7 Reasons Movies Based On A True Story Rarely Are
Hollywood ran out of stories to tell after approximately the third one, leaving us so thirsty for originality that we'll praise movies starring Colin Farrell as a lobster. Luckily, our world is full of amazing real people whose incredible lives are just waiting to be turned into equally amazing motion pictures.
Hahaha, no. You see, real lives, no matter how interesting, rarely fit into the kind of neat three-act structure with clear heroes, villains, and wacky sidekicks that movies require. So Hollywood adds that shit in there, along with whatever other shit they think a movie needs, regardless of how badly it may distort history or ruin the lives of the real people involved.
Biopics Are, By Design, Extremely Formulaic
All movies are formulaic, but most of the time, that formula (the classic three-act structure) can be used to tell a wide range of stories, from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to "rich guy with an affinity for bats." When you are making a film which spans a real person's entire life, however, that range suddenly closes. That's because most people's lives are shockingly similar. They're born, they grow up, they become geniuses in their field, they get old, and they die. Some of us skip the "become genius" step, but to be fair, being a baby is really exhausting.
If you don't have tragic memories from your childhood in a plantation, you probably won't amount to much.
That's why every biopic about an artistic or academic genius is the same. They start out unknown and at the bottom, work their way up, and usually have a single moment of inspirational genius -- which probably didn't happen, but accurately portraying the terrifying, personal-relationship-destroying grind of real genius would be boring. As they start getting recognition for their work, there's some kind of personal struggle they'll have to deal with, such as being gay (The Imitation Game), having an addiction (Walk The Line), having AIDS (Straight Outta Compton), dealing with mental illness (A Beautiful Mind), being disabled (The Theory Of Everything), or simply being a dick (The Social Network).
Or having a bunch of words floating in front of their faces at all times.
Almost always, there will be a love story stuck somewhere in there, whether it happened or not. If the person is still alive or has living family, then the movie will probably leave out any inconveniently complicated bits that might make them unsympathetic, like a habit of sleeping next to naked teenagers.
That's formula one. Formula two is when the protagonist is a criminal, like in American Gangster, Wolf Of Wall Street, Black Mass, or Goodfellas. Then we once again start them at the bottom, have them earn their way into crime, fly too close to the sun, end up caught, and usually hit rock bottom. It is at this point that they almost always end up betraying and snitching on their friends and go to jail or into protective custody, where they are forced into the humility of multi-million-dollar motivational speaking careers.
Between these two movies, the lesson is "commit a nonviolent, rouge-ish crime and you could be Leonardo DiCaprio."
And that's how, due to the limitations of the genre, biopics always end up making the most interesting lives in history look as predictable and boring as ... well, our lives.
Hollywood Regularly Turns Innocent People Into Villains
Because life is not a comic book, there are rarely clear-cut good guys and bad guys. That's the whole reason we watch movies: so we can pretend for two hours that every conflict is simple, instead of both parties usually being sort of assholes. When a real life is the movie, however, those messy conflicts need to be simplified ... generally in favor of whoever's being turned into a main character. This apparently results in screenwriters sticking group photos on a wall, throwing a dart, and declaring "That guy's the shithead."
We've covered various examples before, but Hollywood keeps giving us more and more. Remember Art Howe, Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Moneyball? His grudge against poor maverick Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) leads him to cockblock Beane's revolutionary techniques at every turn -- which never happened, according to the real Howe. They got along pretty OK, it seems. But it would have been a really boring movie if everyone kinda sat around telling Pitt's character what a genius he was.
"We meant another Art Howe, who had the same job and knew the same guy and wore those exact clothes."
Same with Tom Hanks' Sully, which runs out of things to do after that whole "landing a plane in a river" thing wraps up, so they threw in a phony conflict with the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the crash (which they are required to do). NWA manager Jerry Heller and TLC manager Perri "Pebbles" Reid both filed lawsuits over their portrayals in their respective groups' biopics. They didn't take kindly to being shown knowingly signing their impoverished clients to exploitative contracts while fine dining on their dime. In Straight Outta Compton, Heller is seen eating lobster and drinking champagne while screwing Ice Cube out of money, like a cartoon villain. None of that happened.
We're sorry to tell you that the Are We There Yet? saga is mostly fiction, too.
Sometimes, though, the alterations are designed to make a story less black and white. It's hard to make an audience sympathetic to the kind of shithead who uses the corpses of dead servicemen to smuggle heroin, like Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas in American Gangster, but luckily, it was easy to enough to fudge the details to take the shine off Washington's nemesis, Russell Crowe (who played prosecutor Richie Roberts), including by inventing children for him to abandon (the real-life Richie Roberts doesn't have children, but whatever).
Biopics Of Criminals Tend To Trivialize The Victims
And hey, what about all those dead soldiers and their families? Their side of the story wasn't thrilling enough to include, huh? That's hardly unique -- most biopics about shitty people tend to steamroll over everyone their shittiness affected, because coke parties are more fun to watch. It's all well and good to watch 'Nardo DiCaprio's prominently featured buttocks wade through a sea of hookers as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but the people who Belfort ripped off are probably not super jazzed about it. Some of them have been paying off their debt since before DiCaprio showed up in Growing Pains.
Screw the stockbrokers, we want to see a drama about the little person who had to do this for a living.
At least Martin Scorsese made it clear that Belfort's crimes were a Very Bad Thing that he deserved to spend a few months playing tennis for. The same can't be said for the makers of Pain & Gain, the story of a couple of broke gym bros who bumble their way through the kidnapping of a rich crook, complete with ninja costumes. Their real-life victim took exception to the wacky portrayal of what was, in reality, a full month of brutal torture and attempted murder that put him in a coma. Oh yeah, and the money he supposedly stole, which the movie uses as justification for the inhuman amount of violence he suffered? He says it never happened, but we guess it's his word against a deranged scammer/kidnapper/torturer/murderer.
But hey, at least his victimization was acknowledged -- unlike that of Dee Barnes, the journalist Dr. Dre beat to a pulp after she committed the sin of interviewing Ice Cube. Straight Outta Compton politely ignored that, the same way we all did.
"This gives me an idea for some headphones. Also, I'm an irredeemable piece of shit." - Dr. Dre
No One Cares What Happens To The Protagonists Afterward
The image of the penniless genius unrecognized until after their unglamorous death may be ickily romanticized, but it does have its upsides. After all, having a movie made about you while you're still alive can ruin your career. That's exactly what NFL player Michael Oher, the subject of The Blind Side, says happened to him. This might come as a shock, but having an Oscar-baity inspirational story made of your awkward teenage years doesn't earn you a lot of respect from your teammates.
Neither does being bossed around by Sandra Bullock for 130 minutes.
After dodging annoying jokes in the locker room, Oher would then get to take the field before an ocean of people shouting their adoration or derision at equal volume -- not ideal performance conditions. He was ranked as the 74th best tackle (out of 78) in 2014, because it's hard to do your best when you're being treated like an animal at the zoo.
But at least Oher had something to lose. By the time The Fighter premiered, the life of boxer Dicky Eklund (played by Christian Bale in the movie) glared enviously at shambles. Eklund had battled addiction, grief over the recent death of his mother, and no fewer than 66 arrests for drugs and fighting. Nowhere to go but up, right? Not exactly. Despite his grief, his very recent sobriety, and his debilitating back pain (he was in his 50s already), Eklund scheduled a series of fights so he could capitalize on the film's buzz and afford to be less miserable, maybe. One journalist found him begging a nurse for painkillers so he could fight Danny Bonaduce. Good job, Hollywood.
He was actually trying to punch Bale for real, but that's all the strength he could muster.
Movies Can Easily Steal Your Life Story
It turns out filmmakers are under no obligation to pay subjects -- or often, get their permission. Remember Honey, that Jessica Alba movie about a Hispanic hip-hop dancer and dance teacher from the Bronx who gains fame and gets to work with famous artists? Of course you don't, but Honey Rockwell, a respected Hispanic hip-hop dancer and dance teacher from the Bronx who worked with famous artists, sure does.
Is she a big Dark Angel fan or something?
After the movie came out in 2003, Rockwell endured a decade of no longer being taken seriously as a dancer before she thought to hit back legally, but by that point, a judge decided it was too late. Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver wasted no time in suing the makers of The Hurt Locker, claiming that Jeremy Renner's character in the film was based on him and portrayed him in a negative light, but it turns out Hollywood can make you look like a reckless basket of dicks and also make you pay their legal fees, as long as the movie is "about issues of public interest." After all, what did Sgt. Sarver ever do for the people?
But the person who has been the most screwed by this practice is boxer Chuck Wepner. The night of Wepner's legendary brawl with Muhammad Ali, some dude named Sylvester Stallone happened to be watching on TV. Stallone went home and wrote a little movie called Rocky. Then he made Rocky, won a bunch of Oscars for Rocky, and never denied that Wepner was the inspiration for Rocky, but somehow overlooked the matter of paying Wepner for all that work he did being Rocky.
It'd be one thing if he was super busy and didn't get around to it right away, but Stallone didn't settle with Wepner until 2006, and we know for a fact he had a few slow years there in between. Wepner finally got the chance to make his own biopic -- until someone stole his life story again. Look for Rockie in 2017!
Biopics Give Publicity To Shitty People
For a certain type of biopic subject, though, getting paid is unnecessary. Even though Jordan Belfort doesn't exactly come off as the kind of guy you wanna do business with, The Wolf Of Wall Street boosted his career. After all, they flat-out promote his business as a speaker in the film -- complete with a cameo for him as "guy who hypes up Jordan Belfort."
The grossest masturbation scene in cinema since American Pie.
Belfort has bragged that he makes more money now than he ever did as a white-collar criminal, before quickly adding that he's using it to repay his victims and not hunt down more narcotic holy grails, which we have no doubt is an absolutely true statement of fact.
Going from his website, it looks like he's making money on the side selling dick pills.
That's probably why El Chapo wants a biopic, going so far as to take time out of his busy schedule evading capture to contact various Hollywood types ... which had the predictable effect of making it difficult for him to evade capture for much longer. Alas, the gears of the Hollywood machine were already in motion: Producer Kate del Castillo will be making the film, despite Mexico begging her not to. Let's hope it includes a scene of him reading melodramatic YA literature, which is a thing he likes to do.
It's Really Easy To Mistake Biopics For Oscar-Worthy Films (Even When They Suck)
It's no coincidence that DiCaprio finally gets to place a little gold statue on his mantle next to pictures of himself thanks to his role in a "based on a true story" film. For the Oscar-seeker, nothing is safer than a biopic. They are to the Academy what a superhero movie is to a producer's cocaine budget. And that's not a coincidence -- both types of movies benefit from telling formulaic stories that half the audience already knows.
Biopics also tend to be about Important Things, which is like a molly-infused blowjob to Academy members, who have a habit of valuing the subject matter of a film over its actual quality. Remember Spotlight? That movie won Best Picture last year, on account of it being about some really important subject matter. It wasn't a bad movie, but there was nothing impressive about the way it was made. It will be one of those Best Picture winners that will go on to future infamy as a question everyone gets wrong on trivia night.
Such as these Academy-Award-winning biopics about, uh, that guy, and that guy, and that guy.
Since geniuses don't tend to look like movie stars, biopics also give actors the opportunity to dramatically transform their appearance, which is always guaranteed to make us lose our Academy-Award-voting shit. It's especially effective if an extraterrestrially gorgeous actress can be convinced to ugly herself up, like when Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman deigned to appear to be normal humans in Monster and The Hours, respectively. The male version of this is gender-bending (try not to think too hard about the implications of that), like the time Jared Leto presumably had every transgender actress killed so he could star as one in Dallas Buyers Club. Naturally, we had to give him an Oscar for that.
Which he could barely lift at that point.
Then there's the straight-up guilt factor. If the person the film is about or anyone who ever knew them is still alive, you might feel kinda bad about not voting for their movie. Harvey Weinstein rode that horse harder than a Stark on the Kingsroad while campaigning for The Imitation Game, imploring the Academy to "Honor the man. Honor the movie." In other words, "If you don't vote for us, you're practically as bad as the people who persecuted Alan Turing. You monsters."
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