Hollywood has a long and varied tradition in the production of biopics, those movies ‘based’ on the life and times of real life people of historical, social or cultural significance. And there have been many excellent examples of this genre down through the years; two that come to mind as I write are Ray, based on the life of Ray Charles and Walk the Line, based on the life of Johnny Cash. Now the key word here is ‘based’. This is a principle that allows Hollywood to take a certain level of artistic licence with the story of what actually happened.
There’s no question that a liberal dollop of whitewashing was applied to both Ray Charles’ and Johnny Cash’s stories. However, both are fine movies that don’t ignore the demons that stalked the musicians or the effect their behaviour had on those nearest and dearest to them.
On a similar note, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins movie (in which I briefly appeared as Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising) play hard and fast with historical facts. The character played by Charles Dance, for example, is blown up by a car bomb, decades before car bombs existed. The massacre at Croke Park didn’t occur as depicted, with an armoured vehicle crashing through the gates and driving onto the pitch before opening fire. The truth was a far messier and prolonged affair, with the RIC spraying gunfire all over the place, both inside Croke Park and outside its grounds.
But there’s a case to be made for the effectiveness of using a car bomb and the dramatic efficacy of depicting the Croke Park massacre in a brief and brutal manner. Just as there’s a case to be made for the artistic decisions taken with Ray and Walk the Line. I would maintain that all three movies remain true to the spirit of the story and the times and retain an emotional honesty, if not a strictly factual accounting of events.
However, and now we arrive at the nub of this particular blog, I have grave reservations about, in fact spit fire at the very thought of, recent incarnations of what Hollywood purports to be historical fact. I speak of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar and Anonymous. Now I know, on the surface of things, Anonymous does not present itself as fact, but, as I will outline below, it actually does, and in the most dangerous manner possible.
First, The Iron Lady. This is, apparently, the story of Margaret Thatcher, a woman who laid waste to vast swaths of the United Kingdom, drove the majority of its population to the very brink of despair, and ushered in, with a helping hand from Ronald Reagan, a new era of greed amongst the already wealthy that is still with us today. In fact, you could say that Thatcher and Reagan laid the foundations for the wholesale abuse of power and privilege and the arrogance displayed by the financial sector (and associated developers, estate agents, politicians, etc., etc.) in recent years.
Of course, according to The Iron Lady, we’ve all got it wrong. Margaret Thatcher was, in fact, a paragon of virtue, only wanted the best for Britain, even for the great unwashed, who, if they only had two brain cells to rub together, would realise they could all make a living and feed their twelve kids by going out and cleaning windows. Thatcher was also, actually, a feminist, a role model for women who yearned to break the glass ceiling of the corporate world, the progenitor of ‘girl power’ (as if that particular pile of hogwash has anything to do with empowerment).
The movie chooses to focus on Thatcher’s incipient Alzheimers in an effort to portray the woman as ‘human’ and only pays lip service to the devastation her policies wrought on the vast majority of Britain’s public. This treatment brings to mind a comedy drama made by The Comic Strip Presents back at the height of Thatcher’s rule called The Strike. In it, a screenwriter manages to entice Hollywood over to Wales to produce his story of the miners’ strike. In typical Hollywood fashion, they ride roughshod over the integrity of the script, making changes at every turn, even substituting the ending with a more upbeat resolution that results in the mines being kept open and everyone living happily ever after. Needless to say, the writer, a local, has to get out of town fast.
The irony here, of course, is that The Iron Lady, in many ways, has demonstrated the very arrogance and pomposity that was parodied in The Strike.
Of course, Hollywood is not averse to treating U.S. citizens in similar fashion. J. Edgar never gets properly to grips with the immense well of hypocrisy that was J. Edgar Hoover. What a genuinely fascinating movie that would have made. But no, it is actually, according to its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, a ‘love story’. Will someone please pass me the sick bag?
I reserve the greater portion of my bile, however, for the travesty that is Anonymous. This is a story that uncovers the truth about Shakespeare, that he didn’t, in fact, write the bulk of the plays attributed to him. This is a theory that gained currency sometime in the early 1800s. The fact is Shakespeare was a modest, mild-mannered, well-respected playwright who simply put the head down and produced a body of work that was popular with the public as well as royalty. He was very successful, commercially and critically, during his lifetime. And there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest anything to the contrary.
The origin of the theory that he is not the author of many of his plays stems from the unfortunate fact that he didn’t fit the profile of the angst-ridden, forlorn, starving-in-a-garret artiste that became the popular conception of writers and artists in the 19th Century. The public couldn’t marry the received image of Shakespeare with what they knew of the behaviour of people like Lord Byron, Shelley et al. How could Shakespeare have produced so many top class plays? How could he not have been an opium addict, an alcoholic, a person of dubious character who shone brightly enough for a brief time to pen a half dozen amazing plays before collapsing into ennui, the baton to be picked up by any one of a dozen other writers who adopted his name for no good reason? The simple truth is Shakespeare wrote all the plays that bear his name. The fact that he never spelled his name the same way throughout his life is neither here nor there; back in the 16th and 17th Centuries, there were no hard and fast rules governing the spelling of anything. Language, and the spelling of words, was entirely fluid. It wasn’t until much later that an attempt was made to impose a regime of ‘correct’ spelling and grammar.
Now, Anonymous presents itself as a harmless romp, a bit of fun that is not to be taken seriously. However, there are two aspects to this production that make my blood boil, one there is no control over, the other way more dangerous.
Similar to a damning headline that ruins the reputation of a public figure, followed by a retraction several weeks later in 7 point on page 40, the sad fact is that the general public are primed by the movie to believe Shakespeare didn’t write most of his plays.
The more dangerous and insidious aspect is the fact that advance publicity for the movie in the States included a media pack that listed something like a dozen statements of fact about Shakespeare that heap doubt on his authorship of the plays. Every single one of those ‘statements of fact’ is absolutely untrue. To make matters worse, these ‘statements of fact’ were included in study guides circulated to schools all over the U.S.
So new generations of American school kids will grow up ‘knowing’ Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.
What next for Hollywood? Hitler as a misunderstood, animal-loving vegetarian? Mao propelling his country to revolution, destruction and famine because he wasn’t breastfed? I await with baited breath the Hollywoodisation of the Banking Crisis.
Maybe it’s been different over there, but here in the Americas I’ve been waiting to hear someone slag The Iron Lady for exactly these reasons. Do people not *remember* what she was actually like? Is a critical mass of viewers simply too young to feel viscerally the sickness that washes over me at the very thought of her reign of arrogance? Or do the facts simply not matter enough to mention?
Now Leonardo DiCaprio may be set to play Alan Turing. I *like* DiCaprio, and as someone who is actively promoting Turing’s public profile I’m stoked to have him finally get a level of public attention that’s even minimally proportional to his achievements. Nonetheless, I can’t help being a little frightened of what might come of it.
http://theturingcentenary.wordpress.com – counting down to June 23, 2012
http://homoartificialis.wordpress.com – the science + culture of artificial humanity
https://onceandfuturemexico.wordpress.com – the real + science fictional future of Mexico
Good to hear from you, Nas. Yes, there does seem to be a heavy dose of anmesia going around. I think it has to do with the current young generation living more and more in the moment, with less and less regard for what has gone before. This applies to everything, including literature, art, music, etc., etc.
I’m also quite the fan of DiCaprio; he has done some really good work. But he is to a large extent a product of Hollywood, so I would also be a little nervous of what angle they’ll go with for the Turing story.