Biopics and true stories abound, but are some going too far in bending the truth for a good story?
Last Wednesday the long-anticipated Grace of Monaco, a ‘non-biopic’ about Grace Kelly starring Nicole Kidman, premiered at the opening of Cannes Film Festival and has created quite a furore. Not only has the film been received poorly by critics (“so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk,” according to the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw), it has been slated by the Monacan Royal Family who have spoken out against the films inaccuracies calling it “pure fiction”.
Telling white lies is a common symptom of Hollywood biopics or true stories. Over the years there have been plenty of biopics released that have bent the truth. Is it right that this keeps happening over and over? Where do you draw the line between a film that’s ‘based on real events’ and a fictionalisation set in a certain time and place? And why do studios insist on focussing on true stories in the first place?
Being selective with the truth is one thing, but sometimes filmmakers go one step further.
Grace of Monaco director Olivier Dahan decided to focus in on eight years in the life of Grace Kelly, the Hollywood star who married into the royal family of Monaco. Obviously, it is unreasonable to expect a biopic to chart the whole life of their subject in just a couple of hours and by being selective, a filmmaker is able to concentrate on a smaller window of time and make a better quality picture. Being selective with the truth is one thing, but sometimes filmmakers go one step further and change events to better fit a dramatic narrative, and this is where things can get a bit dodgy.
If a film is based on true events, and billed as such, even implicitly, it can feel like you’ve been short-changed when you learn that certain aspects are falsified. Dahan has spoken out against the criticism his film has received, saying that his intention was never to make a biopic, but come on, the difference is surely semantic. The film has Grace Kelly’s name in its title and the characters are all based on people who actually lived. The very reason he was able to make this film is because of the real-life events that took place.
Admittedly, sometimes changing the detail of a true story is required for a better narrative. The Wolf of Wall Street wouldn’t have been as funny if Jonah Hill’s bleach-toothed Donnie Azoff wasn’t a massively exaggerated version of Danny Porush, the man he was portraying, and Catch Me If You Can would have suffered if Spielberg had accurately depicted the string of faceless FBI agents that pursued Abagnale Jnr instead of Tom Hanks’s character. Harmless enough, you might think, but where do you draw the line with regards to what truths are acceptable to bend?
Hollywood films like to portray their characters as infallible heroes, so filmmakers may feel pressure to ignore some of the imperfections of the true story they are trying to tell. Richard Philips, the who is inflated to hero-status in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Philips, didn’t offer himself for sacrifice like the valiant captain he was made out to be and was partially responsible for the hijacking thanks to his decision to take a riskier route. The events of Greengrass’s film are mostly accurate, but leaving out such a crucial fact is unfair to the people who were close to losing their lives as a result of his negligence. Additionally, learning that someone isn’t as impressive in real-life as they were made out to be in the movie can be a bit annoying, a bit like getting that bit of popcorn stuck in your teeth when you’re watching a movie at the cinema.
Another contentions biopic is The Hurricane, the film about the late boxer Rubin Carter, who was imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit because of the colour of his skin. Whilst the film was received favourably and landed Denzel Washington a Golden Globe for his performance, the film was criticised for its manipulation of the facts. Take, for instance, the scene where Carter is unfairly robbed of a victory against boxer Joey Giardello despite clearly being the victor because the fight was a racist fix. In reality Giardello won the fight fairly. There’s a clear line that has been crossed in this instance because Carter’s injustice has been emphasized at the expense of another real life person’s reputation.
These examples are more than just modifying or merging characters, they change substantive facts about what happened that make a difference to the story. This is when a film ‘based on real events’, really ceases to be fact and becomes fiction.
There may be countless resources for the audience to learn the facts themselves, but that doesn’t dissolve the responsibility of the filmmaker to deliver truth. Whilst Grace Kelly has a very well-known family to come to her defence, not all others who have had biopics made about them after their death have the luxury of the Prince’s Palace PR team to protect their legacy. Many biopics are based on people who lived centuries ago and have no living family remaining. Amadeus was a hugely successful film about how Mozart’s talent was so envied by his peers in the Classical Era that it lead rival composer Salieri to try and poison him. Salieri was shown to be lonely, insecure and insane, but this portrayal of Salieri is inaccurate and he nor his family had the opportunity for a rebate. Without the audience doing their own research on Salieri, they would end up believing the story told in the film. This isn’t a minor fabrication either; he was portrayed as a murderer.
Captain Rogers could have been an entertaining and realistic film without claiming to be a true story.
Biopics should be afforded a little bit of flexibility to bend the truth, but there now appears to be a tendency for this privilege to be abused. We are increasingly seeing films that claim to be based on real events and stories but don’t stick to them. If the true story can’t be told properly, then why not fictionalise them completely? Captain Rogers could have been an entertaining and realistic film about Somalian pirates hijacking an oil tanker whilst not claiming to be a true story, but the cinema-going public are suckers for a true story and Hollywood reaps the benefits of this by labelling their films as true stories, no matter how inaccurate they are. Like a superhero sequel, a film is an easier sell if you’ve already heard of the protagonist. Those involved in the making of Grace of Monaco can throw whatever excuses they want to the press about it not being a biopic, but it’s rightly too difficult to get away with making things up, no matter how much of “a fairy-tale aspect”, as Nicole Kidman called it, they put on it.
Main image: Warner Bros
Insets: Paramount, Columbia