The lives of historical figures have provided Hollywood with film fodder for decades. Biographical movies aren't necessarily as accurate as they claim to be, though. From Bohemian Rhapsody to Braveheart, inaccurate biopics prove that great films don't always make for great history lessons.
Inaccurate films about historical figures tell mistruths that range from the mild to the outrageous. Some biography movies merely compress events, re-order chronologies, or create composite characters to streamline storytelling; others twist facts and misrepresent historical figures in offensive ways. What bio movies don't say about historical figures is sometimes as important as what they do say: biopics that lie by omission tend to glorify historical subjects by ignoring inconvenient truths that are nonetheless important windows into their lives.
But no matter how they may twist or ignore the facts, all the films on this list sacrifice accuracy in some way to sugarcoat, whitewash, misrepresent, over-dramatize, or over-simplify the past.
Amadeus centers on two composers in 18th-century Vienna: Antonio Salieri is competent, but lacks brilliance; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a musical genius whose childishness and arrogance deeply offend Salieri. A rivalry is born between the two, and it ends with Salieri claiming responsibility for Mozart's premature passing.
Though the film has been heralded as a brilliant study of genius and mediocrity, its central story has no basis in fact: Salieri was not behind Mozart's passing. While Salieri was a composer who matched Mozart's acclaim, and rumors persisted of a rivalry between the two men, the historical record suggests that they may have been collaborators. The film's depiction of Salieri does the historical figure no favors - he is cold, calculating, and aloof where Mozart is jovial, excitable, and extroverted.
Salieri's focus on his work and dismissiveness towards human relationships is further highlighted by the fact that he is presented as a lonely bachelor who lusts after his music students - in reality, Salieri was happily married with children. The manipulation of facts to transform Salieri into a villain in Mozart's life story was purposeful, and screenwriter Peter Shaffer defended the film by saying it "was never intended to be a documentary biography."
Actors: Jeffrey Jones, Cynthia Nixon, Christine Ebersole, Abraham Murphy, Tom Hulce, + more
Directed by: Miloš Forman
Ashton Kutcher stars in Jobs, the first biopic about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The film traces the titular character's early career path from Reed College dropout to the CEO of one of the most profitable companies in the world.
To be fair, Jobs doesn't sidestep all of Steve Jobs's unsavory history: he denied that his first daughter was really his, for example. The film tends to glorify Jobs's genius, however, and overstates his role in developing Apple. In the process, it minimizes co-founder Steve Wozniak's contributions. Wozniak has called the film inaccurate and specifically called into question how he and Jobs are portrayed.
Actors: Ashton Kutcher, James Woods, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, Matthew Modine, + more
Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Birdman of Alcatraz may have earned Burt Lancaster an Academy Award nomination for his performance as real-life inmate Robert Stroud, but the film is more fiction than fact. The biopic follows Stroud's life in captivity; after being imprisoned for ending someone's life, the film depicts Stroud as a rebel hero challenging the authority and confines of the American prison system. He finds solace by breeding, studying, and treating birds in his cell.
In real life, Stroud was not the misunderstood hero the film portrays. He routinely fought his fellow inmates and guards - including, as shown in the movie, one guard whom he slew with a knife in 1916 - to the point that he was placed in solitary confinement. Stroud transformed his cell into a laboratory; an unsanitary space, cluttered with bird excrement and dissections. After studying birds in his cell for decades, Stroud published a book about canaries.
The film tends to glorify and exonerate Stroud, although he was diagnosed as a psychopath.
Actors: Burt Lancaster, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Edmond O'Brien, + more
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
The Theory of Everything is a loving portrait of Stephen Hawking's marriage to Jane Wilde and how she helped him persevere through ALS to become an internationally celebrated physicist. In the film, Hawking and Wilde meet while they are both students at Cambridge University. They marry and start a family soon after Hawking's ALS diagnosis, but Wilde becomes increasingly alienated from his life.
Though the film is based on Wilde's memoir, it nonetheless fails to represent the complexities of their marriage accurately. In her memoir, Wilde was explicit about the fact that marrying Hawking and providing care for him meant she would more or less give up her professional career. The film largely sidelines her ambitions, though, and she is transformed into a character who solely exists for Hawking.
Wilde has also expressed disappointment that the film didn't go far enough in depicting the responsibilities she accepted. The Theory of Everything also downplays the significant role Hawking's relationship with Elaine Mason - whom he later married - played in the breakdown of the marriage. His marriage to Mason caused an estrangement between Hawking, Wilde, and their children. The film also fails to touch on rumors that Mason neglected and abused Hawking.
Actors: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, + more
Directed by: James Marsh