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The Art of The 'True Story'

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

How true is a true story? The title card, “based on a true story”, is a comfort blanket-esque habit in Hollywood, acting both as a red flag for a cliched sob story and a sign of a future Oscar-winning ‘flick’. There is an almost legitimacy in adapting a true story for the silver screen, a rite of passage for screenwriters and actors alike, both often citing the need to tell the ‘real’ story the public has never seen before. Yet can we really justify artistic license when real lives are involved?

Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee,

If you spend any time reading the tabloids, no need to be embarrassed here, you will most likely be aware of the upcoming Hulu series, Pammy and Tommy. Not a day seems to go by without the Daily Mail documenting Lily James’ draw-dropping transformation into Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. It is truly a feat of spectacular special effects makeup, but there must be some other ‘news’ to report on. A Kardashian divorce, maybe?

Ironically, or strategically well planned by Hulu’s PR team, the tabloid frenzy surrounding the production is a direct reflection of the media ruckus that surrounded the true event. As the show’s Instagram bio comments, the theft, and then public release, of Anderson and Lee’s sex tape was truly “the scandal that started it all”, a pre-social media hoopla that fed our now insatiable appetite for celebrity news, culture and, of course, scandal. The theft of personal items and home videos, including more mundane footage, was treated by tabloids as entertainment. Hulu’s show will do the same.

'Pammy and Tommy', French Vogue

The couple were not viewed as victims of a gross invasion of privacy, both of their private lives and their physical property, but as stars of an in real-time drama.

It is difficult to believe that a production that is working so closely with the Daily Mail will follow a different path. We might see the sympathetic lens in which the ‘scandal’ should always have been documented, but at present, this ‘true story’ adaptation seems to be fuelling a tabloid endorsed message. A message in which the viewer is told public figures are allowed to be consumed for entertainment, and in which personal tragedies are ‘scandals’ to be consumed as if watching a daytime soap.

The thin line between entertainment and real life, privacy and public consumption, is blurred further still by a ‘true story’ retelling. For Anderson and Lee, a third party is once again profiting from their misfortune, their privacy once again invaded. By producing a script, hiring actors, and cosying up with the media for promotion, Hulu has trampled on this grey area of celebrity consumption and turned this deeply personal crime into pure entertainment.

Should we be supporting art that so brutally disrespects the privacy of others in the name of entertainment?

J-Lo and Wu in Hustlers,

Money seems to be a controversial factor when it comes to ‘true story’ adaptations. Lorene Scafaria’s film, Hustlers, received criticism from Samantha Barbash, the real-life inspiration for J-Lo’s character in the film, for poor financial compensation in bringing her story to the box office.

As Barbash comments, “J-Lo doesn’t work for free”. The expectation that an individual’s life story can be used to make millions at the box office without proper compensation seems consistent throughout the history of ‘true story’ retellings, a reflection of Hollywood’s, and thus, the viewer’s, detachment towards the ‘reality' of these stories. Yes, Barbash participated in a crime syndicate in which members drugged Wall Street types and pumped them for money at strip clubs, but does her crime mitigate her right to a fair portrayal?

In the film, we see J-Lo concoct a cocktail of tranquillizing drugs in a kitchen mere steps away from her own child and spearhead the more amoral aspects of the story. In reality, Barbash was only charged with conspiracy in relation to the drug charges and is rightly outraged by the suggestion that she would risk her child’s safety in such a manner. To tell a better story, Barbash’s integrity and character is severely undermined. Is a ‘better’ story really worth it?

Another key plot change that Barbash takes offence to is the gifting of a Chinchilla fur coat to Destiny, played by Constance Wu. Instead, the gift was apparently a pair of Christian Louboutins. We may be splitting hairs here.

The stars of The Bling Ring,

However, Hustlers is not the only ‘true story’ retelling to underestimate the importance of accurately portraying Christian Louboutins. Sophia Coppola’s 2013 film, The Bling Ring, was a Tumblr darling at the site’s peak. Emma Watson’s turn as Nicki, the bratty teen involved in the highly prolific string of celebrity burglaries, totalling over $3million in stolen goods, was the perfect mix of teen angst with LA wannabe culture.

The real-life inspiration for Nicki, Alexis Neiers, famously took insult to journalist Nancy Jo’s Vanity Fair article, The Suspects Wore Louboutins, the inspiration for the film, for misrepresenting her choice of court shoes. They were in fact $20, 4-inch little brown Bebe shoes. Again, maybe we are splitting hairs here, but the lack of attention to detail demonstrates the waves of changes being made to real people’s narratives with little concern for the impact these may have.

The infamous Nancy Jo Sales article,

One of Neiers’ more understandable objections is to comments Watson herself made about the character during the film’s press. In 2013, Watson commented to GQ, “The character [of Nicki] is everything that I felt strongly against – she’s superficial, materialistic, vain, and amoral” and worse, “She’s all of these things and I realised I hated her. How do you play someone you hate?”

Neiers, made infamous from her starring role in the 2010 reality show Pretty Wild, that accidentally followed the fall out of the ‘Bling Ring’, had publicly confessed to heroin addiction, had her intimate private images leaked online, and had served a month in jail by this point.

The now iconic Nany Jo phone call,

Watson’s comments appear callous in the face of this publicly known situation, portraying an attitude that Nicki is a solely fictional character and one that we should also hate. In contrast, Nicki was very publicly not a fictional character. Instead, the comments are hard to detach from the ‘true story’ of Neiers and her fellow criminals. Arguably, their crime should not have prevented them from having autonomy and control over their own narratives.

Emma Watson's GQ interview,

Some ‘true story’ adaptations are more positive in their retelling. Barry Morrow’s Rain Man, the multi-Oscar winning story of a young man taking a cross country road trip with his autistic brother in order to secure the latter’s inheritance, is one of them. Dr Darold Treffert believes that Rain Man was the best thing that ever happened to autism… no gigantic public education or PR effort could have produced the sensational awareness that Rain Man brought to the national and international radar screen.” Treffert was a script consultant on the film, so his opinion may be a little biased, but the sentiment remains. Hoffman, on accepting his best actor Oscar, personally thanked the true-life inspirations for the character, Kim Peek, and Kevin and Peter Guthrie, demonstrating respect and care for bringing their stories to life.

Almost 30 years after the film’s release, some view Rain Man with less positivity, the portrayal of autism is now seen as stereotyped by some. However, as director Barry Levinson comments, “perhaps it’s become a stereotype in the eyes of some, but it didn’t start there.” Levinson took care to respect the ‘true story’ of his film, and the cultural impact Rain Man had in raising awareness for autism is a reflection of this passion for an honest retelling.

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man,

It is not wrong to adapt a ‘true story’ for the screen, some of the greatest movies of all time are based on real events and people. Yet, there is a sensitivity and respect that is desperately needed and so often left on the cutting room floor.

Real people, especially in our digital age, never really have true control over their own narratives. On a small scale, we are all subjected to the opinions of others and their interpretations of our lives. Few of us will ever have this interpretation manipulated for profit and the entertainment of thousands. Maybe it's time that Hollywood starts writing their own scandalous storylines instead of profiting from the misfortune of others.

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