This past year, as in just about every recent year, a spate of films have been released which purport to chart the lives of real people. A list of biopics from 2016 only begins with FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS and JACKIE, HACKSAW RIDGE and HANDS OF STONE and HIDDEN FIGURES, LOVING and LION, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU and SULLY and SNOWDEN, DENIAL and GENIUS, RULES DON’T APPLY and THE BIRTH OF A NATION and so many others. Plus, the new year has started off with THE FOUNDER.
The names of some of their central characters are not well-known: for example, World War II hero Desmond Doss; African-American NASA pioneers Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson; and Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who, back in the 1950s, broke the law in the state of Virginia for the “crime” of getting married. But others are familiar. They only begin with Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon, Jackie Kennedy and Barack Obama, Roberto Duran and Miles Davis, Edward Snowden and Nat Turner, Thomas Wolfe and Elvis Presley.
One film that I regularly screen in a couple of my film courses is Woody Allen’s CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS. During a previous semester, one of the students observed that Martin Landau-- the actor who plays Judah in the film-- also appears in ED WOOD, a biopic that dates from 1994. This brings to mind a point about celluloid biopics that cannot be overstressed. First, the ED WOOD scenario involves the title individual, who was the real-life cross-dressing director of such all-time-worst films as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and GLEN OR GLENDA. And in ED WOOD, Martin Landau deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi, the famous horror film actor who worked with Ed Wood.
This union was brief, as Lugosi soon passed away. But the point is that, in the film, the depiction of the manner in which Wood and Lugosi first meet is completely erroneous. The reason why I say this is because I knew the person who introduced them. (I say “knew” because he has since passed away.) His name is Alex Gordon, and he worked with both men. And when ED WOOD was released, Alex gave a presentation at the now-defunct Syracuse Cinefest, an annual festival which spotlighted old and rare films. In his talk, he related the true story of Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi as he experienced it.
This is yet another example of the importance of not accepting as fact everything you see in a biopic. In the case of ED WOOD, it simply was easier, for the purpose of the narrative, to “make up” the meeting of Lugosi and Wood-- and I could spend hours offering up examples of how the “facts” of a person's life often are altered when that person’s life story becomes a movie. This may be because the film’s makers have an agenda, or they want to plant smiles on the faces of viewers all in the name of happy-ever-after endings and greater box office grosses.
The point to all this is: Do not believe everything you see in a biopic. If you really want the “truth” about an individual, you would be better off reading a well-written and thoroughly-researched biographical history.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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