Many genres of film satisfy an audience by merely being entertaining. It is sufficient that they present an agreeable and transitory occupation of the mind. But a good true-life drama should not be produced for the simple purpose of entertainment. Its key objective should not be to produce the big laughs that are aroused by a slapstick comedy or the thrills that are aroused by an action film. A true-life drama should be more ambitious, meaningful and honest than that.
I emphasize the honesty part of this equation. A documentary is able to remain engrossing by adhering to the facts. Why should it be different with a biopic? Fact is far more interesting than fiction. The problem is, though, that most people do not go to a theater to see a documentary. So, filmmakers don't care what works with a documentary. They want to create a big studio drama that can, if marketed right, reach a wide audience. It is their objective to make the story larger than life and follow tried-and-true dramatic conventions. It doesn't matter to them if, in the process, they underestimate the intelligence of their audience.
I am not fond of films that allege to depict true stories but deviate wildly and purposefully from the facts. It has nothing to do with efficient storytelling. The inaccuracies in these films come down to cheating, manipulation and pandering. Once a screenwriter allows himself to change major details for dramatic effect, he leaves behind the real world and enters a fantasy world. There's a line that they have crossed and there's no guarantee that they will ever find their way back.
It has been more than fifty years since the release of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and the film is still harshly judged for its inaccuracies. The main criticism of the film is centered on the mild-mannered characterization of the original "Birdman," convict Robert Stroud. Film historian Robert Niemi wrote that Stroud was "an extremely dangerous and menacing psychopath, disliked and distrusted by his jailers and fellow inmates." So, forget about the tenderness and humanity that Burt Lancaster exquisitely conveys in the role.
The biopic has hit its peaks and valleys throughout the history of films. The Jolson Story (1946) launched a wave of infamous show business biopics, including The Great Caruso (1951), Valentino (1951), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), Houdini (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and The Buster Keaton Story (1957). Unfortunately, the men who produced these films maintained the lowest of standards when it came to accuracy. An introductory title for The Young Caruso (1951) describes the plot as "a poetic interpretation of [Caruso's] youth." Lewis Allen, the director of Valentino, flatly admitted that the story that he presented of Valentino's life was "imaginary." It was so imaginary that the producers were sued for libel by Valentino's family and a former Valentino co-star, Alice Terry. Both cases were settled out of court. This is not to say that respectable biopics did not emerge from this period. I would include in this category The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), The Desert Fox (1951) and Jim Thorpe – All-American (1951) (although the makers of Thorpe did tack on a faux happy ending).
This period was followed by a twenty-year golden age for the biopic. Here is a partial list of the acclaimed biopics produced during this time:
The Miracle Worker (1962)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Raging Bull (1980)
Hollywood has since returned to the shameless fictionalization of true life stories. It's a problem that seems to only get worse. A biopic is no sooner released to theaters then it is torn apart on the Internet for its fabrications and distortions. As I recall, David Edelstein of New York Magazine was particularly critical of the inaccuracies of Frost/Nixon (2008).
Let me tell you about a biopic that I saw recently. Filmmakers found their main hook in a relationship between the story's principal male character and its principal female character. Early on in the film, a scene is presented to firmly establish this relationship. The scene is bothersome to me because it is so crucial to the story but it is so, so untrue. What was the name of the film? Actually, this description fits several biopics that came out last year. Where do I start?
Let's go to the first act of The Imitation Game. A humorous scene set at the Government Code and Cypher School depicts Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) assessing Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) for a cryptographer job. Clarke and other applicants for the job are given a timed exercise in which they must complete a crossword puzzle in under six minutes. Turing does not expect any of the applicants to pass the test. He confides to a co-worker that he, himself, needed eight minutes to finish the puzzle. But Turing is astonished when Clarke, who is the only woman in a room filled with men, cheerfully passes the test with several seconds to spare. Yes, we have in this scene a celebration of female empowerment. A woman gets to put a bunch of meathead men to shame. This is an ideal example of pandering. Truth be told, this scene never happened. The truth is that Clarke was recruited to the Government Code and Cypher School by her former academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman, who offered her a job without needing her to work out a puzzle. Turing was not at all involved in her hiring.
Let us now look at Big Eyes. You are likely familiar with these paintings of big-eyed waifs, which at one time could be found everywhere.
As it turned out, the publicity that made these paintings so famous was a colossal lie. Margaret Keaton, who produced this iconic work, toiled in obscurity while her husband, Walter Keane, took the credit. Walter, who was a smooth talker, thought that the paintings could be better marketed if he acted as the frontman. His deception was made worse by the vulgar way in which he reveled in his new-found celebrity. But he was highly effective as a frontman and as a marketer. He managed, in his promotion of his wife's paintings, to revolutionize the mass marketing of pop art. This is America. Isn't salesmanship everything?
In the film, Walter is excited that his wife's "Tomorrow Forever" painting is to be unveiled at the World's Fair. But Walter becomes infuriated when art critic John Canaday writes a vicious review of the painting. Walter confronts Canaday at a dinner party and attempts to stab the art critic with a fork. Canaday makes use of amazingly fast reflexes to intercept the fork before it can pierce his flesh. In real life, Walter did become upset with a bad review from Canaday. Vanity Fair's Julie Miller wrote, "The fair’s organizers hung [the painting] at the Pavilion of Education and Walter Keane imagined the piece one day being celebrated as much as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel." So, of course, he was upset. But he never attacked Canaday at a dinner party. Evidently, the filmmakers didn't think that they could convey Walter's distress by having him grumble bitterly or slam down the newspaper that contained the review. So, instead, they had to create this overdone party scene. But it gets worse. Only minutes later, Walter goes on another rampage. This time, he argues with Margaret and attempts to burn down their luxurious home. This scene, too, is a fabrication.
|"Tomorrow Forever" painting|
Walter Keane is criticized in the film for creating a false history for himself, yet the scriptwriters feel no shame in creating their own false history for him. I personally don't need stabbings and homes engulfed in flames to hold my attention. I am not so dull-witted that I need to be stimulated by cheap, contrived, overblown drama. If a story lacks real drama, why bother to tell it in the first place?
Most of the changes in Big Eyes were designed to portray Walter as dangerous and abusive and to portray Margaret as helpless and frightened. It became a feminist fable, which made it easy to market to critics. Yes, a film about a marketing scam was in itself a marketing scam. This tale about the evils of marketing and the evils of the 1960s era husband recalls, in ways, Mad Men.
Big Eyes' variation on The Imitation Game job application scene occurs fifteen minutes into the film. It is a marriage proposal scene. The filmmakers set up the scene so that Margaret won't have to take personal responsibility for her decision to marry Walter. In the preceding scenes, they have shown the couple engaged in a whirlwind courtship. Now, after the couple has been dating for two weeks, Margaret learns that her ex-husband has filed papers to remove their daughter from her custody. Dialogue falsely proposes that the evil, women-oppressing judges of the era will inevitably remove a child from the custody of a single mother. Walter offers to marry Margaret to assure that she can keep her daughter. Not only is Margaret in a heady state over her budding relationship with Walter, but she is in dire fear of losing her daughter. So, these heightened emotions conspire to push her into an unwise marriage with Walter. The problem, yet again, is that none of this actually happened. The couple knew each other for two years prior to marrying and Margaret's ex-husband was not trying to get custody of their daughter. So, contrary to the film's claims, Margaret did not enter this marriage under duress and she had adequate time to become acquainted with Walter. If marrying Walter was wrong, Margaret needed to own up to her bad judgment. I doubt, though, that she ever really had regrets.
This now brings us to the part of the film that bothered me the most. The film makes it clear that Walter initiated the fraud without Margaret's knowledge and, when she found out about it, it was too late for her to do anything about it. It makes sense in the context of the film. We are supposed to believe that Margaret was a horribly oppressed wife who had no control over what her husband did. Margaret, herself, wanted everyone to believe that she had been locked in a dungeon-like art studio with an ample supply of canvas and paint. She said that she was brainwashed. She said that Walter had Mafia connections and threatened to have her knocked off. I'm sorry, I don't believe it. Walter no doubt liked the money and the celebrity. I can believe that he pressured Margaret to work long hours to churn out the paintings. But I suspect that Margaret was culpable in the fraud. She certainly benefited from it. This was not a tragic story of plagiarism on par with The Phantom of the Opera. Margaret didn't have acid thrown into her face. She didn't have to live in the sewers of Woodside, California. All in all, she made a lot of money and she has lived happily ever after. Margaret admitted that she didn’t care at first that Walter had plagiarized her work. She said, "After we started to make it, it didn't make any difference."
Margaret divorced Keane and moved to Hawaii and yet she maintained the fraud for another five years. During this time, she continued to supply Walter with paintings to sell. Why? Because Walter knew how to make money for her. This was a mutually beneficial relationship.
The same dreary biopic formula was applied again to The Theory of Everything. This time, the couple is astrophysics student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). In real life, Hawking and Wilde had a creepily strange and enigmatic relationship that most filmgoers would likely have found off-putting. The filmmakers shaved the rough edges off this relationship to make a more conventional love story.
Hawking and Wilde exchanged their addresses at a party just as it is depicted in the film, but neither was interested enough to contact the other to set up a date. The pair happened to meet again months later on a train. By then, Hawking had been diagnosed with ALS. He revealed to Wilde that he was suffering a loss of muscle control, which made it difficult for him to stand or walk, and he was expected to die in approximately two years. Wilde had Hawking's name and address for months and never bothered to contact him. Now, she was willing to embark on a romantic relationship with this fatally ill man. Why? Wilde told The Observer that she never really considered his illness at the time. She said, "[W]e had this very strong sense at the time that our generation lived anyway under this most awful nuclear cloud - that with a four-minute warning the world itself could likely end. That made us feel above all that we had to do our bit, that we had to follow an idealistic course in life. That may seem naive now, but that was exactly the spirit in which Stephen and I set out in the sixties - to make the most of whatever gifts were given to us." This is not a satisfying answer to me. Obviously, it was not a satisfying answer to the filmmakers, who altered the story so that the couple fell inexorably in love before Hawking's diagnosis.
It gets even stranger. Hawking is depicted in his relationship with Wilde as charming, attentive and gentle. But Wilde admitted that, despite his charm, Hawking was often rude, arrogant and insensitive. Wilde developed an intimate relationship with her church's choir director during the marriage. Her in-laws believed that the third child that she conceived while married to Hawking was a product of that relationship. I do not know how this situation was handled in the film because I was unable to get through more than half of the film. Suffice to say, their relationship was not the bright romance that was showcased in the trailer.
I do not demand that biopics be perfectly accurate. I have no issues with condensed timelines or composite characters. In rare instances, a good filmmaker can produce a film that is so engrossing and enjoyable that the real facts hardly matter. Film critic Hal Erickson reasonably called Houdini "highly fanciful but immensely entertaining." At other times, a biopic can be so wonderfully campy that no one cares about the truth. The films that fall into this category include Annie Get Your Gun (1950), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) and Ed Wood (1994). But, in extreme cases, I cannot tolerate Hollywood's bullshit version of history.