by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, March 13, 2015


A couple of months ago, a friend messaged me on Facebook, asking me for a recommendation on which film he should see on the big screen for the weekend. Browsing the showtimes for local theaters, I told him to avoid Taken 3 at all costs (the big release for that Friday, and, let's face it, a ripoff of The Fugitive, with bigger explosions and less logic) and heartily recommended The Imitation Game instead, starting Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. "Oh, yeah," my friend wrote back, "[that] reminded me of A Beautiful Mind a little. I'm sure it's very different, but the decrypting idea was similar."

Immediately I jumped to the new movie's defense. "Except the encryption stuff in The Imitation Game actually happened," I snapped, and instantly regretted it. First of all, who was I to say that the film shouldn't remind him of A Beautiful Mind? Both are period pieces. They're both shot in the same drab monochromatic browns. Both feature eccentric actors at the height of their star power. And yes, if you watch the trailers for both, they each seem to center around code-breaking and high-stakes government intrigue. But the simpler truth is that Biopics have always been known for futzing the truth when it comes to their larger-than-life historical subjects. What makes The Imitation Game any different? Though the film doesn't shy away from the fact that Alan Turing was homosexual, the events leading up to his arrest for "gross indecency" in 1952 Britain (among other things) differ greatly from how they're presented on-screen. Details about the codebreakers' work ethic have been glossed over, characters have been left out completely or invented for dramatic purposes, and it's even suggested that Turing suffered from Asperger Syndrome (he didn't) to make his actions seem more heroic. And yet we're meant to accept all this as gospel truth!

The difference, I think, depends on the quality of the movie itself. I, for one, enjoyed The Imitation Game. I liked the performances (Cumberbatch, as always, is entertainingly twitchy), the flirtation between Turing and Joan Clarke (which, by all accounts, was an actual thing), and the old-fashioned can-do camaraderie of the movie, in which a band of polar opposites sets aside their differences for the greater good. Most of all, I liked how the filmmakers stayed true to the spirit of the actual incident, namely how the Allies managed to beat the Nazis at their own game.

A Beautiful Mind, on the other hand, is obvious and offensive in its treatment of schizophrenia, reducing John Nash Jr.'s struggle with the disease (for the most part) to a paranoid conspiracy thriller with car chases and a Sixth Sense-ian twist. (In reality, Nash's hallucinations were purely auditory.) Understand, I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but having dealt with schizophrenic family members in the past, I can tell you the symptoms rarely come across as glossy melodrama. The screenplay purposely omits the "uglier" aspects of Nash's life (illegitimate children, homosexual affairs, raging anti-Semitism) to make his plight as palatable as possible for modern moviegoers, but despite vivid performances from Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind is irresponsible Hollywood hokum at its finest.

Which brings me to our topic of the week: What, exactly, defines a "quality" Biopic? Is it the slavish attention to detail, precisely as it happened in the history books? Or is it the manner in which the filmmakers stay true to the legacy of their subject, and their triumph over adversity, warts (or lack of warts) and all? Real life is rarely as exciting as the films inspired by it, so it's only natural for screenwriters and directors to dramatize events for the sake of the plot. It's a conundrum that's faced everyone from Abel Gance to Andrei Tarkovsky to Steven Spielberg to, yes, even Ron Howard and Morten Tyldum. (You want to know every little thing that happened, exactly as it happened? Go rent the documentary. Or better yet, read the book.)

A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game certainly aren't the first of their kind to engender controversy because of historical inaccuracy, and they won't be the last. Here is a list of five notable Biopics that blatantly, sometimes hilariously fudged the facts for the sake of entertaining audiences. Yet somehow, they still manage to stay true to the spirit of their subject.


The Film: Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)

The Facts: Let's see... where to begin? Walt Disney already owned the rights to Mary Poppins by the time author P.L. Travers arrived in Los Angeles, having signed a preliminary agreement in 1960 to adapt the book into a feature film. (Travers made the trip to L.A. to make sure production was running smoothly.) After almost a day haggling over details, Disney left Burbank to vacation in Palm Springs, so his creative team could butt heads with Travers. The disgruntled author contested every aspect of Dan DaGradi's script and tried to convince the filmmakers that mixing animation with live action footage was a terrible idea. She also never danced with DaGradi during rehearsals, and disliked Robert and Richard Sherman's classic song score (in fact, she forbade any of the songs from being associated with the 2004 stage musical). The film presents Travers as childless and alone, when in reality she adopted a boy, Camillus (from whom she was estranged in 1959, but still). Travers's tears during Mary Poppins's premiere were not brought on by bittersweet memories of her father, but because she was wrecked emotionally by the changes Disney made to her beloved books. When she confronted him about it afterwards, Walt told her flatly, "that ship has sailed."

The Fiction: On Facebook after watching Mr. Banks for the first time, I wrote it was "a lovely, lovely movie. You shouldn't believe a word of it, but a very lovely fairy tale indeed," and suddenly found myself in constant conversations with people who bought the movie's narrative hook, line and sinker. (I especially liked telling people their beloved Walt was a notorious chain smoker, which they had to cut from the movie for fear of an R rating.) But that's the thing with historical films of any kind: you have to take every detail with a grain of salt. It is our job to separate the real from the reel, and judge the film on its own merits. While Travers's legendary cantankerousness is captured perfectly on screen, what matters most is Mary Poppins itself - a film so iconic and effervescent (cartoon penguins included!), it transcends all behind-the-scenes dramas that befell its production.

The Film: I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

The Facts: Well, for starters, at no point in Bob Dylan's prolific existence was he ever a) an 11-year-old African-American child prodigy, b) an Old West grifter by the name of Billy The Kid, or c) a bemused Cate Blanchett in drag. And at no time during Haynes's outside-the-box Biopic are the words "Bob" and "Dylan" ever uttered (except in a caption: "Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan"). The famed singer/songwriter did, however, idolize Woody Guthrie in college, received the Tom Paine Award from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, held a televised press conference about his political views at KQED Studios in 1965, was heckled by a fan ("Judas!") at a concert in 1966 and involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident that same year, played a supporting part in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973), and performed songs including "Maggie's Farm," "Tombstone Blues," "Ballad Of A Thin Man," "Pressing On," and "Mr. Tambourine Man."

The Fiction: A truly audacious approach to the Biopic, with six different actors embodying the different persona Dylan adopted throughout his career: Marcus Carl Franklin as impressionable, Guthrie-worshipping Dylan; Christian Bale as folk-singing, fight-the-establishment Dylan (and later, born-again Christian Dylan); Ben Whishaw as sardonic, Rimbaud-spouting Dylan; Blanchett as 1960s electric Dylan; Heath Ledger as media-savvy superstar Dylan; and Richard Gere as reclusive, retired-from-fame Dylan, living out a self-imposed exile in the Old West (don't ask). The plot may be a jumble, but that's exactly the point; a more literal, A-to-Z recycling of Dylan's life and times (with all the phony Hollywood uplift in between) might have "solved" the man for us, but would have denied us the essence - and the mystery - of his art. You get the feeling even Dylan himself would have approved - which he did, in typical fashion.

The Film: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (Rob Cohen, 1993)

The Facts: Born Lee Jun-fan on November 27, 1940, Bruce Lee was also given a girl's name (Sai-fon, meaning "small phoenix") to ward off evil spirits - but this was simply a Chinese custom and nothing more. Lee didn't actually start his martial arts training until he was 13, after a run in with a local street gang. In 1959, Lee's parents sent him to the U.S. to keep him out of trouble. He attended the University of Washington where he majored in philosophy and met his future wife, Linda. He also opened his own kung fu studio at this time. In 1964, Lee was confronted by kung fu practitioners about his decision to teach non-Chinese, and engaged in a private match with another man to settle the matter. Contrary to the film, on however, Lee did not injure his back during the fight (which Linda attended), but later in 1970, while lifting weights. He refined his martial arts philosophies and wrote The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do while in recovery, but the book wasn't published until after his death. By the time he was cast in The Green Hornet, Lee had already acted in over 20 films. After the show's cancellation, Lee and his family moved to Hong Kong, where he landed starring roles in The Big Boss (1971) and Fists Of Fury (1972). He became a national star but still longed for the kind of international celebrity that Hollywood films could afford him. While shooting Enter The Dragon in May 1973, Lee was briefly hospitalized for a cerebral edema, which would be the ultimate cause of his death. On July 20, 1973, Lee complained of a headache while visiting his mistress's apartment. He took a prescription painkiller and lied down on her couch to take a nap, but never woke up. It is believed that he died from an allergic reaction to the painkiller, causing his brain to swell.

The Fiction: The kung fu equivalent of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Dragon tells your typical rags-to-riches story of one man's triumph over adversity, with occasional dips into the exact sort of acrobatic nonsense that made him famous in the first place. It's corny and romantic and everything you'd expect from a film about the most influential martial artist of our time. While the real Bruce Lee certainly got into his share of scuffles, they probably weren't on the scale of the fights seen here (the choreography is by John Cheung, a member of Jackie Chan's stunt team), and his inner demons personified by an actual demon is a little too on the nose, thank you very much. Jason Scott Lee, though, is endearing in the lead (he's bulkier than Lee was in real life, but that's okay), and the movie is sincere about the many ways its subject opened our eyes to the beauty of his culture.

The Film: Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)

The Facts: Both Peter Shaffer's script and stage play (based on the play Mozart i Salieri by Alexander Pushkin), assert that Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were bitter enemies. Yet history records it differently. While some animosity did exist between the German and Italian schools of music in 1780s Vienna, the rivalry between Mozart (born 1756 in Salzburg) and Salieri (born 1750 in Verona) was strictly a professional one, each trying to stake a claim for themselves in Emperor Joseph II's court at the time. Mozart was indeed the rock star of his time, enjoyed wearing fancy clothes and hats, and was especially fond of toilet humor. Salieri, on the other hand, never took a vow of celibacy as shown in the film; in reality, he was married with eight children and had an open affair with Catarina Cavalieri, who accompanied Salieri to a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Both Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro were rapturously received by audiences (Figaro had so many standing ovations during its first three performances, Joseph II had to issue an edict limiting its encores). The mysterious benefactor who commissioned Mozart's Requiem Mass was not Salieri but a count named Franz von Walsegg, who secretly planned on passing off the work as his own. Salieri played no direct part in Mozart's declining health and was not present at his death (Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a protégé of Salieri's, is widely believed to have completed the Requiem posthumously). Since the cause of Mozart's death has never been officially explained, rumors persist that he was either poisoned or died from a subdural hematoma. When Salieri was committed to an asylum during his later years, he reportedly "confessed" to the murder of Mozart but then later recanted.

The Fiction: "Lush" is the best way to describe Milos Forman's Oscar-winning Biopic, rife with rich performances, baroque cinematography, and costume and set design so sumptuous, you might just forget that the plot has no basis in actual fact. Shaffer's entire screenplay is built on a lie - yet it does so at the risk of telling a good story. The film makes a grand sort of statement on the nature of those with God-given talent versus the rest of us schlubs who struggle at everything we do. It's the music, though, that speaks for itself. Conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and performed by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-fields, Mozart's genius is on full display: elegant, robust, architecturally structured in ways that transcend space and time. Just like the movie that accompanies it.

The Film: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

The Facts: While there's evidence to suggest that Pat Garrett and William H. Bonney certainly knew each other, it's never been proven that the two were actually friends. As Lincoln County's newly-appointed sheriff, Garrett had vowed to rid the land of all cattle thieves and murderers, and Billy was his first priority. His posse tracked The Kid and four of his men to their hideout in Stinking Springs, NM, and on the morning of December 23, 1880, ambushed them when they stepped outside. (Only one man, Charlie Bowdre, was killed during the ambush; the other man killed in the scene, Tom O'Folliard, was shot by Garrett four days earlier). In life, Billy was fun-loving and loyal and had many friends (none of whom were named "Alias" or bore a striking resemblance to Bob Dylan). It was no doubt some of these friends who aided in Billy's escape from the Lincoln jailhouse on April 28, 1881. Garrett spent the next three months relentlessly pursuing The Kid, who darted in and out of U.S. territory while stubbornly refusing to disappear into Old Mexico. Their fates finally converged during the early hours of July 14, when Garrett, acting on a tip that Billy been hiding in Fort Sumner, NM, arrived there to question rancher Pete Maxwell about Billy's whereabouts. Billy had been with Maxwell's sister Paulita ("Maria" in the film) at the time and just happened to back into the room, barefoot and shirtless, after spotting two of the sheriff's deputies outside. When he turned, Garrett promptly drew his pistol and shot Billy in the chest, killing him instantly.

The Fiction: Looking to add another revisionist Western under his belt, after Ride The High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah saw PG&BTK as his chance to put a definitive spin on the genre. Problems plagued the production, however, and drove Peckinpah deeper into alcoholism to deal with the stress. When post-production was completed, MGM re-cut the film to their own specifications; this version, shown in theaters, was greeted indifferently by critics and audiences alike. Only later, when Turner Home Video released Peckinpah's original version in 1988, was it rightly regarded as a classic. The movie is vintage Peckinpah, mixing equal parts existentialism, slow-motion balletic deaths, and characters defined by their moral and ethical codes. What the film "gets" better than any other version of the story, however, is the tragedy of one man too stubborn to change with the times, and another who realized - too late - that he didn't have to.

No comments:

Post a Comment