Awards Season

From ‘American Hustle’ to ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ Why Is Hollywood Hooked On Embellishing the Truth?

The ‘based on a true story’ tagline translates to ‘rewriting history by pumping the story with human growth hormone,’ and makes a box office titan that’s irresistible to the Academy.


David O. Russell's sexy caper, American Hustle, opens in a most unusual way. A message, white type against black background, is displayed on the screen: “Some of this actually happened.” It may seem like an innocuous disclaimer, but it’s a seductive communiqué. Like Jennifer Lawrence’s nail-polish topcoat in the film, it draws us in. How much of this wild, movie star-studded ride actually occurred? Will the next few hours be both didactic and entertaining, providing us with ample high and lowbrow cocktail party fodder?

Sure, our inner Doris Kearns Goodwin relishes spotting the words “based on a true story” in a Hollywood production. It can save us the trouble of perusing Wikipedia for hours upon leaving the multiplex, or going a step further and actually reading the film’s source material—be it non-fiction tome or lengthy magazine article—that lays everything out in detail. Thus, a pricey movie ticket becomes a gateway to knowledge, a new way to flaunt by experiencing these rich events vicariously through film. That these cinema offerings, a mélange of history lesson and fun, make out well in the box office—and oftentimes impress the Academy—is no surprise.

When it comes to movies, however, the “based on a true story” tagline tends to translate to “rewriting history by pumping up the story with human growth hormone.” A side effect of this is, of course, creating that perfect blend of intellectual critical darling and box office titan that’s irresistible to the Academy.

Last year’s Argo saw director Ben Affleck and co. take several historical liberties on their way to winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, from downplaying Canada’s involvement in the depicted CIA operation (“We’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA,” Ken Taylor, then Canada’s ambassador to Iran, complained), to inventing Alan Arkin’s wise-cracking Hollywood producer character (the film bested favorites Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, two more films filled with gross inaccuracies).

Now that we’re in the thick of awards season, a few of the frontrunners for Best Picture Oscar nominations include American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks, and 12 Years a Slave. These four “based on a true story” films have received heaps of critical acclaim, but how much history can we actually take from them, and to what extent has reality been blurred onscreen?

American Hustle is based on a true story, as it pays tribute to the FBI Abscam operation—a wacky mission in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s involving a pair of FBI agents posing as wealthy Arab sheiks, corrupt local and state politicians, the mob, and a paunchy grifter, Mel Weinberg, who was hired by the Bureau to help orchestrate the whole thing. Filmmaker David O. Russell, by his own admission, chose to fictionalize much of the film to create a more intoxicating entertainment.

“Where is fact and where is fiction?” said Russell at a New York press conference for the film. “I’m making cinema so I’m going to tell the best myths, the best stories, the best operas from an amalgamation of true events that inspire me, and true characters, and fiction and imagination—as well as what these actors co-create.”

So, in Hustle, all the names have been changed—e.g. Mel Weinberg becomes Irving Rosenfeld, played by the (considerably more attractive) chameleon-like Christian Bale, his wife, Cynthia Marie Weinberg, is renamed Roslyn Rosenfeld, etc. Most of the film’s eye-catching hairstyles are made up. Rosenfeld’s glued-on comb-over is far more hideous in the film than Weinberg’s was; FBI agent Anthony Amoroso, a.k.a. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), wasn’t a built stud with a flashy perm, but a schlub with straight hair and a double-chin; and Weinberg’s wife didn’t have Rosalyn’s (Jennifer Lawrence) fantastic updo. Russell also made all the characters much younger than they actually were—in their thirties as opposed to fifties and sixties. Weinberg was 56 and his wife 48 when the 1980 Abscam sting went down, whereas Bale is 39 and Lawrence 23.

Then there are the film’s foxy women. Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, Rosenfeld’s mistress and partner in crime. Unlike Prosser, a small-town Midwestern stripper who fakes an English accent and goes by “Lady Edith,” Weinberg’s real-life mistress was an actual British woman named Evelyn Knight, and while she did perform a number of cons with Weinberg, she played no role in the Abscam operation (and didn’t flirt with FBI agent Amoroso). Also, Evelyn was 19 years Weinberg’s junior. Jennifer Lawrence’s Roslyn, meanwhile, is portrayed in Hustle as a fiery nutjob who can’t be left alone for a day without almost burning the Rosenfeld house down. She’s the film’s main source of comic relief, and Lawrence is marvelous in the role. In reality, Cynthia Marie Weinberg was, according to People, “a bitterly unhappy woman who was demanding a divorce, she claimed that Mel took $45,000 in payoffs from one Abscam defendant and gave away expensive suits and furniture to FBI agents.” Her wish was never granted, however. On Jan. 28, 1982, she was found dead after apparently hanging herself. A note by the table read: “My sin was wanting to love and be loved, nothing more. But [a] campaign is being made by Mel to discredit me. I haven’t the strength to fight him anymore… Everything I have attested to is the truth.”

Nevertheless, American Hustle is a stunningly sexy—and messy—entertainment.

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf on Wall Street is based on Jordan Belfort's memoir of the same name, as it depicts his rise and fall as a manipulative stockbroker. Leonardo DiCaprio injects the character of Belfort with enough movie star charisma to make you want to be him, in spite of his morally bankrupt nature. Belfort’s “memoir” was outrageous on every level, from non-stop cocaine and Quaaludes to a revolving door of prostitutes. Martin Scorsese's film is no exception. It ramped up the drugs and sex so far that the studio where it was initially set up, Warner Bros., jumped ship, and Scorsese had to get the film independently financed by Red Granite Pictures.

Wolf is about the American Dream gone haywire, so exaggeration is the name of the game. For starters, the title of the book and film isn’t even accurate. Belfort’s bustling firm, Stratton Oakmont, was not located on Wall Street but out in Long Island, and it was an “over-the-counter” brokerage involved in various pump-and-dump schemes, with Belfort and his team manipulating the sales of penny stocks. The gang made a killing pillaging the pensions and life saving’s of working-class people—none of whom are seen in the film—and Belfort’s estimated worth at one point hovered around $200 million. Belfort’s right hand man in the film is Donnie Azoff, a chubby, effete, bespectacled guy played by Jonah Hill. In real-life, his name was Danny Porush, and he was a tall, fairly handsome fellow (sans glasses).

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But the biggest inaccuracy when it comes to Wolf is the resolution. In the film, these merry men have transformed into monsters, and are subsequently imprisoned. They have, it seems, been punished and learned their lesson, thus confirming that the film does not glamorize—but rather, criticizes—this type of disgusting, megalomaniacal behavior. But that’s not the case, according to Josh Shapiro, a Marine-turned-broker who worked alongside Belfort and Porush at Stratton Oakmont.

“Madoff got years in prison, and these guys have gotten off easy—22 months for Belfort, 39 for Porush—for ripping off $200 million,” Shapiro told the New York Post.

Indeed, Belfort optioned his book for a reported seven figures to Red Granite Pictures and DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and currently charges up to $20,000 a pop on the motivational speaking circuit. Porush, meanwhile, is a multi-millionaire who lives in a mansion in Boca Raton, Florida, where he runs the medical supplies company Med-Care Diabetic & Medical Supplies Inc.

Then there’s the case of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney's latest live-action picture that concerns the making of its 1964 classic Mary Poppins. In the film, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convinces author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to hand over the rights to her book. The struggle to satisfy the studio and Travers’s desires is a constant one throughout the film, but it makes for a delightful—if inaccurate—picture. The actors are splendid in the roles and prepared for them mightily, with Thompson listening to tapes Travers recorded of herself during the screenwriting process (totaling 39 hours), and Hanks watching old interviews with Disney and nailing his Midwest inflection. In Banks, Disney is portrayed as a squeaky-clean character, but was he, really? Depends whom you believe. In real-life, he’s been accused of anti-Semitism (see: Three Little Pigs and The Opry House) and racism (see: Song of the South), and named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Since the film was made by Disney, about Disney, they couldn’t even show the visionary smoking in the film (which star Hanks lobbied for). Instead, they were forced to compromise by having him stub out a cigarette.

And then there’s the question of the film’s ending. At the conclusion of Banks, Travers is emotional while watching the premiere of Mary Poppins, giving the film the classic Disney “happily-ever-after.” In reality, Travers stormed out of the movie theater and demanded that Disney make several changes to the film, including axing the dancing penguins. Disney, furious, told Travers “that ship had sailed,” and the two never spoke again, according to The New York Times.

Steve McQueen’s poignant saga 12 Years A Slave, however, takes a very literal approach to adapting history. It’s based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man who was captured in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Antebellum South. McQueen has said that Northup’s memoir “read like a film script,” and the film sticks by its source material, refusing to heighten crucial details for our entertainment. According to the New York Times, the film shows “what has often been missing among the economic, social and cultural explanations of American slavery and in many of its representations: human suffering.” McQueen’s film, in its stark and earnest portrayal of the slave trade, from “benevolent” slave owners (Benedict Cumberbatch) to brutal ones (Michael Fassbender), shows that a film doesn’t need to fudge the facts to be powerful. Then again, perhaps its insistence on accuracy, warts and all, is one of the reasons why the film has grossed under $40 million stateside, compared to sexed-up, buzzier fare like American Hustle ($90 million and rising) and The Wolf of Wall Street ($65 million and rising).

Hollywood's lack of creativity is nothing new. And the Academy has always loved heaping awards on exaggerated films “based on a true story,” from Titanic to Argo. But to what end? Perhaps all these “historical” films are actually a cry for help—for more original stories to enlighten and entertain. These days, movie-going audiences, by and large, seem to need a way in to the material—whether having it based on a historical event, adapted from a bestselling novel, or a dreaded sequel, while the studios—since movie stars don’t carry the same box office gusto they used to—often require the built-in audience this way in grants them.

Spike Jonze's Her, a groundbreaking film about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for his sentient operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), isn’t based on any source material, but says much more about the times and the way we live than any of the aforementioned movies. Let’s keep history in the classrooms, where people will actually learn something, and have the cinema be a place to escape from reality, not be fed junk versions of it.