Condensing the lives of real people into a two-hour movie often forces filmmakers to carefully edit the facts. This sometimes leads to biopics that are more of a fictionalization than an accurate portrayal. People who played a part in the protagonists' lives may be omitted, and events that shaped their beliefs or inspired their actions may be left on the cutting room floor.
These changes don't always make a biopic bad, but they can prevent it from telling the complete truth. The worst offenders change the facts completely or base their plotlines on conspiracy theories and what-ifs. Most often, biographical pictures are inaccurate simply due to the nature of making a movie.
Abridging some pieces of a person's life may be necessary to fit the constraints of a motion picture, but a good biography uses facts in a respectful manner without altering reality. Unfortunately, not every biopic succeeds.
Amadeus won numerous awards, including the 1985 Oscar for Best Picture, but much of the story is pure fiction. Most notably, there is no hard evidence that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri ever hated one another or engaged in a rivalry. Filmmakers most likely added this to make the story of Mozart more interesting, specifically when viewed through the eyes of a man who wanted him gone.
Though the film shows Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) plotting against Mozart (Tom Hulce) in an attempt to ruin his career, evidence suggests the two men were actually friends. In a letter, Mozart claimed he once gave Salieri a ride to a performance of his opera The Magic Flute, and Salieri thoroughly enjoyed it. It is true that Italian musicians prevented The Marriage of Figaro from being performed in Vienna, and that Salieri beat out Mozart for a position teaching music to the Princess of Württemberg, but there is no evidence that Salieri was behind either of these events, as depicted in the movie.
Amadeus also implies that, in addition to being a notorious womanizer, Mozart became romantic with Caterina Cavalieri, whom he cast in The Abduction from the Seraglio. Salieri is depicted as being more jealous of Mozart for his successful romantic conquest. This love triangle was likely made up by the filmmakers, as history suggests Cavalieri was the mistress of Salieri, and Mozart specifically told his father in a letter that he had no relations with her.
These are the most prominent inaccuracies of Amadeus. Movie fans and historians have also pointed out other departures from reality, such as how conductors operated at the time, the wrong music being played during a dance, and the erroneous depiction of Salieri completing Requiem as Mozart passed.
Any viewer who watches Lisztomania to learn about the life of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is going to be disappointed - and probably very confused.
Instead of delving into Liszt's biography, the film is an absurd fantasy filled with 8-foot-long erections, capes, and vampires. With the Who's Roger Daltrey playing Liszt, and an appearance by Ringo Starr as the Pope, the film says more about art styles in 1975 - the year it was filmed - than the 1800s, when it's supposed to be set.
The film turns Liszt's real-life lover, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, into a dominatrix. His son-in-law, composer Richard Wagner, becomes an anti-Semitic vampire who creates a Frankenstein-style monster as a symbol of white supremacy.
Lisztomania certainly succeeds in creating an absurdist spectacle - but maintaining a certain amount of accuracy? Not so much. The Guardian suggests it "may be the most embarrassing historical film ever made."
Great Balls of Fire! depicts the life of Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid), a musician whose career was ruined after he married his 13-year-old cousin. Critics accused the filmmakers of not only painting Lewis in too good a light but also botching the casting.
Quaid was 35 years old when he made the film - or 14 years older than the character he was playing. That only makes it creepier when he begins hitting on 18-year old Winona Ryder, who plays his 12-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown. Although probably unintentional, the casting makes Lewis look more like a desperate middle-aged man than a budding rock star.
The filmmakers also changed the details of how the marriage took place. In the film, Lewis presents Gale with a marriage license while driving to a chapel in a state where their marriage will be legal. In real life, Gale claims their marriage was not an impromptu event, and Lewis asked her to marry him a few days before their road trip. While their marriage would have been legal in Mississippi, it was Lewis's third - and he was still technically married to another woman.
The filmmakers were so determined to turn Lewis's decisions into a rose-tinted story that they ended the film with Lewis declaring, "If I'm going to hell, I'm going there playing the piano," followed by a dramatic kiss between the couple and shots of a crowd dancing to his music.
Critics were less than thrilled with Beyond the Sea, not because director/actor Kevin Spacey got the facts wrong, but because most saw the movie as nothing more than a vanity project.
The inaccuracy present in this film is really an issue of optics. The then-45-year-old Spacey cast himself in the lead role of Bobby Darin, who became a star in his teens and passed at age 37. Spacey did close to nothing to change his appearance and thus looks very odd as a middle-aged man playing a teenager.
While the actor has a decent voice, and a clear love for Darin, film critics like Mick LaSalle noted that Spacey was simply not a good fit to play the youthful, energetic singer. "Where Darin was feisty, charming and openhearted, Spacey is sly, creepy and covered," he writes in his review. "Where Darin was insolent but vulnerable, Spacey is insolent and impervious."
That lack of vulnerability is the film's ultimate downfall, LaSalle claims. Darin's early demise was the result of a heart condition he developed at a young age, and his health was so poor that he required the use of backstage oxygen tanks. "That Darin was a sick man... for his entire career is the essential fact of [his] life story. It's what drove him," LaSalle writes. By contrast, Spacey's Darin appears hale and healthy for the majority of the film, with the tanks not shown until the end.