15 Movie Characters Who Are Just Thinly Veiled Versions Of Famous 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.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
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.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
When Lauren Weisberger published her 2003 bestseller, The Devil Wears Prada, no one was under any illusions about who her villain was modeled after. Set in the back-stabbing world of high fashion, the story follows Andy, a new assistant to the editor-in-chief of the glossiest fashion magazine of them all, Runway. Though her boss’s name is Miranda Priestly, the resemblance to Vogue editor Anna Wintour is undeniable, especially considering that Weisberger had been Wintour’s assistant early in her career. When the novel was adapted into a movie, Priestley was immortalized by Meryl Streep, whose frosty portrayal of the not-so-fictional antagonist became permanent internet fodder and an even more overt representation of the Vogue editor.
Priestley is a two-dimensional villain in the novel, but Streep was drawn to the character for more nuanced reasons. “The most interesting piece to me was the responsibility lying on the shoulders of a woman who was the head of a global brand and fashion empire,” she said. “Embedded in [the book]… is what the perceived deficits are of women in a leadership position. Chief among them is to expect women to be endlessly empathetic, a sense of employees’ discomfiture that she doesn’t give a sh*t, all the things that they would not ask of a male boss.” To highlight the complexity and expertise of the character, Streep insisted on adding the famous “cerulean” monologue in which Miranda schools Andy on the history and meaning behind the color of her humble sweater to illustrate the cultural significance of fashion. Streep also revealed that she modeled her performance, not off Wintour, but - who else? - Clint Eastwood. “He’s someone that guys really respect, and he never raises his voice, ever,” she said, “The one time that he did, it so terrified people for two weeks, they were traumatized.” Though Wintour may have staunchly ignored the novel, she was so pleased with Streep’s performance that she named the actress as her top choice to play her in a (hypothetical) musical based on her life.
- 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.
- Photo: RKO Radio Pictures
Citizen Kane, one of the most ubiquitous entries on “Best Movies of All Time” lists, was almost destroyed before it could reach audiences. Orson Welles’s rags-to-riches epic is a not-so-subtle portrait of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and is far from flattering. It follows the life story of Charles Foster Kane, a man of humble origins who becomes one of the most influential figures of his day, first through his scurrilous newspaper and then as a politician. As his wealth grows, so does his isolation. His egomania and cruelty toward those around him force him further and further into the depths of his palatial Xanadu estate, and he dies alone, pining for the warmth and simplicity of his modest childhood.
Beyond the obvious similarities in their names, William Randolph Hearst and Charles Foster Kane have many things in common. Their spearheading of yellow journalism, for example, and their controlling behavior toward their mistresses' careers were particularly scandalous to those who opposed the film (Hearst had a decades-long relationship with silent film actress Marion Davies; Kane has a decades-long relationship with wannabe opera singer Susan Alexander). Xanadu is a near-replica of Hearst’s sprawling San Simeon, and both men used their wealth to intimidate and coerce people for political and social gain. Before Citizen Kane was released, Hearst tried to destroy it, urging Hollywood executives to buy the rights to the movie and burn the film negative, and sending his cronies to threaten distributors with blackmail, smear campaigns, and FBI investigations. He even accused Welles of communism and dodging the draft. His efforts were largely successful. The movie was a flop, and when it was mentioned as a nominee at the 1942 Oscars, it received boos from the audience. Given its bruising entry into the world, it’s not surprising that Welles maintained throughout his life that it was almost entirely fictional and that the comparisons to Hearst were “misleading.”
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Blake In ‘Last Days’ Is Obviously Kurt CobainPhoto: Fine Line Features
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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Glenn And Wade Motch In ‘The Campaign’ Are Obviously The Koch BrothersPhoto: Warner Bros.
It’s no surprise that the director of all three Austin Powers movies would find plenty to work with in the world of American politics. Jay Roach’s 2012 comedy, The Campaign, stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as opposing Congressional candidates from South Carolina whose desperate attempts to win public favor devolve into baby-punching and accusations of terrorism. Hovering in the background of the campaign, and Washington itself, are the Motch Brothers, sibling billionaires played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow who increase their wealth by purchasing politicians. Politics have changed since 2012, but when the movie was released, few people with even a passing knowledge of the campaign landscape would have failed to recognize that the Motch Brothers were a direct parody of the Koch Brothers, the billionaire businessmen credited with reshaping American politics.
Galifianakis told interviewers that the parallels between the Motchs and the Kochs were “pretty obvious,” adding that the real-life billionaires were “creepy.” This didn’t sit well with the brothers, who retaliated by referencing Galifianakis’s recently released Hangover sequel. Through a spokesman, they said it was “laughable to take political guidance or moral instruction from a guy who makes obscene gestures with a monkey on a bus in Bangkok.” They apparently did not, however, find fault with their on-screen alter-egos who, among other things, attempt to “insource” Chinese labor because the unregulated sweatshop they're running in China simply isn’t cutting enough expenses.