Book Review
By Ray Young



Based on a True Story*

*But with More Car Crashes

Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies

By Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen. 512 pages, paper, 6 x 9; $18.95

Chicago Review Press, Distributed by Independent Publishers Group


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“You're the realest person I've ever met in the abstract.”

—Sycophant (Dennis Quaid) to movie star (Meryl Streep)
in Postcards from the Edge


    When James Cameron’s Titanic barged its way into the hearts and wallets of millions in 1997, some people were supposedly worried if the film would remain faithful to the facts surrounding the historic disaster. Not in respect to an anniversary (the centennial of the big event looms in 2012—brace yourself for reissues), but, well, just because. Having satisfied myself with the simpleton’s take—the ship went down and that’s that—I never could fathom (sorry…) the need among landlubbers and far-from-yar couch potatoes to pore over the minutiae of What Really Happened.
    After last year’s The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen’s new book, Based on a True Story*, tackles the discrepancies separating fact from fiction in Titanic and ninety-nine other movies, the majority of them of recent vintage and a reminder of the dearth of quality in contemporary mainstream pictures. Given its penchant for middle-of-the-road product, the subtitle, ‘fact and fantasy in 100 favorite movies’ (are The Serpent and the Rainbow and Blue Crush among your favorites?) suggests a work slanted toward viewers less concerned with art than artifice.
    It’s a given that pre-1960’s Hollywood rigorously subscribed to fabrication when telling the ‘truth,’ explaining why the authors, outside of a nod to 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, don’t venture earlier than Bonnie & Clyde and Lawrence of Arabia. Comparing real events to their concocted movie scenarios, the mission here is to debunk myths and clarify misconceptions. It’s a fast, neat study peppered with sarcasm, and hedges the murky underside of fraud and fakery, the psychology of the lie and the hypnotic allure of big bucks.
    In the case of Titanic, a lot of people failed to notice the stench of mothballs emanating from its archaic love story especially when, as the authors point out, Billy Zane played his villain “with all the subtlety of a silent movie mustache twirler.” The rest of Cameron’s woozy emotional invention—Jack and the babble about his ‘French girls,’ those transparent jabs at the bourgeois, Kate Winslet’s cheeky revival of Rubenesque beauty—sends the film hard astern on the poop deck. But it cost and made a fortune, became the biggest media event since The Godfather (similarities between the two end there), and instigated a widespread fixation on nautical and historic propriety. That Leonardo and Kate’s characters were never onboard the real ship is apparently ok among those fickle fact checkers. Whether or not the stiff upper lip musical ensemble played “Nearer My God To Thee” en route to Davy Jones’s Locker, however, has been something of an issue, albeit one that I’ve never lost sleep over.

Above: Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. The real Erin Brockovich was “mostly happy with the movie’s accuracy,” according to the authors. But she told People magazine, “I’d never let my bra strap hang out like Julia does…Never.”

    Vankin and Whalen explore nine topics and genres that regularly fall to creative license—including biopics, ‘documented’ supernatural phenomena (re: The Amityville Horror, Communion, etc.), war pictures, medieval melodramas—and those insecurities churning within the commercial machine that causes sober minds to exaggerate. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but bending it to appease a simpleminded clientele has been de rigueur in the cinema for a hundred years. “It’s…that ‘take it up a level’ attitude that drives Hollywood moviemakers to trivialize perfectly compelling true stories by loading them up with treacly bullshit,” they write. Whether by changing names to protect the innocent in Goodfellas or importing kung fu to eighteenth-century France for Brotherhood of the Wolf, the movies have developed their own distinct brand of integrity.
    Beyond dates, facts and figures (and lists of books and websites for additional research), Based on a True Story* quickly notices when screenplays deviate for controversial issues. The detour taken in Dog Day Afternoon, for example, where the real bank robber’s overt homosexuality was toned down as background color. “The movie’s most famous scene never happened,” the authors write. “That’s the ‘Attica! Attica!’ scene…[an] invention that redirects the movie away from a ‘gay pride’ theme to something more acceptable to both the Hollywood Left of that era and mainstream America of any era.” The white liberal guilt behind Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi mutates the story of a black man (Medgar Evers) into a portrait of his white racist assassin, thereby legitimizing “the criticism that white Hollywood cares only about white characters.”
    While the mainstream film reflects the moods, emotional climate and trends of the times, rarely does it critique intellect outside of ham-fisted pontifications on hot button topics. One thing that the book doesn’t broach (at least in any great detail) is the decades of our conditioning through movies and television, the repeated exposure to toxic tidy resolutions and happy endings. The net of all that fantasy—a childish idealism currently prevalent in western culture—shouldn’t be underestimated.
    “Sometimes a reality-based movie insinuates itself into popular culture so completely,” they write of Bonnie & Clyde, “it winds up eclipsing the actual events it chronicles. Looming large in our collective memory, the dramatic fake becomes more ‘real’ than the reality.” This brings to mind the eccentric faux documentary, F for Fake, one film about fact and fantasy that is sorely missing from Based on a True Story*. Orson Welles patched his own 35mm footage about Picasso and magic tricks together with an aborted 16mm project about girl watching and art forgery initiated a few years earlier by Francois Reichenbach. (“For the next hour,” Welles assures us at the outset, “everything you see will be true”—a declaration we’ve forgotten about once the movie rolls beyond sixty minutes.) Based mostly on factual material, F for Fake evolves into a shaggy dog documentary about fakes and sleight-of-hand, underlined by the philosophy of art forger Elmyr de Hory: “If a copy [of a masterpiece] hangs in a museum long enough, it eventually becomes the real thing.”
    “Hollywood prefers to gauge its fidelity with a flexible yardstick,” the authors write. Just as conditioning has taught us to presume life should happen with the punctuality of a well-timed screenplay, we’ve come to rely on stock characters and situations in our movies. From our politics to our jobs, we’ve grown to love bullshit as much as we love our movies. Like the dragon eating its tail…or tale.