With its surprise wins at the Producer’s Guild awards and the Director’s Guild awards, The King’s Speech has inched ahead of previous favorite The Social Network to become the new frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. But there’s one chink in Speech’s strong armor: Christopher Hitchens. The renowned author and raconteur’s strongly-worded rebuke of the film’s historical accuracy (“it perpetrates a gross falisification of history”) has been a pretty hot read in Hollywood circles since it first appeared on Slate a couple of weeks back. Now, since The King’s Speech is no longer the underdog, Hitchens’s takedown could be a problem for the filmmakers.
Or maybe not. The Academy’s motives for their choices are sometimes inexplicable, but Oscar voters have never worried too much about flaws in their history. Here’s just a few of the questionably-accurate movies that have won major awards over the past few decades.
Most of the complaints concerning Ridley Scott’s 2000 Best Picture winner center on the character of Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix in an especially sniveling mood. Though the primary character, Maximus (Russell Crowe), was fictional, Commodus was not — though he was not, most agree, the father-murdering, sister-lusting coward of Scott’s story. In fact, his father probably died of smallpox or plague, and Commodus had his sister Lucillia killed after learning of her involvement in an assassination plot. Oh, and that whole big battle in the arena, where dirty-dealing Commodus dies at Maximus’s hand? Yeah, he was actually strangled in his bath, by a wrestler, 12 years into his reign. Though we’ll grant, that wouldn’t have been quite the same kind of slam-bag ending.
Mel Gibson’s 1995 Best Picture winner has, to put it charitably, a few minor deviations from the historical record. Let’s start with the kilts, shall we? The picture, set in the late 13th century, features characters wearing belted plaids and kilts. The latter originated in the 16th century. “This is like a film about Colonial America showing the colonial men wearing 20th century business suits,” protested historian Sharon L. Krossa. Hero William Wallace was not the poor son of a farmer, but of a landowner and knight. His romance with Queen Isabella was improbable (or at the very least icky), since Isabella was about two years old at the time of the film’s events. Edward II, 13 at the time, is also portrayed as an adult. There are other, more intricate errors, but you get the idea. Then again, maybe nobody in the Academy wanted to mention the mistakes to Gibson. Guy’s got a bit of a temper, you know.
Few films of the 1970s are as revered as Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 story of the breaking of Watergate, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards) and Best Adapted Screenplay. And for good reason— it remains a tense, intelligent, entertaining film with an admirable disinterest in Hollywood gloss. So strong was Pakula’s insistence on documentary-style realism, in fact, that he insisted on reproducing the Washington Post’s newsroom in a Burbank studio — right down to the trash, which production designer George Jenkins had shipped in from D.C. But, in spite of how much of the film is dead-on accurate, a couple of very important characters are left out entirely. City editor Barry Sussman was written out, with Jack Warden’s Harry M. Rosenfeld taking over his role in the story. More importantly, the newspaper’s publisher Katharine Graham is entirely absent. A fascinating figure (she took over the paper after her husband’s suicide; it had been left to him by her father, who presumably felt ladies couldn’t run newspapers), she was a hands-on figure in the investigation, “in and out of the city room two or three times a day, looking for a ‘fix’ on each day’s story,” according to the memoirs of executive editor Ben Bradlee. But William Goldman’s screenplay made Bradlee the sole gatekeeper and defender of “Woodstein,” and while that makes sense in terms of storytelling economy and clarity, one can’t help but wonder if the white guys who made the film couldn’t have found a way to spice up the cast of white guys in the newsroom.
Milos Forman’s brilliant 1984 drama posited that composer Antoni Salieiri (F. Murray Abraham) harbored a deep-seated resentment against, and rivalry with, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulse), portrayed as a goofy vulgarian with a God-given gift for composition. Ultimately, the film contends, Salieiri plays a role in Mozart’s death. But in fact, the rivalry between the two men may very well have been an after-the-fact fabrication, invented by rivaling factions within the German and Italian schools of music. Salieiri is said to have spoken only “with exceptional respect” of Mozart, whose wife trusted and respected Salieiri enough to engage him as music tutor for Mozart’s son Franz.
Sure, The English Patient doesn’t make the same claims to historical fact as some of the other, “based on a true story” affairs on this list. But Michael Ondaatje’s novel was, in fact, inspired by László Almásy, a Hungarian aristocrat and soldier. Except for the fact that he was a homosexual. His wartime love was not an Oxford-educated married woman, but a male German officer, killed by a landmine. Oh, and he didn’t suffer from burns. Or die in Italy. Aside from that though, pretty much the same guy.
Ron Howard’s 2001 biopic of schizophrenia-battling Nobel-winning economist John Nash left a few things out, like the divorce, estrangement, and remarriage to his wife, or the son Nash fathered with a nurse, whom he abandoned after he found out she was pregnant. The timeline is askew — contrary to the film, his schizophrenic hallucinations didn’t start to appear until several years after graduate school — and few characters aside from Nash (Russell Crowe) and wife Alicia (Jennifer Connolly) corresponded to real people. These inconsistencies bubbled up when Howard’s film became an Oscar front-runner, along with a few other claims (such as an anti-Semitic streak) that were unverified, and thought by some to be advanced by the film’s rivals. Which makes us wonder if The Social Network’s producers have reached out to Hitchens…
In all fairness, no one’s calling John Madden’s fluffy period romance the height of scholarship. But most Shakespearean scholars went out of their way to point out that Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay was basically a work of fiction. Its primary conceit, that the story of Romeo and Juliet was based upon Shakespeare’s own romantic misadventures at the time of its writing, ignores the commonly-acknowledged fact that the play was based on previous works (namely, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet and William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure). Other historians have also drawn attention to the film’s portrait of a lily-white London, though the city had a significant black population at the time of Romeo and Juliet’s writing. But so little information exists about the Bard — and so many theories have percolated around his true identity and process — that even some of the film’s wilder notions have at least a whiff of believability to them.
Wait, so Hitler wasn’t machine-gunned by a bloodthirsty band of Jewish renegades in a Parisian movie theater? Well, that’s Hollywood for you. You can’t trust any of these revisionist filmmakers.
Do you think The King’s Speech’s errors and exclusions will hurt its Oscar chances? And what other Oscar winners have played too fast and loose with the facts?