Everyone knows that movies "based on true stories" take some creative liberties. When translating a person's life into a film, creators often condense certain events, heighten or even create narratives, and make certain characters a lot more black-or-white 'good' or 'evil,' all to make the movie more digestible and entertaining for audiences. This is all pretty standard in filmmaking.
But sometimes, filmmakers fail to take into account how these narrative tweaks affect the legacies of real people with real friends and families who are still alive, and those people can get very upset. 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, and sometimes even the most minor, well-meaning creative decisions can affect how the world forever remembers that person. Here are 14 times it had serious ramifications.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
First Officer William Murdoch went down with the Titanic 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 a gun 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.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
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..."
- Photo: Universal Pictures
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 finish off 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, the pride of the Third Reich.
In the movie, Baer brags about how he killed boxer Frankie Campbell in the ring, which helps cement him as the film's swaggering, hateable villain. But that incident was actually hugely traumatic for Baer.
"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."
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
Before Johnny Cash met and furthered his country music stardom with June Carter, he was married to Vivian Liberto Distin. Considering her importance to Cash's life and story, she is depicted in Walk the Line, although the film focuses on Cash and Carter's relationship.
For Kathy Cash, daughter of Cash and Distin, the movie was hurtful. Kathy objected to the film's depiction of her mother and believed it reduced her to a narrative element meant to propel Cash's career forward. "My mom was basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career," she said.
Kathy claimed that, in reality, "[Distin] loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking [substances] and stopped coming home." She apparently didn't hold a grudge against the film, however, as she also claimed to have believed the performances of Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix were well done and the overall movie positive.
Despite these claims, Kathy allegedly made several attempts to watch the film at a special family screening, but walked out five times.