Oscars 2019: Nominated films play fast and loose with history

Most factual liberties are dramatically justifiable. But some seriously mislead viewers

 Olivia Colman in ‘The Favourite’. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Fox Searchlight Films/AP

Olivia Colman in ‘The Favourite’. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Fox Searchlight Films/AP


Every year, at awards season, we get arguments about the fidelity of films supposedly based on true stories. No such movie has ever stuck rigidly to la vérité.

The film-makers need to re-order the incidents in such a fashion as to manufacture a structured narrative. Characters have to be created. Moods need to be maintained.

Sometimes, however, the liberties do risk misleading viewers wholly ignorant of the source incidents. Here’s a glance at the arguments around the films jostling for position.


Yorgos Lanthimos, director of the Queen Anne romp, has made it quite clear that the truth has been battered and boiled. “I don’t even know anymore,” he said when we asked him what was made up.

There’s no evidence Queen Anne was a lesbian. Abigail almost certainly didn’t poison Sarah. The Queen didn’t keep rabbits. But the rivalry between the two women competing for Anne’s favour seems based in fact.
How much was made up? Plenty.
Does it matter? Not a jot. The film revels in its nightmarish unreality.


Adam McKay plays a slippery game here. The film admits that it has had to speculate as to what went on behind doors, but it still claims that: “We did our fucking best” in telling the story of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

It seems that Cheney did not turn Republican on a whim. The degree to which Lynne campaigned on his behalf appears exaggerated. Many have argued that the film also overstated Cheney’s dominance of the Executive.
How much was made up? Little seems wholly invented. But a lot appear to have been exaggerated.
Does it matter? Not much. No even half-bright person could watch Vice without sensing a thumb on the scale.


Here we get into trouble. The title character, played by Saoirse Ronan, was raised in France and almost certainly did not speak with a Scottish accent. Dr Estelle Paranque, an expert on Queen Elizabeth I, told The Daily Telegraph that the initial suggestions of friendship between Mary and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I were inaccurate.

Most controversially the film has the two rivals - who never encountered one another - meet up in a sort of garden shed.
How much has been made up? A fair amount, but no more than in many other acclaimed period dramas.
Does it matter? A bit. The narrative purpose for the changes is obscure. Wouldn’t a French-accented Mary be more interesting?


This one is still bubbling. The core incident - wiseguy Tony Lip driving African-American pianist Don Shirley about the segregated south - definitely did take place, but the Shirley family claim the relationship has been misrepresented. Don’s brother, Maurice Shirley, commented: “My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend’; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important.”
How much has been made up? An enormous amount. If the Shirley family are to be believed, only a skeleton of narrative can be credited.
Does it matter? The film has other problems - those concerning its unsophisticated treatment of racial issues, for starters -- but most audiences expect such sentimental dramas to play fast with facts.


Spike Lee’s comic-drama details a back cop’s attempts to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. The director has been cavalier with the facts. We don’t know who Detective Ron Stalworth’s partner really was and the decision to make “Flip” Zimmerman Jewish betrays a yearning for dramatic balance. The action has moved back from 1979 to 1972. The picture imagines a bomb plot.

Director Boots Riley wondered: “Did we really need one more movie where … the cops are the actual heroes of the film and the most effective force against racism?”
How much has been made up? A great deal. But the bizarre high-concept remains accurate.
Does it matter? Riley would suggest the most worrying problems are not historical. Again, like The Favourite, the tone is so heightened that stretching of the fact is to be expected.


Most of the rearrangements are important only to Queen maniacs. John Deacon was not the original bassist. The band comes together more quickly than they did in real life. And so on. But the film’s treatment of Mercury’s Aids diagnosis has come in for greater criticism.

Bohemian Rhapsody positions the revelation right before Live Aid - two whole years before it actually happened - to allow that event to be presented as a triumphant fight-back against mortality.
How much has been made up? The issue is more what’s been coyly left out - particularly in relation to Mercury’s sex life - than what’s been tweaked on screen.
Does it matter? The repositioning of the Aids diagnosis does grate.


If Julian Schnabel’s film is to be believed, at the end of his life, Vincent Van Gough, then in his mid thirties, had the face and body of a 63-year-old man. To be specific, he had Willem Dafoe’s face and body. The picture hacks away at truth and myth elsewhere - the painter’s death in particular - but it is this aspect of the story that has attracted the most attention.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more extreme version of “playing down” in Hollywood history.
How much has been made up? The story riffs around the facts. One can’t quite call Dafoe’s casting a lie.
Does it matter? Much less than it should. Dafoe is in great shape. We imagine Van Gough to have been a wreck. The Academy duly awarded him a best actor nomination.


The stuff that really matters in Damien Chazelle’s study of Neil Armstrong is rigorously accurate. He did lose a daughter to cancer. He did almost die while training. His wife did press him into discussing the possibility of his death with his children. There was some reasonable artistic license: he didn’t deposit the bracelet on the moon; he didn’t photograph his own footprint.

But the only serious controversy was a concocted right-wing hoo-ha about under-exposure of the US flag.
How much has been made up? Less than you’d expect.
Does it matter? Not at all.


The folk behind the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg can reasonably argue that those looking for a documentary on the great American jurist can turn straight to the Oscar-nominated RBG. As it happens, the film is largely faithful to the facts, but it does contain one possible, elephantine error (that is the right word here). A judge points out that the word “woman” does not appear the US constitution. “Nor does the word ‘freedom,’ your honour,” she replies. Erm, isn’t it right there in the first amendment, counsellor?
How much as been made up? The broad outlines are accurate, but much has been tweaked for dramatic effect.
Does it matter? The film-makers argue that Felicity Jones’s RBG is referring to the original text of the constitution. Clunky, either way.


Marielle Heller’s film on the literary forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) hangs around a series of unlikely episodes that turn out to be largely derived from fact. A veterinary bill for her sick cat did drive her towards epistolary fraud. But the character of Jack Hock - played with great glee by fellow Oscar-nominee Richard E Grant - has been greatly altered in his passage from history to screen. The two had, in fact, been long-time friends and he was not, as the film implies, homeless.
How much as been made up? The protagonist’s journey to conviction is largely accurate. Most other characters are fictional or greatly altered.
Does it matter? The film works like a dream. So, no.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.