vindictive monomaniac. It's a wonderful film, funny and informative, but perhaps exaggerates Zuckerberg's disastrous social skills, and it seems that he did not in reality create Facebook as an act of revenge after being dumped by his girlfriend.

Clint Eastwood's stirring and jingoistic 2014 film American Sniper sung the praises of Chris Kyle, a celebrated (if that's the right word) US Navy SEAL sniper who claimed as many as 255 kills during four tours of Iraq, and was later murdered by a deranged soldier on a Texas shooting range in 2013.

In the film, Bradley Cooper portrays Kyle as a man who's tortured by his actions and agonises over collateral injuries, but this tragic hero angle seems to have been largely manufactured. He thrived in his work, which apparently didn't bother him that much, and his role in some of the combat events depicted in the film is frequently exaggerated.

Information is Beautiful awarded Clint a paltry 57pc for American Sniper, but he should score higher marks for Sully, which recreated the so-called 'Miracle on the Hudson' in which United Airlines pilot saved 155 lives by successfully landing his Airbus on the Hudson River. In that film, Eastwood and his writers adhere much more closely to the facts, and prove that you can still make an entertaining film while doing so.

Culture shot

Cassavettes' shadows

Tuesday, 6.30pm, IFI, Dublin

Thirty-eight years after his death, John Cassavettes remains one of the most seminal and influential figures in American independent cinema. His first feature, Shadows, marked him out as an exceptional talent, and is showing this Tuesday in the IFI.

Cassavettes actually shot it twice, first in 1957, and again in 1959, but he was searching for spontaneity, not perfection. The story of an interracial romance in 1950s Manhattan, Shadows was only semi-scripted and shot using hand-held cameras, giving the film a rough, free-flowing feel entirely at odds with the overbearing slickness of Hollywood. And all these years later, it still feels fresh, and challenging.

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