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On March 17, 2002, John Nash, the Nobel laureate whose story was told in A Beautiful Mind, made an extraordinary appearance on 60 Minutes. In the interview, he spoke about mathematics, schizophrenia and a whisper campaign that he was anti-Semitic, which had started to spread as his movie was gaining awards traction and which he denied.
Nash’s interview was Universal’s last-ditch attempt to save what had been the clear frontrunner until rivals floated rumors deemed so damaging that many assumed the film was doomed. In the end, it won four Oscars including best picture.
Now, once again, questions of fact versus fiction are rearing their heads in a year stacked with reality-based movies, ranging from tales that deliberately toy with the truth (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit) to biopics (Harriet, Judy) to docudramas (Bombshell, Just Mercy) to the partly real but fictionalized (The Irishman, The Two Popes). With “fake news” dominating the media, how much fakery will Oscar voters accept?
“Film is not a mirror,” says Charles Randolph, writer of Bombshell, about Fox News chief Roger Ailes’ alleged harassment of his female colleagues. “It’s a canvas.”
His movie’s veracity is questioned by Ailes’ lawyer, Susan Estrich, who calls it “very entertaining fiction,” without giving specifics. While Randolph says he spoke to 20 Ailes associates (he won’t say if they include anchors Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly), he acknowledges that one of his leads (played by Margot Robbie) is a composite “based on the narrative of three different women that I had either direct or secondhand information about.” Still, he argues, a movie is not reportage and “film has to be in dialogue with other cultural forms.”
More controversial is The Two Popes, Fernando Meirelles’ account of meetings between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor, Pope Francis. Three Vatican experts contacted by THR are skeptical about the movie’s rose-hued depiction of the pontiffs’ relationship.
“They had nothing remotely resembling the relationship suggested by the film,” says George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope, a biography of Pope John Paul II. As to the movie’s suggestion that Benedict told Bergoglio he planned to retire and wanted him as his successor, it’s “absolutely inconceivable and totally false.” By contrast, the leading authority on Francis, Austen Ivereigh, argues in his new book, Wounded Shepherd, “Notwithstanding the scheming of Benedict’s courtiers, the 266th successor of Saint Peter enjoys a close relationship with the 265th, one that long predates Francis’ election.”
Elton John biopic Rocketman shuffles the facts of its hero’s life and takes some license (he didn’t adopt John Lennon’s name and didn’t marry Renate Blauel until years later) but otherwise sticks to the truth, at least as John sees them. “Having an unreliable narrator was important,” acknowledges director Dexter Fletcher.
Fletcher’s touchstone was “emotional truth” — “the emotional memory departs from the facts and the memory becomes the story,” he admits — but he did change one script element to make it more factually accurate. In real life, Elton discovered Elvis when his mother gave him an album; Fletcher initially showed him seeing Elvis on TV. “That was the only thing Elton was adamant about,” he says.
The central conceit of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, that gangster Frank Sheeran murdered Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, also has come under attack.
“Frank Sheeran said he killed Jimmy Hoffa. He said he killed Joey Gallo, too. And he said he did some other really bad things nearly as incredible,” writes Bill Tonelli in Slate. “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency.” Adds Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith in The New York Review of Books: ” ‘True crime’ films often take license with factual details. But The Irishman goes well beyond these conventions, since the entire story is premised on a confession that is not credible.”
How greatly such accusations damage the movies may depend on two factors: first, whether facts matter to Academy members more today than a year ago, when questions about Green Book‘s accuracy failed to derail its Oscar win; and second, how seriously the facts are altered. So far, no contender seems so egregious as to create a firestorm.
But, says John Cornwell, author of the Vatican exposé A Thief in the Night, any alteration of the truth may ultimately hurt audiences more than the movies’ awards hopes: “When distortion happens, it’s very unfortunate.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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