‘Paint’ and Other Comedies That Based Their Main Characters on Real People (But Didn’t Use the Real Names)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Paint, which opens today, is about Bob Ross. Owen Wilson plays a painter who might as well be the star of The Joy of Painting, the PBS show Ross hosted for 11 years starting in 1983. The resemblance is uncanny, down to Ross’ “happy little clouds” mannerisms, but the character’s name is actually Carl — and is a diva-ish nightmare, unlike the real Ross.
The idea to create a mirror-image Ross and stick him in a deadpan comedy came from writer-director Brit McAdams. “If you had someone who was seemingly the nicest person in the world and who had this power over people, what if that person didn’t use that power for good?” McAdams explained recently about his inspiration. “What happens if the person onscreen isn’t that person off-screen?”
Obviously, it helps that the filmmakers aren’t using Ross’ actual name: That would lead to lawsuits. Nonetheless, anybody who watches Paint will know who’s being referenced. Every once in a while, comedies will take such liberties, inventing a fictional character who is most assuredly supposed to resemble a very recognizable real person. Whether it’s to mock or pay homage to that person, the joke comes from us understanding what’s going on below the surface — the film is commenting on someone famous without having to deal with a lot of blowback. It can also allow the filmmakers to deviate from the facts of that person’s life when it suits them.
In honor of Paint’s release, here’s a list of eight movies that based their main characters on real people. Just to be clear, I’m only focusing on comedies: Obviously, dramas like Citizen Kane and Last Days also are about actual individuals. Also, one of these eight films isn’t technically a comedy-comedy, but it’s so bizarre that many viewers laugh while watching it.
All You Need Is Cash (1978)
Fictional Characters’ Name: The Rutles
Real People They’re Based On: The Beatles
How Similar Is It? When we think of the term mockumentary, maybe the mind goes to This Is Spinal Tap or Best in Show. But before those classics, Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) cooked up an idea for a film that traced the history of a fake band that sure sounded and looked a lot like the Beatles. Instead, they were called the Rutles.
All You Need Is Cash stemmed from a sketch Idle had produced a few years earlier. Idle played the Paul McCartney-esque character, with Neil Innes, John Halsey and Ricky Fataar starring as, respectively, the John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison doppelgangers. It was Innes who wrote some of the film’s cheeky Beatles soundalike songs such as “Ouch!” and “Hold My Hand.” The result was a comedy that was an affectionate and amazingly spot-on copying of the Fab Four’s most iconic moments and eras.
“The Rutles pretended the Beatles didn’t exist,” Innes once said, “in order to tell their story in a more humorous way, to sort of to give a hug to the people that were hurting over the fact that they had broken up and weren’t going to get back together again.”
What Did the Real People Think? Lennon and Harrison were fans of the Rutles, and Harrison even helped finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian, putting his estate up as collateral to bankroll the film. Idle and Harrison were lifelong friends: In 2022, he paid tribute to Harrison, who died in 2001, saying, “He was a remarkable man. He really changed my life.”
Idle also realized how similar they were in their respective groups. One time when Idle complained to his buddy that he had to fight for screen time with his more-famous Life of Brian co-stars, “(Harrison) said, ‘Well, imagine what it’s like trying to get studio time with Lennon and McCartney.’ I said, ‘All right. Absolutely. Got it. Okay. Check. I’ll shut up now.’”
Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Fictional Character’s Name: Doris Mann
Real Person She’s Based On: Debbie Reynolds
How Similar Is It? In the late 1980s, Carrie Fisher was dealing with addiction issues and fading stardom when she wrote a scorchingly funny novel, Postcards from the Edge, which very closely echoed her own difficult upbringing and complicated relationship with her actress mother Debbie Reynolds. Not that she blamed her mom for her problems: In 1987, Fisher joked, “I’ve always said that if I wasn’t Debbie Reynolds’ daughter, I’d make fun of whoever was.”
The well-received book was turned into a movie, with Meryl Streep as Suzanne Vale (the Fisher character) and Shirley MacLaine as Doris Mann (the Reynolds role). Neither actress was exactly channeling the real-life counterparts, but the stories of unhappy romantic relationships, crippling drug abuse and the weirdness of growing up in show business certainly matched Fisher’s own experience.
What Did the Real Person Think? Reynolds approved of MacLaine’s performance, declaring it ”terrific. I can’t think of anyone else playing what’s supposed to be part of me. But actually I think the character is more Joan Crawford.” But later, she did own up to the fact that she wished she could have played Doris herself. In her 2013 memoir Unsinkable, Reynolds revealed that she asked Postcards from the Edge director Mike Nichols about casting her. But Nichols said no.
“You’re not right for the part,” he supposedly told her, which flabbergasted Reynolds. “Excuse me?” she wrote in her book. “I’m not right to play myself, a part that I’d been creating — admittedly, unwittingly — for my daughter for decades?”
Swimming With Sharks (1994)
Fictional Character’s Name: Buddy Ackerman
Real Person He’s Based On: Scott Rudin
How Similar Is It? Technically, there were a few high-powered Hollywood types that inspired Swimming With Sharks writer-director George Huang to craft this satire about a lowly assistant (Frank Whaley) at the mercy of his verbally abusive boss (Kevin Spacey). But Rudin, a powerful and feared figure in Hollywood and on Broadway, quickly became the most famous stand-in for Buddy Ackerman. Huang never worked for Rudin — he toiled in the office of another notorious producer, Joel Silver — but he had friends who had suffered under Rudin’s tyrannical reign and told him horror stories.
“I remember trying to put the stories in an early draft, and when (other producers) read it, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is way, way over-the-top. This would’ve never happened,’” Huang told Vanity Fair in 2021. “I’d go, ‘Oh, but it does.’”
Spacey’s Buddy didn’t look anything like Rudin, but the character’s volcanic temper and unreasonable demands, including ordering his assistant to destroy every copy of a magazine that published an unflattering article, traumatized any Hollywood assistant with a nightmare boss. Swimming With Sharks wasn’t “about” Scott Rudin, but everybody recognized Rudin’s bullying behavior in Buddy.
What Did the Real Person Think? It doesn’t appear Rudin ever responded to Spacey’s portrayal of Buddy, but a former assistant saw Swimming With Sharks and said, “(Rudin) is worse than the movie.” If anything, the film merely burnished Rudin’s reputation as a get-shit-done producer, with Tom Cruise’s Lew Grossman character in Tropic Thunder also at least partly inspired by Rudin.
But the heavyweight’s standing took a tumble in 2021 when The Hollywood Reporter produced a damning piece in which writer Tatiana Siegel talked to people who have faced Rudin’s wrath, including executive coordinator Caroline Rugo, who claimed, “I got fired for having Type 1 diabetes, which is a federally protected disability. I 100 percent could have sued him. But I didn’t because of the fear of being blacklisted. … Everyone just knows he’s an absolute monster.” Although Rudin’s sins weren’t to the level of Spacey’s, it does feel sickeningly appropriate that the now-disgraced actor played him.
Primary Colors (1998)
Fictional Character’s Name: Jack Stanton
Real Person He’s Based On: Bill Clinton
How Similar Is It? When political columnist Joe Klein published his 1996 novel Primary Colors anonymously, it was clear the book’s Southern politician Jack Stanton, a philanderer running for president, was meant to be Bill Clinton. Klein admired Clinton at the time — “He is the most talented politician that I have ever covered,” he said in 2000, adding, “The guy is remarkable” — although in the wake of #MeToo, he had a change of heart, admitting that he had been “a Clinton enabler.”
The film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols, is a more measured look at Clinton. As Stanton, John Travolta affects a very Clintonian accent, mimicking the president’s mannerisms as well. But it’s not an impression, per se — rather, he captures Clinton’s slippery, charismatic essence, the way he could seem utterly genuine and also deeply calculating at the same time. Primary Colors’ supporting cast includes other Clinton-era stand-ins — Emma Thompson plays the pragmatic Hillary-like wife, while Billy Bob Thornton is the James Carville-esque strategist — but Travolta nicely embodies the man’s ambitions and humanity. Rather than making Clinton a hero or a villain, the performance captures his fascinating complexity.
What Did the Real Person Think? Best as I can tell, Clinton never publicly commented on the Primary Colors film. But to be honest, he had other things to worry about at the time: The Monica Lewinsky scandal was ramping up when the movie opened in March 1998, in some ways overshadowing Travolta’s portrayal. But Republicans have held onto Primary Colors as proof of Clinton’s wretchedness: At the 2016 RNC, Rudy Giuliani declared, “Bill Clinton was a predator president with a wife who enabled him…you’ve seen that movie with John Travolta.”
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Fictional Character’s Name: Steve Zissou
Real Person He’s Based On: Jacques Cousteau
How Similar Is It? Not so much. The melancholy Zissou loves chronicling the watery depths, making films of his adventures much like the revered French oceanographer. But Bill Murray gives the character a very Murray-ish spin, which is what filmmaker Wes Anderson wanted.
“I was thinking about who else could have played (Steve Zissou), and I was also thinking about who else could have played (Murray’s) part in Lost in Translation,” Anderson said at the time. “And there aren’t that many people, but one thing I did think about was Brando. Brando at the same age Bill is now would have been great at both roles.”
Maybe that’s why physically and temperamentally Murray doesn’t much resemble Jacques Cousteau. But he sure feels akin to the sad, resigned characters Murray previously played for Anderson in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
What Did the Real Person Think? Well, Cousteau died several years before The Life Aquatic came out. But because Anderson’s movies are comedies that dive into arcane little worlds, there can be an assumption that he’s mocking these subcultures. But Anderson insisted, “I love Jacques Cousteau.” In fact, he wanted to dedicate The Life Aquatic to the explorer, “but the Jacques Cousteau society made it a point to include in my words of dedication that they were not involved in the making of this film.”
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Fictional Character’s Name: Miranda Priestly
Real Person She’s Based On: Anna Wintour
How Similar Is It? Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel was inspired by her experience working for famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour, whose withering dismissals of people and clothes were legendary. It’s telling that when the book of The Devil Wears Prada came out, Wintour supposedly said, “I cannot remember who that girl is.” Weisberger may not have made much of an impression on her old boss, but her creation of the intimidating, opinionated Miranda Priestly helped cement her literary reputation.
Meryl Streep played Miranda in the film, which was a smash hit in the summer of 2006. But she didn’t turn the Wintour stand-in into the typical screaming tyrant. “It was a direct steal from the way I saw Clint Eastwood run a set,” the Oscar-winning actress recalled in 2021. “He’s someone that guys really respect, and he never raises his voice, ever; the one time that he did, it so terrified people for two weeks, they were traumatized.” Much like the real Wintour, her Miranda was impeccably cool and controlled. But you always feared when Miranda might explode, which is why Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt’s assistant characters are constantly walking around like they’re scared of stepping on a landmine.
What Did the Real Person Think? If Wintour initially had misgivings about Streep playing a version of her, she got over them. In late 2006, she called the film “really entertaining,” adding, “Anything that makes fashion entertaining and glamorous and interesting is wonderful for our industry. So I was 100 percent behind it.” And she was pleased with Streep’s performance, no doubt flattered that Miranda was such a confident, feared, decisive figure. “I think it’s actually helpful to people that you are working with, that you can make decisions," Wintour said. “So, if Meryl seemed somewhat strong, I respect that.”
Or, as Wintour’s daughter Bee told her at the premiere, “Mom, they really got you.”
Fictional Character’s Name: Aline Dieu
Real Person She’s Based On: Céline Dion
How Similar Is It? French filmmaker and actress Valérie Lemercier had a gutsy idea: What if I made a biopic about Céline Dion, but changed the names of her and those close to her? And what if I played the character at all the different stages of her life, including as a child?
That’s how we got Aline, one of the most talked-about movies at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where audiences weren’t sure if they were going to see a parody of the much-maligned pop singer. To the contrary, the film was stunningly sincere as it traced the life of Aline Dieu/Céline Dion, although the sight of Lemercier as a five-year-old elicited plenty of unintended laughter.
Lemercier insisted she wasn’t trying to mock Dion, and indeed gives her all in Aline, including singing the star’s songs. Many actors win Oscars playing famous musicians, but if Lemercier’s performance is awkward, it’s also heartfelt and emotional and over-the-top in the exact same way as her subject’s music.
What Did the Real Person Think? Lemercier sent the script to Dion’s team, and while she says they were generally supportive, they had no involvement in Aline. And the reclusive Dion never got back to her. “Celine didn’t want to read this script,” Lemercier said. “She wanted to stay away, as she does a lot. She didn’t want to see the picture, the actor that was chosen to play the part. At that time, she never saw the movie. And if I were Celine, I understand. I hope one time before my death, she will watch it.”
Fictional Character’s Name: Carl Nargle
Real Person He’s Based On: Bob Ross
How Similar Is It? Really, really similar, at least in terms of the character’s look and speaking style. Wilson plays Carl as a whispering, eerily serene painter of banal landscapes. He’s also rocking Bob Ross’ super-permed afro and has a PBS painting show. Unlike the real Ross, though, Carl is a womanizing asshole who lords his celebrity over others, including his former girlfriend and current producer (Michaela Watkins).
“I wish I was better at doing imitations and voices,” Wilson said recently about playing the Ross-like figure. “But it was asking, ‘Why has that guy endured?’ And he has just a very soothing, gentle, upbeat, positive quality. And he helps you do something creative. He’s like a teacher. I was hoping we could get a little of that into Carl Nargle, and explain why he’s had the No. 1 painting show for the past 22 years straight in Vermont. … Now he’s dealing with a bit more ego and vanity than Bob Ross. Maybe he’s not as good as Bob Ross.”
What Did the Real Person Think? Ross died in 1995 at the age of 52, but his legacy has only grown since, with newer audiences embracing his happy, super-earnest onscreen demeanor — either sincerely or as kitsch. Paint filmmaker Brit McAdams has said he’s a Ross fan and that the movie isn’t a parody. And Bob Ross Inc., which oversees the late painter’s legacy, seem cool with Paint, too — even if his biggest supporters are worried the film is insulting their hero.
“Our fans are ferociously loyal to us,” Joan Kowalski, the head of Bob Ross Inc., told the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of Bob Ross fans are not on the internet. They’re not emailing. They’re not on social media. They will call us and tell us if something is out of place.” For instance, there’s a scene in Paint when Carl steals newspapers from people’s front lawns because he doesn’t want them reading a story about his shrinking popularity. “With the newspapers there were people saying, ‘I just know that Bob wouldn’t do that,’” Kowalski said. “And we were like, ‘No, no, no, it’s all good.’”