Hollywood loves to make films about historical figures, usually because they can be Oscar-bait (and possibly because the story's already written). However, when translating a person's life into a film, creators are often compelled to condense events while highlighting others. Real people may be omitted, and others combined into a single, invented character. Sometimes filmmakers will even turn seemingly everyday events into dramatic happenings to keep audiences interested.
While these practices can sometimes result in a biopic worthy of critical praise and awards, the real people involved in the story don't always approve of the outcome. Occasionally, a family won't approve but can't voice their opinions due to legal restraints, like Tupac Shakur's family regarding All Eyez on Me. Others, allegedly like Liza Minnelli, refuse to see anything involving their famous family members to save themselves from possible pain.
No matter how good a biographical film is, or how many awards it may win, it's important to remember the person seen on screen is or was a real person - with real families and friends that may not approve of how their story is told. In other words, like most movie magic, you shouldn't always believe what you see.
Clint Eastwood’s film Richard Jewell professes to tell the true story of a security guard whose life-saving actions during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing resulted in Jewell being investigated by the FBI and having his life upended in a public firestorm. Ironically, however, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ended up blasting the film for its defamation of Kathy Scruggs, a real-life AJC reporter, claiming she was unfairly maligned by the film’s loose interpretation of her character.
In the film, Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) makes an indecent proposal to an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) in exchange for landing a scoop, an event which, according to the AJC (and not directly disputed by Warner Bros.), never actually happened. Kevin Riley, an editor at the AJC, called it “lazy storytelling” and proclaimed “it was very upsetting to see Kathy Scruggs portrayed in a way that demeans not just her work, but the work of the AJC.”
Ron Martz, Scruggs’s longtime colleague at the paper, added, “If they had actually contacted me it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be.”
An attorney for the paper pointed out, “It is highly ironic that a film purporting to tell a tragic story of how the reputation of an FBI suspect was grievously tarnished appears bent on a path to severely tarnish the reputation of the AJC.”
Warner Bros. responded that the film was “based on a wide range of highly credible source material.” The movie also ends with the disclaimer, “The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”
Wilde passionately defended her portrayal of Scruggs, claiming, “I did a ton of research, I really embraced her dynamic, multidimensional nuanced personality,” and “I think it’s a shame that she has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film.”
Although Green Book received criticism after it won the Best Picture Oscar for depicting a "white savior" character, even more criticism came from the protagonist's real family, who claim the movie's story was entirely made up.
Green Book depicts black musician Dr. Donald W. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he travels through the Jim Crow South with his white chauffeur Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Throughout the movie, Vallelonga teaches Shirley how to connect with the black community, embrace black music, and eat fried chicken. It implies Shirley had no contact with his family, and he and Vallelonga forged a strong friendship. The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony, who most likely believed this plot to be accurate from his perspective. For Shirley's family, however, the film was entirely fictional and painful to watch.
According to Shirley's brother Maurice, the musician "had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact... There wasn't a month where I didn't have a phone call conversation with Donald." Maurice claimed the movie's events were even further skewed by the fact Shirley and Vallelonga never shared anything resembling a friendship. "He fired Tony!" Maurice added.
"It was an employer-employee relationship," Maurice's wife, Patricia, said.
For Shirley's niece, Carol, the movie was "a depiction of a white man's version of a black man's life... to depict him as less than... and make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best."
To make matters worse, Shirley's nephew, Edwin, claims his uncle never wanted a movie made about him and turned down requests decades ago. Although Nick and director Peter Farrelly insist the film is accurate and truthful, Ali reportedly called Shirley's family to apologize, saying, "If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives..."
The climax of 2005's Cinderella Man features protagonist James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) fighting and beating Max Baer (Craig Bierko) to become heavyweight champion. While this is an accurate portrayal of what happened in reality, Baer's son Max Baer Jr. took offense at director Ron Howard's depiction of his father.
In the movie, Baer is mean, bloodthirsty, and feels no shame about telling Braddock's wife he'll slay her husband and then take her as his own wife. Baer Jr. claimed his father's personality was very different than that seen in the movie and was offended he had been turned into a villain. "I have great respect for Ronny Howard," Baer Jr. said. "But he never called me for any factual information about my father. They distorted his character. They didn't have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero."
Although the film accurately shows Baer wearing a Star of David on his boxing trunks, Baer also took offense to the movie failing to mention he did so to show solidarity with Jewish boxing fans in New York. Many members of the Jewish community believed Baer to be a hero after he fought and beat Max Schmeling, reportedly a favorite boxer of the Third Reich's leader.
Baer Jr. claimed his father was a kind man who had never exhibited any hostility towards anyone after he caused the demise of boxer Frankie Campbell during a 1930 fight, a fact Howard used to play up the viciousness of the Baer character.
"My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell," Baer Jr. remembered. "He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie's children through college."
Others backed up Baer Jr.'s claims about his father's personality, often referring to him as "lovable clown." Lightweight champ Tommy Loughran recalled, "Max was the most misunderstood fighter of them all. He was the nicest guy. He had the heart of a lion."
First Officer William Murdoch perished when the Titanic capsized in 1912. He was in charge at the time the ship hit the iceberg and, according to witnesses, helped organize the loading of passengers into lifeboats on the starboard deck. As he left the boat, fellow officer Charles Lightoller claimed he specifically remembered seeing Murdoch helping passengers in that area and, since Murdoch was never seen again, it was assumed he went down with the ship.
In the 1997 film Titanic, possibly to heighten the tension onboard the ship as it sinks, director James Cameron chose to include a scene in which Murdoch accepts hush money to allow a passenger onto a lifeboat. Later, he fires into the crowd, then turns the piece on himself to take his own life.
Although a few witnesses claimed to have heard pistol shots after leaving the ship, and several claimed to have seen an officer fire at a few passengers to control the crowd, none of these accounts mention Murdoch. At official inquiries into the disaster, however, witnesses said nothing about arms. An officer firing shots at passengers before taking his life was an unsubstantiated legend until Cameron decided to include the alleged scene in his film and make Murdoch the shooter.
For Murdoch's nephew, Scott, Cameron's decision to include a rumor over facts was hurtful. "From my own family connections and also from my father having spoken to various officers who survived, he didn't commit suicide," he said. "If someone says to you somebody in the family committed suicide when he hadn't, you take objection."
The Murdoch family reportedly contacted Cameron twice before the movie's release to voice their complaints, but they went unheard. After the movie's release, Cameron finally confronted their objections by making an official apology for his depiction of Murdoch:
I think I have come to the realization that it was probably wrong to portray a specific person, in this case First Officer Murdoch, as the one who fired the weapon. First Officer Murdoch has a family and they took exception to that, and I think rightly so.