Whether it’s about lending gravitas to the patently commercial, or because such stories seem new and different in a marketplace saturated with remakes and franchise expansions, true-story films often excite Academy voters, if not occasionally audiences too.
Six of the eight Best Picture nominees this year provide portraits of people who have lived. They might be highly stylised, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, or with a swathe of sexy Sapphic liberties like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, but each distinguish themselves from Hollywood’s more typical Black Panther blockbuster fare that dominates box offices.
Amid this slew of biopics, two of the Best Picture nominees – Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody – have been mercilessly scrutinised for their supposed deviations from reality. While we’re seemingly pretty okay with letting The Favourite off the hook – fact-checking a film set in the 18th century is apparently much more difficult – enough folks are alive and chatty enough to ‘correct’ aspects of Green Book (set in the early 1960s) and Bohemian Rhapsody (charting Freddie Mercury’s career until the 1985 Live Aid concert) and wanted closer consultation on these stories.
I’m fascinated by the conjecture around the ‘truth’ of these presentations. About whether Green Book exaggerated the friendship between Italian-American driver Tony Vallelonga and his queer black musician passenger Don Shirley. About whether Bohemian Rhapsody somehow sanitised the intimate life of the Queen lead singer. Such accusations trouble me. They trouble me partly because I quite liked both films and thus feel a tiny bit of protectiveness, but also because such claims seem to disregard everything we know about storytelling and about the American film industry.
We could have a conversation here about who has the rights to tell a story. About whose version of events is more real and thus, more worthy of preservation on film. We could talk about the reality that no one person is an objective observer of a story, and that there’s no ability to make a biopic that’s both wholly impartial and also a popcorn accoutrement. We could talk about the reality that every person we ever encounter will meet a different ‘version’ of us, and that – in my case – of the dozens of people who could claim relation, there’s maybe three who could proffer a decent approximation. And we could talk about the impossibility of faithfully doing justice to a person’s entire life in a mere two hours of screen time whilst also pleasing every hanger-on.
But we should probably talk about money. About Hollywood being a business and Hollywood not being a teacher, social activist, or mirror to reality.
American filmmaking is a patently commercial business. And for every film critic and opinion columnist dubbing Green Book insufficiently woke, or Bohemian Rhapsody as disappointingly desexualised, is a marketplace reality that most filmgoers aren’t looking for social engineering when they enter the cinema: they’re there to be entertained. A thoughtful and thorough exposition on race and sexuality was never going to be provided by the multiplex.
Had Hollywood truly cared about giving a fuller account of Don Shirley’s connection to his family or culture, they would have rung around a little more. Had Hollywood really wanted to present Freddie Mercury as more cocksman than rockstar, they could have. But they didn’t. They didn’t because they wanted to sell as many tickets as possible.
While Hollywood producers want a good few Americans paying to see their films – and thus why, more often than not, movies tend to target the sweet spot of not PG family-friendly fare but not so restrictive as to exclude the lucrative teen market either – eyes are on the bigger prize of global release. Studios want distribution in a broader world that isn’t particularly passionate about the plight of African Americans nor harbouring the same liberal attitudes towards sexuality.
In 2016, Disney released the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake. As a result of excessive overhyping of an ‘exclusively gay moment’ – which turned out to be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dance between two men – a variety of countries issued sanctions. The Kuwaitis pulled the film, the Malaysians demanded edits, the Russians classified it so that children were prohibited entry, and an Alabama drive-in made the most Alabaman statement of all by refusing to screen it altogether. A laughable overreaction but a reminder that Hollywood makes films for the world and producers are permanently mindful of social values not yet being fully globalised. Not showing Freddie in explicit sexual scenarios enables the film to enter markets that it otherwise wouldn’t. We can absolutely debate representation and equity and about which actors get to play which roles, but all of these conversations need to be had within the context of an industry that’s about making money. Only. Always.
When a film is marketed as being based on – or inspired by – a true story, it’s framed as conveying a kind of truth. But ‘based on’ and ‘inspired by’ are hedges. The allowance for dramatisation and exaggeration and judicious editing function to tell a story that’s attractive to global audiences and to the Academy.
Hollywood might offer up impromptu lessons on material that school forgot to cover. But to consider such lessons as education or a substitute for a history book is problematic. Films – no matter their subject matter – are commercial products that we’ve purchased to entertain us. Expecting them to do more will always leave us disappointed.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her tenth book Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes will be published later in 2019.