Reality is what we're trying to forget when we go to the movies, but when they say it's based on a true story, we kind of expect, um ... truth? At least a little bit? No? Okay, fine. If the truth sold tickets, we wouldn't have our mouths on the barrel of a fifth Transformers movie. So Hollywood takes some liberties on occasion, so what? So sometimes they take those liberties with the single most important aspect of a story, twisting the whole thing around. Like ...
The Elephant Man is one of David Lynch's most critically acclaimed films, and also one of his least weird -- which is saying something, considering it's a movie about a traveling circus freak. John Merrick, nicknamed "the Elephant Man," suffers from his horrible deformities. To make it worse, he's exploited by some heartless freak show operators. That is, until he befriends the sympathetic Dr. Frederick Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins. Treves rescues Merrick from the brutal freak show circuit, offers him shelter, companionship, respect, and shows the world that the so-called "Elephant Man" is more than his deformities.
And more than a weird display allegedly in Michael Jackson's house.
In Reality ...
The movie had this all backwards, mostly because the film was based on Treves' accounts -- not Merrick's -- and the doctor's biased point of view naturally made its way into the script, including the inaccurate recollection of the poor guy's name. According to Merrick himself, it was Treves who was exploiting him, not the freak shows. Treves didn't care about Merrick, and they weren't friends -- as evidenced by the fact that Treves couldn't even get the guy's name right (it was Joseph Merrick, not John).
And rather than being a near-illiterate captive of barbaric slavers, Merrick was in fact clever, well-traveled, and led a surprisingly normal life despite his appearance. It was only after he injured his hip in a bad fall and became unable to work that he chose to join the freak shows, and they apparently treated him very well.
19th-century Britain was not what one would call "accepting."
He found his way into the custodianship of Dr. Treves only after being forced out of the freak show due to rising public outrage, which left him broke and in desperate need of medical care for complications arising from ... well, from being an elephant man. You know Merrick's famous line "I am not an animal, I am a man"? That was directed at Treves, whose insistence on parading Merrick's naked body around for medical experts to gawk at made him feel more objectified than he'd ever been in the freak show.
Quills is the 2000 biopic of French writer Marquis de Sade. If you're unfamiliar with the Marquis, you at least know his legacy. His name is where the word "sadism" comes from, though it was originally meant in the strictly sexual sense. The Marquis was the Larry Flynt of Napoleonic France, persecuted and eventually imprisoned for crimes against public morality. After locking him in a tiny dungeon, the authorities stripped him naked and took everything out of his cell, but they couldn't stop him from writing -- he heroically scrawled on the walls with his own shit!
Fox Searchlight Pictures
"Dear Penthouse ... I never believed-"
Which, incidentally, is also how they wrote The Big Bang Theory.
In Reality ...
The film takes a few liberties with de Sade's life, like the fact that de Sade was reportedly a short, dumpy, obese man -- more Kevin James than Geoffrey Rush. Also, the real Marquis de Sade spent most of his "imprisonment" in a palace. It was the old-timey equivalent of a Hilton presidential suite, complete with a fireplace, a private library, and even a separate room for his mistress.
And you can add "conjugal visits" to the list of good French ideas about sex.
And though the movie would have you believe that de Sade was unfairly persecuted simply for writing a few dirty books and enjoying a bit of variety in the bedroom, it turns out that he was kind of a psychopath. Before his literary career took off, his main hobby was kidnapping and poisoning women with date rape drugs. He later locked up six peasants for over a month and sexually humiliated them, and repeatedly skirted punishment for his crimes. All things considered, he was less a sexy rebel going up against 18th-century puritan ideals and more a rich, fat, cranky rapist.
1995's Cobb is a brutal demolition of one of American baseball's first and greatest legends: outfielder Ty Cobb. It tells the true story of writer Al Stump, who was tasked with ghostwriting Cobb's biography. He spent a few weeks interviewing the retired legend and discovered, to his horror, that Cobb was a violent, angry, alcoholic, racist, misogynistic piece of shit who once got away with killing a guy in Detroit just to watch him die.
Warner Bros Studios
And this is back when Detroit wasn't the sort of place where people expect something like that.
Cobb's despicable nature contrasted so harshly with his public perception that Stump was torn between writing the glowing biography that Cobb was paying him for, or a tell-all expose that might ruin the childhoods of damn near everyone in America. He wound up writing both books simultaneously, leaving the juicier version for after Cobb mercifully died of cancer. In fact, everyone hated Cobb so much that only three people turned up at his funeral.
In Reality ...
There was a duplicitous asshole in this story, but it wasn't Ty Cobb. Long after Cobb's reputation was ruined, it was revealed that Stump was a notorious liar and con artist. He'd been blacklisted from similar projects before for exactly that reason. If Ty Cobb was guilty of anything, it's not doing his research before hiring a guy to write his life story.
via Bleacher Report
This was the era before fedoras became a warning sign.
And also being a bit of a bastard.
OK, OK, some of the stories were true. Like the one in which Cobb climbed into the spectator stands to reach and subsequently beat the shit out of a guy who didn't even have hands to fight back with. That truly did happen. Although hey, the guy did have two fingers left, so maybe he was a deadly poker.
But anyway, Cobb wasn't as cartoonishly racist as Stump suggested. For every negative anecdote about Cobb, there are ten more stories from actual black people that speak highly of him. Some even named their kids after him. As a Southerner born not long after the Civil War, Cobb probably wasn't the white MLK or anything, but all the evidence says he leaned a bit toward the progressive side.
As for Stump's claim that Cobb murdered a guy, that's an outright lie. While Cobb did get into an altercation on the night in question, there's no evidence that anyone died as a result. And as for Cobb's funeral, it's true that nobody showed up, but what Stump left out was the fact that Cobb's family specifically requested that it be closed to anybody but family, because they wanted it to be a discreet and private affair. A whole bunch of Cobb's former friends and teammates wanted to attend (some even offered to serve as pallbearers), but all were turned away.
Then there's the fact that after publishing his "tell-all" book, Stump went on to sell counterfeit Ty Cobb memorabilia to gullible fans. So to recap: Cobb is the story of an asshole who lied his way to fame and fortune. It just wasn't Cobb.
Midnight Express was a brutal expose of the Turkish prison system based on the book of an American who suffered through it. In 1970, Billy Hayes was caught trying to smuggle hash out of Turkey, and he sold the story of his imprisonment and subsequent escape to Hollywood. That story involves torture, corruption, violence, and rapist prison guards -- it's got everything! Eventually, Hayes managed a daring escape from the prison by killing a guard who was trying to rape him and stealing a police uniform. If this all seems too Hollywood to be true, well, you're totally right.
"And then he nailed the Warden's supermodel wife before riding to freedom on top a grizzly bear. THE END"
In Reality ...
The real Billy Hayes was so traumatized by his experience that he ... loves Turkey, has nothing but good things to say about it, and has since apologized to the nation for any negative stereotypes he unwittingly created. Hayes really did try to smuggle drugs out of Turkey (the movie said it was his first offense, but he'd done it successfully a bunch of times before), and he did go to prison for it, and he did escape that prison, and he did make his way back to America. And that's it.
Let's start here: Prison sucks. It's no fun. But Hayes rates Turkish prisons as better than American ones. He never killed a guard in order to escape. That plot point was completely made up for the film. As was the ridiculous idea that he ripped another inmate's tongue out in order to get himself transferred to the insanity ward. The mundane truth is that he kind of walked out of prison one day when the guards weren't looking.
via Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Presumably by pointing and yelling, "Oh, no! Behind you!"
Turkey cared so little about Hayes' escape that they never bothered to put a warrant out for him ... well, until the movie came out and made them look bad. But then, a 30-year prison sentence for trying to move weed is still kind of harsh, so maybe we can call this one a tie?
1962's The Birdman Of Alcatraz was the uplifting biopic of Alcatraz inmate Robert Stroud: a sweet, misunderstood, Burt-Lancaster-handsome man who passed the time in his cell by collecting and caring for birds. Over the years, he became something of a bird expert, and wrote books about the care and upkeep of our feathered friends, all while becoming something of a prison hero. He defused a riot, he broke windows so the prisoners could have some fresh air, and he generally did not take any of the Man's bullshit.
Or birdshit, in this case.
In Reality ...
The story of Robert Stroud isn't The Shawshank Redemption with birds. It's more like Silence Of The Lambs. Keep in mind that the authorities were incredibly generous to allow him to keep birds in his cell, considering he was a violent, unpredictable, murderous sexual predator.
The film omits the fact that Stroud was refused clemency because he kept threatening other prisoners for sex, once ran a morphine racket, and stabbed a few folks for good measure. Along with the whole bird thing, his other hobby was writing -- but his stories were mostly explicit fantasies about him abducting children off the street to rape and kill.
Scholastic politely turned down his unsolicited manuscripts.
In the movie, there's a heart-wrenching scene in which the guards finally forbid Stroud from keeping birds, thus taking away the one thing in his life that gave it meaning. In real life, they did this because his cell had become a horrifying biological hazard. The floor was ankle-deep in bird poop, cigarette butts, and rotting bird corpses, while his benches were covered in vivisected bird cadavers. Stroud's privileges were unheard of in the prison system, and the only reason they let it go on so long was due to public pressure over the sweet and gentle Birdman who had become famous in ... the bird-lovers community? We guess?
Prison psychiatrists considered the Birdman to be kind of an evil genius, having managed to manipulate the public even from inside a jail cell. And this manipulation eventually made it all the way to Hollywood, which tried but thankfully failed to win the sociopathic Robert Stroud his freedom. Thus were we spared the inevitable bird-themed murder spree.
Behind every awful movie is the idea for a good one. Old man Indiana Jones discovers aliens. Good in theory, bad in practice. Batman fights Superman. So simple, but so bad. Are there good translations of these movies hidden within the stinking turds that saw the light of day? Jack O'Brien hosts Soren Bowie, Daniel O'Brien and Katie Willert of 'After Hours' on our next live podcast to find an answer as they discuss their ideal versions of flops, reboots, and remakes. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
For more times Hollywood pulled a fast one on all of us, check out 5 Real People Screwed By 'True-Story' Movies Based On Them and 6 Movies Based On A True Story That Left Out Important Stuff.
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