Currently in Hollywood it is not so much a case of life imitating art, but rather, art imitating life.
As the schedule of summer blockbusters fills out, filmgoers annually lament the prevalence of sequels and superhero franchises and wonder aloud whether Hollywood’s creative well has run dry. But given the number of Academy Award nominees that are now based on true stories, should we also be asking a similar question during Oscars season?
This year, a total of six of the films nominated for Best Picture are true (or true-ish) stories. They include not only 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle, the two favourites for the top prize, but also Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena. For two-thirds of the nominees to be non-fiction is unprecedented in the 85-year history of the Academy Awards.
While 12 true stories have won Best Picture since 1970, the trend has intensified of late, with two of the previous three winners being historical films: Argo in 2013, and The King’s Speech in 2011. In both cases, their closest rivals were also factual: Facebook biopic The Social Network lost out to The King’s Speech; Argo triumphed over Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty.
In a recent interview with Time magazine, Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio said this was because true stories resonate with audiences more powerfully than their made-up counterparts. “When an audience knows that at least part of the story actually happened, they really respond,” DiCaprio said. “Even though a writer can invent something amazing, there’s always that notion that real life produces events that are more incredible than our imagination.”
According to Tim Gray, the awards editor of Variety, there is an added incentive for film-makers who come across compelling stories of real people: their own sense of obligation to those people to tell their stories.
“Film-makers have told me that when you delve into true stories, you become personally attached to the people you’re writing about,” Gray said. “Craig Borten started working on Dallas Buyers Club 20 years ago, interviewed the real Ron Woodroof and became obsessed with telling his story.”
Truth is a relative concept when it comes to film adaptations, and the accuracy of almost all of this year’s crop has been called into question. In Borten’s film, Matthew McConaughey portrays Aids victim Ron Woodroof as a reformed homophobe, but some of Woodroof’s friends have claimed that he was not homophobic, and even that he was bisexual. Meanwhile, many of the crew of the ship captained by the real Captain Phillips suggest he was somewhat less heroic than the character played by Tom Hanks.
On the other hand, Jordan Belfort, the so-called “Wolf of Wall Street” played by DiCaprio, really did write off his Lamborghini while on Quaaludes, and wrecked a super-yacht while trying to navigate the Mediterranean in a storm. American Hustle, David O Russell’s fictionalised take on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, deftly deflects the issue altogether, with the disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened.”
The Oscar race can get rough, and factual inaccuracy is just one more stick for a non-fiction film’s awards rivals to beat it with. Last year, Zero Dark Thirty was the early frontrunner for Best Picture, only to become mired in a controversy over whether it endorsed the use of torture during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The smear campaign put Kathryn Bigelow’s film out of the race.
Such tactics aren’t always effective. In 2002, director Ron Howard’s biopic of mathematician John Nash was accused of whitewashing unsavoury aspects of Nash’s personal life. But A Beautiful Mind still beat four fictional films to Best Picture.