15 Movie Characters Who Are Just Thinly Veiled Versions Of Famous People

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Vote up the most blatant fictional stand-ins for real people.

When screenwriters are trying to dream up larger-than-life characters, the real world has plenty to offer by way of inspiration. But when it comes to recreating famous people, filmmakers have to tread lightly. Making a movie that is explicitly based on a celebrity’s life can lead to lawsuits, which is why many screenwriters opt for creating lightly fictionalized versions of the famous people they have in mind. With this tactic, Gus Van Sant was able to make a controversial biopic about the last days of Kurt Cobain’s life, Orson Welles was able to critique the career of a tyrannical millionaire, and Francis Ford Coppola was able to draw a direct connection between Frank Sinatra and the mafia.

Sometimes, even name changes don’t prevent celebrities from lashing out at their thinly veiled on-screen counterparts. David Bowie threatened to sue Todd Haynes for Velvet Goldmine, for example, while the Koch Brothers had some choice words for Zach Galifianakis after he conceded that The Campaign was skewering their influence on politics. In all these cases, the parallels between famous people and supposedly fictitious characters are impossible to ignore. Vote up the most blatant fictional stand-ins for real people.

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  • When filmmakers create characters who are based on real-life celebrities, it’s often a harmless parody like in Blazing Saddles or a loving tribute like in Velvet Goldmine. In the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic The Godfather, however, the character based on Frank Sinatra is neither of these things. In an early scene, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has brought his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) to his sister’s extravagant wedding where hundreds of well-heeled guests are swooning over a famous crooner named Johnny Fontane (Al Martino). By explaining how his father managed to get one of the most famous singers in the world to perform at his daughter’s wedding, Michael reveals that his family is actually The Family – the one that kills people for a living. His father, he explains, once helped Fontane escape an unfavorable contract with a bandleader by holding a gun to his head and informing him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. 

    Rumors of a similar event in Sinatra’s career followed the singer for most of his adult life, along with other incidents and alleged ties to organized crime. The singer went to his grave denying all such allegations, but took particular offense at his thinly veiled portrayal in The Godfather, and singled out the author of the book on which the movie is based, Mario Puzo. On one occasion, he confronted Puzo in public, hurling verbal abuse and threatening “to beat the hell out of [him].” (The incident was later the inspiration behind the HBO docudrama, The Deal, which follows the making of the movie.) Perhaps he should have leveled his rage at Coppola rather than Puzo. While the director acknowledged that the movie version of Fontane was “[obviously] inspired by a kind of Frank Sinatra character,” Puzo maintained that the heavy-drinking womanizer in the book was purely fictional.

  • Brian Slade In ‘Velvet Goldmine’ Is Obviously David Bowie
    Photo: Miramax

    Todd Haynes’s 1998 tribute to the glam rock movement of the 1970s would have been a biopic of David Bowie if the pop star hadn’t threatened to sue him. Instead, Haynes reworked the script to feature a character who was unmistakably Bowie (with a different name) but even more theatrical, outspoken, and troubled by fame. The film centers on journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) as he investigates the faked on-stage death of his pop idol, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) a decade before. Slade had been at the apex of the '70s music scene in London with his stage alter-ego, Maxwell Demon (the spitting image of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust), sending the press into a frenzy. As Stuart interviews Slade’s friends and colleagues, he revisits his own history as a repressed teenager who found the courage to come out to his conservative parents by watching Slade.

    Though Haynes wanted to make a biopic of Bowie, he and critics pointed out that he may have benefited from the pop star’s refusal to be involved. “Although at the time of course I was really disappointed," he said in 2018, "I think the film actually benefits from it not being Bowie music because if there is ever a chance to read the Brian Slade character a little bit more fluidly, having him sing Bowie songs would have sealed that off completely.” With his glittering makeup, high heels, and open bisexuality, Slade is everything Bowie embodied in the '70s, but to greater extremes. The disclaimer at the beginning of the film proudly proclaims as much: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” Featuring a soundtrack of the biggest glam rock acts of the time (minus Bowie) and a protagonist whose identity is affirmed and shaped by the pop star, Velvet Goldmine captures the impact of Bowie’s revolutionary persona even if the man himself had quibbles with the details.

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    Miles Bron In ‘Glass Onion’ Is Obviously Elon Musk

    Miles Bron In ‘Glass Onion’ Is Obviously Elon Musk
    Photo: Netflix

    As soon as Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery hit theaters at the end of 2022, social media abounded with opinions about one character's overt parallels to the then-richest man in the world. Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a tech billionaire who makes rockets, thinks he has the solution to climate change, and really loves his car. He throws around the word “disruptor” like he’s playing a drinking game, and his fussy eccentricities (using only a fax machine to communicate, and having a dock that doesn’t float, to name a couple) are explained in tones of hushed reverence as evidence of his genius. Is he a red-pilled megalomaniac or does he just want everyone to “embreathiate the moment” and get along? The answer is not immediately clear, but what is clear from the first few scenes is that he is a thinly veiled version of Elon Musk. 

    Part of the frenzy of internet comparisons between the men was a result of unfortunate timing, as the release of the movie coincided with Musk’s Twitter takeover and subsequent tailspin that had the media wondering if he was not, after all, the genius that everyone thought he was. The negative headlines surrounding his state of mind may as well have come with a spoiler warning for the movie, but Johnson was adamant that the parallels were only “a horrible, horrible accident.” “There’s a lot of general stuff about that sort of species of tech billionaire,” he said, “But obviously, it has almost a weird relevance in exactly the current moment.” Norton dismissed the comparisons as well, saying that he likened the situation to the Carly Simon song, “You're So Vain (You'll Probably Think This Song is About You).”

    “I think that there's a lot of tech Illuminati who probably will and should think that it's in reference to them,” he said. While there are plenty of tech billionaires who could reasonably see themselves reflected in the character (disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes among them), it’s difficult to view Bron as anyone other than Musk, right down to the color of his hair, his age, and his particular brand of celebrity

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    Blake In ‘Last Days’ Is Obviously Kurt Cobain

    Gus Van Sant wanted to make a movie about the mysterious final days of Kurt Cobain’s life since the Nirvana frontman took his own life in 1994 at 27. “I started writing little things about what I thought maybe his missing days might’ve been like,” he said, “which I assumed weren’t too out of the ordinary. I thought there was a lot of normal stuff that he probably did.” Released in 2005, Last Days shows the lead character (played by Michael Pitt and named “Blake”) wandering through the woods near his Seattle home, noodling on his guitar, changing outfits, and watching MTV. Van Sant said that he had no intention of making a biopic, referring to the film as a poetic exercise. Because it was a story about an unknown period of the singer’s life, he explained, he had to invent everything. “In doing that,” he said, “it’s not really about a real person.” Pitt was highly aware of the context, however, revealing that he felt such a strong sense of responsibility toward Cobain and his fans that he considered turning down the role

    No one was fooled by the thinly veiled portrayal, and Cobain’s relatives remained upset by the movie for years. When a stage adaptation was launched in 2022, the singer’s estate called it “an unauthorized attempt to benefit from [a] brief meeting set up with Kurt and Gus Van Sant” that had been “exploited for profit for 30 years now and enough is enough.” For the director, such a controversy was nothing new. Last Days was the third movie in his self-described “Death Trilogy,” which fictionalized high-profile tragedies. The first film, Gerry, follows the real-life killing of a hiker at the hands of his best friend while lost in the desert. The second, Elephant, is a fictional account of the lead-up to the Columbine massacre from the perspective of the perpetrators. “All three films give profiles that are kind of like X-rays of the people,” Van Sant explained, “Rather than looking at characters from a kind of Shakespearean model, in which characters look at things from the inside of their own psychology, you get a look of what it looks like from the outside.” Cobain fans may have taken offense at the liberties he took with Last Days, but many critics were glowing, calling it a “mesmerizing dream of a film” and “a hauntingly beautiful tone poem.”

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    Rev. Fred Sultan In ‘The Great White Hype’ Is Obviously Don King

    The Great White Hype is a boxing satire directed by Reginald Hudlin starring Samuel L. Jackson as fight promoter Reverend Fred Sultan. Realizing that the highest-grossing fights involve a white man fighting a Black opponent, he goes in search of a white competitor for his client, the undefeated heavyweight champion James ”the Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans). The premise is based on the 1982 fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney (who was nicknamed “The Great White Hope”), making Rev. Sultan, by extension, a replica of the flamboyant boxing promoter, Don King, who was instrumental in drumming up the intense press coverage surrounding the event.

    With his silver hair, knack for oratory, and easy showmanship, Reverend Sultan is immediately recognizable as King, whose outsized personality was a familiar feature in the boxing landscape for decades. But Jackson didn’t want to be reduced to a mere caricature. “The director wanted me to look like Don King, and everybody knew who Don King was,” he said, “But I didn’t want to be Don King. I wanted the man to be Rev. Fred Sultan, so I decided to make him look like Julius Caesar.” Instead of spiking his hair in King’s trademark style, Jackson opted for a close-cropped silver cut like the Roman emperor, often concealed beneath a turban. Not only did this allow him to put his own spin on the character, but it also marked the beginning of his preferred method for inhabiting a new role: “From that point on,” he said, “I just decided, I had this great wig-maker, so I just found hairstyles that I felt would be distinctive for every character. Like an adventure.” Wigs aside, there was no question that Rev. Sultan was a replica of Don King.

  • Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder is a mashup of Hollywood humiliations. Constructed as a movie within a movie, it takes place in the jungle where a film production is shooting an Apocalypse Now-style war epic. Among the industry stereotypes it skewers are an Oscar-winning “method” actor in blackface (Robert Downey Jr.), a verbally abusive studio executive with a flair for language and dance moves (Tom Cruise), and a comedian addicted to drugs and toilet humor (Jack Black). All of them are derived from real Hollywood personalities, but Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman, is a particularly obvious take on a well-known celebrity. With his tight shirts, fake tan, and perennially glistening biceps on full display as he charges through the jungle, he looks more than a little like a young Sylvester Stallone in a host of movies in the '80s, most notably the first three Rambo installments.

    Speedman is a fading action hero with a major movie franchise in the rearview mirror (Scorcher I through VI) who is looking for a comeback after critics panned his awards-bait misfire, Simple Jack, about a man with special needs who can communicate with animals. His solution is to turn to the tried and tested formula that practically guarantees both box office rewards and critical acclaim: a Vietnam War saga filmed in the most hellish conditions possible. While there are plenty of actors to whom Tugg could be compared, one need only look as far as his open vest, headband, and machine gun to see overt parallels to an '80s version of Rambo. Even his fellow actor, Kirk Lazarus (Downey) compares him to Stallone's character. Had there been a Tropic Thunder sequel, Speedman would no doubt have starred in several more unwelcome installments in the Scorcher franchise as a grizzled version of his former self before dying heroically on screen to pave the way for a reboot.