Some of Hollywood’s most honored films have tortured history into a question mark. Why would the Nazis of “Casablanca” have cared about letters of transit signed by Gen. De Gaulle? How could “Braveheart’s” William Wallace have fathered England’s Edward III, when the birth took place seven years after his death? Roman generals didn’t sound British. Cole Porter wasn’t straight. The “Bridge on the River Kwai” wasn’t on the River Kwai.
The thing is, no one cares, if the movies are good. But any notion that cinema has moved beyond fact-fudging will likely be quashed by this year’s crop of reality-based projects, many of which dance blithely along the border between fiction and non-.
Some of the infractions are relatively minor, and some are simply sins of omission: “Moneyball” sort of glosses over the fact that Billy Beane never did win a division championship with the Oakland A’s, and the song his daughter sings in a pivotal scene didn’t come out till six years after she reputedly sings it.
In “W.E.,” the Madonna movie about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, no mention is made of Wallis Simpson’s rather infamous sexual history, pre-prince. And in “Anonymous” all bets are off: Not only did the Earl of Oxford allegedly write all the Shakespeare plays (a position many scholars agree with), but Shakespeare himself was a craven, illiterate lout; Elizabeth I had numerous illegitimate children, including the Earl of Essex (which will surprise fans of the 1939 Bette Davis film “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”), and the old Virgin Queen was apparently pretty adept at performing oral sex.
Elsewhere, the demands of drama naturally lead to the compression of time, characters and circumstances, whether the subject is a British prime minister, Marilyn Monroe or a comedy writer with cancer.
“I wanted to write the best movie possible,” says Will Reiser, who based the screenplay for the cancer comedy “50/50” on his own experience. “But the movie is fiction. I didn’t want to worry about my story and what happened to me, even though my arc and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in the movie are pretty similar.”
Jason Keller, who scripted “Machine Gun Preacher,” about the colorful Sam Childers, says he “had the opposite problem of screenwriters who have to tackle living people. I had so much material to sift through and research (that) I literally didn’t start writing for almost eight months after I met him.”
The problem, Keller says, was the reality was occasionally too violent for the movies. “How do you talk about the violence of Central Africa,” he asks, “and not tip over into a place where people simply cannot watch the screen?”
What happens in “My Week With Marilyn,” in which Michelle Williams inhabits the late movie goddess, is based on Colin Clark’s memoir about his tenure as third AD on “The Prince and the Showgirl,” in which Monroe starred with Laurence Olivier. “It’s all conjecture,” director Simon Curtis says of the star’s alleged attraction to the young Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne). “Marilyn elsewhere in her life was always drawn to high-status alpha males, influential men. Michelle had an insight, though: In the ‘Prince and the Showgirl,’ her character is drawn to the young prince, not the Olivier character, and Michelle wondered if perhaps Marilyn was working out some kind of Method thing.”
Unlike “Moneyball,” “50-50,” or “Machine Gun Preacher,” all of which required their director to make viewers care about subjects they likely didn’t know anything about, “My Week With Marilyn” has the opposite problem. “For most people, she’s a brand,” says Curtis. “A poster, a Warhol. They don’t know the performances, or the person.” In other words, everybody thinks they already know her.
In the case of some films this year, they know the subjects — and don’t like them. That’s a problem shared by “The Iron Lady,” helmer Phyllida Lloyd’s story of Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, and “J. Edgar,” Clint Eastwood’s film about longtime FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Both have addressed the problem of long, politically charged lives by focusing on only a part of the story, and — in the case of “Iron Lady” — telling the tale from its subject’s p.o.v.
“This story is not an objective biopic,” Lloyd says of her film. “The story is all told from Margaret Thatcher’s point of view and it’s an imagined story of how it might it have felt to be the first female leader in the western world.” She and screenwriter Abi Morgan tried to be extremely rigorous about the facts “but necessarily, there’s some compression of time and one or two places where in order to make the story clear we’ve taken something out.
“On the whole,” Lloyd says, “we’re not nervous about being shot down in flames for our facts. We might be for the imagined part of the story.”
Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” laughed at the idea that a subject’s life has to undergo some alterations. “No, the movie is 77 years long,” he says of “J. Edgar.” “Every second of the man’s life is in there.”
Seriously, he adds, you have to make tough decisions about what period of the person’s life you want to tell. “In this case,” Black says, “a cradle-to-grave version might not say anything. I’d done the research and I had this question: Why does this man replace the spot where love and family go with political admiration. What does that do to a man’s soul?”
The conclusion, Black says, was that Hoover’s ruthlessness and inability to love had to do with his sexuality, and his times. Audiences may empathize, he says, even if they instinctively don’t like Hoover.
“I’m not interested in a historical piece that makes people into good or bad solely, that have white-hat/black-hat caricatures,” he says. “To me that’s not truthful. Even if you loathe the character, you’re not learning about them or learning something that could prevent a person like that from coming back into power.”
Ultimately, he adds, deciding what to leave in or cut “has to do with why you’re making the film.”
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