Hollywood loves a good biopic. More to the point, actors love a great biopic, since playing a real-life figure often invites a wider audience, not to mention award consideration. Of the films on our list below, most if not all of them, received massive critical acclaim for both actors, directors and even the writers, primarily because their subject matter was historical. Playing a real life figure in a big movie almost assures an actor of an Oscar nomination, or even better, the gold statue itself.
Unfortunately, Hollywood being Hollywood, writers like to play around with the true details of a real figure’s life, sometimes for dramatic effect, and sometimes just to make a character more likable…or commercially viable for an audience. These changes, while often well-intentioned, can end up doing more harm than help. When audiences find out about glaring omissions or radical changes to a story, they often feel cheated and deceived. Said anger can then turn into full-blown backlash, which can end up hurting a film more than helping it. Critics and audiences alike also often take exception to a film playing fast and loose with historical accuracy simply to tell a better story. People want to be entertained but they don’t want to be fooled.
The films cited here run the gamut. Some are excellent movies on their own, if poor representations of their subject. Others are just plain bad: boring, meandering, or insipid, and their “changes” feel callous and cynical. Still others are entertaining, if not great, movies that may have been inaccurate in places but didn’t necessarily suffer for that. Take a look, and then have your say in the comments.
15. The Doors
The Movie Story: Singer Jim Morrison forms his band called The Doors while a film student at UCLA. He also meets his future wife Patricia Courson. As Morrison and the band begin to experiment with drugs, their band rises in notoriety. Morrison later abandons Courson for the witch and rock critic Patricia Kennealy as his drug addiction grows. After exposing himself at a concert, Morrison has a falling out with his bandmates, and sinks further into heroin use. A year later, he was found dead in a bathtub.
What Really Happened: The members of The Doors, as well as Kennealy hated the movie, which they felt misrepresented them, as well as Morrison. The film portrays Morrison as abusive to Courson, including one scene in which he locks her in a closet and sets it on fire! It also depicts Courson and Kennealy as hating one another, while friends claim they maintained a friendly relationship in real life. More than anything, the surviving members of the Doors feel the movie portrayed Morrison as a near-sociopath, while overlooking his kinder qualities. It also understates Morrison’s talent as a poet an musician, while focusing more on his substance abuse.
The Movie Story: Nina Simone grew up a talented pianist and became a successful recording artist in the 1960s with the help of her sometime lover Clifton Henderson. She then became a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement, penning important songs which commented on the times. Then it all went to hell as Simone succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse which left her career in shambles. After battling cancer, she made a major comeback in the 1980s.
What Really Happened: Oh lord, where to begin?! Start with the casting: one of Nina Simone’s defining qualities was her race and her lack of traditional beauty. Zoe Saldana, as Nina, looks nothing like the real thing and wears obvious make-up throughout the film to darken her skin tone. Clifton Henderson and Simone were never lovers; in fact, he was gay! Those close to Simone, including her daughter, attribute her temperamental behavior to bipolar disorder rather than drugs, and while she did return to performing in the 1980s, she never did have a full-fledged comeback. No wonder the movie tanked!
13. A Beautiful Mind
The Movie Story: Brilliant mathematician John Nash earns a reputation at Princeton for his incredible logic abilities. Later, the Pentagon recruits Nash as a code cracker during the Cold War, and he falls in love with a student named Alicia. Then things get bad- Nash grows paranoid and is diagnosed with schizophrenia. After he almost drowns their child, Alicia begs him to get treatment. Nash refuses, citing the side effects of the medication. He instead decides to “reason” his way out of his symptoms, and he and his family live happily ever after.
What Really Happened: In real life Nash did have a powerful influence on mathematics, but his personal life wasn’t quite so peachy. Nash had several gay affairs during his marriage to Alicia, and their relationship was far more tumultuous. She eventually divorced him in 1963 after he fathered another child out of wedlock. He subsequently abandoned the mother and son, and had little contact with them since. The film omits Nash’s antisemitic sentiments and latter-day treatment to overcome psychosis. The filmmakers defended these choices, claiming they helped make Nash more likable for the audience.
12. The People vs. Larry Flynt
The Movie Version: Country boy Larry Flynt opens a strip joint where he meets his young wife Althea. The two then fearlessly decide to tap the pornography market with Hustler magazine, which features hardcore porn no other magazine will feature. After a series of obscenity trials, an unidentified gunman shoots Flynt, paralyzing him from the waist down and inflicting constant pain on him. He and Althea sink into drug addiction, before a surgery cures his pain. Larry recovers only to get sued by the Rev. Jerry Fallwell for slander. Flynt wins his case at the supreme court, but Althea succumbs further to addiction. Though Larry returns to public life, Althea is diagnosed with AIDS, and later drowns in a bath. Flynt is left alone in his mansion to ponder life without his wife.
What Really Happened: Though Flynt has always called Althea the love of his life, he was actually married three times before he even met her! The film omits these unions to focus on his relationship with Althea, as it also omits his subsequent marriage following her death. The movie implies Althea contracted HIV as a result of her drug use, though Flynt denies this. He insists she contracted the virus from a blood transfusion after a hysterectomy.
The Movie Story: Queen Elizabeth comes to power as England sits on the brink of civil war. Her one true love is Robert Dudley, a married aristocrat. Because of her love for him, she refuses pressure to marry. Her advisor, Francis Walsingham, sees an opportunity in her resolve and helps her consolidate power, murdering her rival Mary of Guise and helping her to pass the Uniformity Act, which unites the country under the Church of England and severs ties to the Vatican. Elizabeth survives assassination attempts, including one facilitated by Robert, whom she banishes. She becomes known as the Virgin Queen, and leads England into a Golden Age.
What Really Happened: Historical records of the period aren’t exactly explicit, but the movie makes several changes for dramatic effect. Elizabeth’s relationship with Robert Dudley is disputed, as is the assertion that the two had a sexual relationship. Francis Walsingham didn’t kill Mary of Guise, and the Vatican denies involvement in any attempts to kill the queen. Elizabeth didn’t banish Robert Dudley either; in fact, she saw him all the time! The film depicts Elizabeth as adopting her “virgin” persona to satisfy former Catholics. Whether or not she did so in real life remains another historical debate.
10. Elizabeth: The Golden Age
The Movie Version: The sequel to Elizabeth, The Golden Age picks up several years after the original film. Elizabeth is having a lovely time ruling England, though the country faces increasing rivalry from Spain. The Queen meets Sir Walter Raleigh, a military commander and explorer, and she shows romantic interest in him. They begin an emotional affair, and Raleigh leads the charge of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada. After a bloody battle, the English get the upper hand. Elizabeth then kills her young cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, to protect the throne. She gives up her love for Raleigh when she learns he’s wed one of her handmaidens, and continues to rule as a single woman.
What Really Happened: Critics slammed The Golden Age for playing too loose with history. In reality, Mary Queen of Scots was already middle-aged when Elizabeth had her executed. Her romancing of Walter Raleigh is more legend than fact; historians dispute her true feelings for him, as Elizabeth was known to have a flirty personality. Raleigh was not a major military commander during the battle with the Spanish Armada, and while the film depicts the conflict as almost overcoming England, in history the English didn’t lose a single ship! With single life and pressure to marry also become defining subplots of the film, Elizabeth was actually in her 50s during most of the events of the movie. Roger Ebert once joked that if the movie had been any less accurate, Elizabeth would have had an affair with Shakespeare!
9. Sid & Nancy
The Movie Story: Rockers Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten lead the pioneering British punk band the Sex Pistols. One night, they meet American groupie girl Nancy Spungen, a woman who sets out to bed the band. Sid shows interest, and though he brushes Nancy off at first, he eventually falls for her. She introduces Sid and Johnny to heroin, and Nancy and Sid begin a relationship. Sid becomes addicted, and his addiction along with Nancy’s behavior drives a wedge in the band. The Sex Pistols split up, and Sid begins a disastrous solo career with Nancy as his manager. The two sink further into addiction, and begin having violent fights. During one such altercation, Nancy ends up stabbed (it’s unclear how) and dies. Sid spends time in prison and kicks his heroin habit, only to overdose later.
What Really Happened: Johnny Rotten compared the film to Peter Pan in its accuracy, claiming it had little semblance to real life. While he acknowledges Sid and Nancy both had drug problems (as did he), he claims that their behavior was never so violent or frightening. Rather, Rotten claims that the movie totally misrepresented the band, and dwelling more on the stage persona of Sid Vicious rather than the actual man. As such, the film overlooked his gentle, friendly qualities. Most egregious, Rotten attacks the film as glorifying to heroin addiction. He also takes umbrage to a scene that shows him drinking champagne with beans, as he never drinks champagne!
8. The Hurricane
The Movie Story: Reuben “Hurricane” Carter spent 20 years in prison for a triple murder he did not commit. Carter had been a championship boxer in the 1960s. Police could not connect him to the murders until another suspect claimed to have seen him the crime scene. Carter protests his innocence, claiming that his status as a boxer and civil rights activist made him a target for framing. Nonetheless, he goes to prison. In the 1980s, a young fan in Canada becomes convinced of Carter’s wrongful conviction, and begins a grassroots movement for a new trial.
What Really Happened: While racism did play a role in Carter’s conviction, there’s little evidence to support the film’s charge that it hurt his boxing career. The movie even encountered a lawsuit from one of Carter’s former competitors, alleging that the film made one of his wins over Carter look like an unfair victory. The film also overlooked Carter’s criminal past. He had a history of muggings, beatings and domestic violence. Carter also bribed several witnesses, which didn’t help matters. While Carter did proclaim his innocence, at lease some evidence supported his participation in the crime. That undermines the cinematic thesis that racism was all that damned Carter.
7. The Miracle Worker
The Movie Story: Seven-year old Helen Keller lost her ability to see and hear in early childhood thanks to illness. Now seven, she’s become a dangerous girl, prone to violent outbursts and tantrums. As a last resort before institutionalizing their child, Helen’s parents send for Annie Sullivan, a teacher with a history of working with children. Annie begins a tough regimen with Helen, trying to teach her sign language and enduring the girl’s outbursts (including one breakfast scene that needs to be seen to be believed). Over time, Helen becomes more receptive, until one day she has a breakthrough, suddenly able to remember her toddler babblings and identify them with signs.
What Really Happened: The subject of Keller’s life has attracted wide controversies over the years, some in regard to The Miracle Worker. While in the play, the Keller family accepts Annie Sullivan with open arms, in reality the Keller’s had deep suspicion of Sullivan, owing to her Irish heritage and modest beginnings. In short, they didn’t like her because she was poor. Furthermore, Sullivan’s “miraculous” teachings of Keller were themselves the subject of scrutiny. Critics charged that Keller didn’t learn language nearly as well as Sullivan claimed, and Keller was caught plagiarizing an essay at age 12.
The Movie Story: Mel Gibson won an Oscar for this story of William Wallace, the Scottish hero who helped drive out the British in 1280. The film shows the English under King Edward “Longshanks” invading Scotland during Wallace’s childhood. The adult Wallace then goes about forging alliances to drive out the invaders. Longshanks, a tyrannical king who mocks those who would give to the poor and his gay son Edward II, kills Scottish nobles without a second thought. Edward II’s wife Isasbella has an affair with Wallace and becomes pregnant. Wallace is killed by the English, though his child with Isabella will end the line of Longshanks, and Wallace’s other son, Robert, becomes king of Scotland and drives out the English.
What Really Happened: Braveheart deviates so far from reality, it’s laughable. The movie depicts Longshanks as a mocking psychopath, and while the real man could be brutal, he was actually very charitable and kind. Edward II was bisexual, but had several public dalliances with women rather than men. He also was a canny statesman in his own right, not the dithering, weak, feminine man the film portrays him to be. His wife Isabella was only five years old at the time of the events of the movie, making her affair with Wallace a bit of a stretch. Of all the silly additions, the film shows the Scots wearing plaid kilts, when in reality, Scottish plaid would not come into style for centuries.
4. Bonnie & Clyde
The Movie Story: In Depression-era Texas, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker meet as the former tries to steal a car. She’s immediately smitten with him, and the two begin to commit small-time robberies together to excite one another. They upgrade to full-blown robbery of banks, putting together a gang and transfixing a nation with their violent crimes. It all masks a painful reality: Barrow is impotent, and can’t have sex with Bonnie. Their crimes make up for their lack of sexual intimacy. The bungling Texas Ranger Frank Hamer struggles to catch up to the gang and concocts a trap. One afternoon Bonnie & Clyde happen upon a stranded motorist. Though unarmed, the two stop to help when a team of heavily armed police attack, killing Bonnie & Clyde in a hail of bullets.
What Really Happened: The real Bonnie & Clyde weren’t quite as much–well, fun–as their cinematic counterparts. Bonnie was a tiny woman, nowhere near as tall as the leggy Faye Dunaway, and the source of her frustration with Clyde had a different source. In reality, Clyde Barrow was gay, and having an affair with another member of the gang. The film depicts Frank Hamer as an inept cop, but in reality, he was highly decorated, and only began tracking the gang just prior to the ambush which killed him. At said ambush, Bonnie and Clyde were both heavily armed, and shot back at police. The film came under such fire that Frank Hamer’s estate sued for defamation and won a settlement. Blanche Barrow, a real member of the gang still alive when the film was released, hated the movie. In particular, she loathed Estelle Parsons’ Oscar winning performance as her–claiming she was never so annoying!
3. The Imitation Game
The Movie Story: Alan Turing joins the British cryptography team at the start of World War II. Turing quarrels with the rest of the team, though they recognize his skills. He develops plans for a machine which will crack the German codes, though meets with resistance because of its expensive construction. Appealing to Churchill himself, Turing gets the funds only to find that the machine cannot work fast enough. Just before it is dismantled, he has a premonition that rapidly accelerates the decoding process. In the midst of it all, a Soviet spy begins blackmailing Turing over a dangerous secret–he’s gay. Turning later reveals the spy to authorities, but at a great price. His reputation ruined, he abandons the cryptography team. Later, he is convicted of indecency, and suffers castration. He takes his own life in 1954.
What Really Happened: The film came under almost immediate criticism for its divergence from history. While an eccentric, the film depicts Turing as nearly autistic. In reality, he had a healthy relationship with his coworkers. The film also shows him as having a romantic relationship with fellow codebreaker Joan Clarke. The two did marry in history, though she always knew of his homosexuality. Turing’s life as a gay man is almost totally omitted from the film, and while he was discovered and castrated by the government he served, it was not as a result of espionage. Rather, Turing was discovered after a robbery in his home raised police suspicion.
2. My Left Foot
The Movie Story: Irish poet Christy Brown suffered from lifelong cerebral palsy. The ailment had rendered him paralyzed by early childhood. Doctors thought him mentally retarded, though his parents resisted that assessment. As it turned out, Brown’s parents were right: he was actually highly intelligent, and began writing with the only part of his body not paralyzed: his left foot. He would go on to create art and write poetry as well as an acclaimed autobiography. The film, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis won two Oscars including Lewis’s first Best Actor Oscar and remains a classic of the 1990’s independent film movement.
What Really Happened: In fairness, the movie gets the details of Brown’s life pretty spot on. It did, however, make a few glaring omissions. The movie shows Brown’s boozy and rambunctious ways in middle age, and depicts him meeting the woman that would become his wife. Unfortunately, their marriage was not the storybook union the movie intimated. Carr had worked as a prostitute, and by most accounts of their friends, abused Brown. She had several affairs which tormented him, and she developed a nasty drug addiction. It’s her neglect that also prematurely ended Brown’s life when he choked to death in 1981.
The Movie Story: Prosecutor Jim Garrison, unsatisfied by the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, begins his own investigation, uncovering evidence of a conspiracy. His sleuthing leads him to an underground gay sex ring, and evidence that Kennedy was murdered over his opposition to the Vietnam war. Garrison ultimately believes that Lyndon Johnson was the force behind the assassination under pressure from the military, and that the CIA helped cover up vital evidence. Garrison’s charges lead to the arrest of businessman Clay Shaw, and a trial ensues. Though Shaw is acquitted, Garrison’s conspiracy theories help bring to light the activities of a shadow government.
What Really Happened: The film overlooks the numerous and egregious indiscretions committed by Garrison and his commission. The film plays fast and loose with facts-to say the least. Assertions that Lee Harvey Oswald was a terrible marksman, or that Johnson was somehow involved are wildly inaccurate. Furthermore, Garrison’s crusade is now regarded as a gay witch hunt, taking on Clay Shaw–who was a secret CIA agent–as a sort of scapegoat to trumpet his bizarre and often contradictory conspiracy theories. Several prominent investigators–including Vincent Bugliosi and David Belin–have attacked the film as sensationalist and totally inaccurate. That does not, however, make it less entertaining.