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The Truth About Oscar’s Reality-Based Films

In the first 72 years of the Academy Awards (1927-99), 14 fact-based movies won the best-picture prize, or 19%. In the 21st century, fact-based films have won 33% of the time.

Last year, three of 2018’s four acting winners (Rami Malik, Olivia Colman, Mahershala Ali) were playing real-life characters. And six of the eight best-picture contenders were fact-based, including winner “Green Book.”

For whatever reasons, based-on-reality films are clearly increasing, and are increasingly finding favor from awards-givers. At the same time, there has also been a boost in a sub-category: the autobiographical film. Last year’s “Roma” fit into that category and the auto-truth group has multiplied this year.

In 2019 there have been so many reality-based tales that it’s possible (but unlikely) that every Oscar nominee will be from a fact-based film. In alphabetical order, the list includes “The Aeronauts,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Bombshell,” “Dark Waters,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Harriet,” “A Hidden Life,” “The Irishman,” “Judy,” “Just Mercy,” “The Laundromat,” “Midway,” “The Report,” “Richard Jewell,” “Rocketman,” “Seberg,” “Skin” and “The Two Popes.”

In terms of autobiographical films, the list includes “Honey Boy,” “The Farewell” and possibly “Marriage Story.” (Noah Baumbach has always stated that “Marriage” is not autobiographical, though mainstream media persist in underlining parallels to the director’s life.)

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Colleagues and critics have pointed out autobiographical elements in Sony Pictures Classics’ Pedro Almodóvar movie “Pain and Glory,” about a film director coming to terms with himself and his past. Antonio Banderas, a likely Oscar contender for his portrayal of the director, offers observations that apply to all fact-based films.

“Sometimes we would ask Almodovar ‘Did this really happen?’ and he would say, ‘Yes, it happened in my mind, so it happened.’ Some events definitely occurred in his life; others are moments he would have loved to say and do, but didn’t. We are not only what happens in our lives, we are also the things we dreamed. In a way, this movie is more Almodóvar than the real Almodóvar.

“He was so emotionally attached to some scenes he wrote, that before filming them, I received non-verbal emotional indications that I could use immediately. I would look at him and say ‘I got it! Don’t talk, just say “action!” I know what this scene is about.’ I don’t know if I will ever have that kind of experience again.”

Banderas adds with a little laugh, “What are the odds I will ever again in my lifetime be directed by my own character?”

Under Hollywood’s studio system, writer-directors were rare, and they couldn’t make autobiographical films. But filmmakers overseas and in the indie world, ranging from Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard to John Cassavetes, used personal elements in many films.

Since then, the list has become longer and more diverse, including Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Sam Fuller’s “The Big Red One,” George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” to mention a few.

Federico Fellini, whose autobiographical films include “I Vitelloni,” “8½” and “Amarcord,” addressed the logic of this in a 1965 interview with Atlantic Monthly. He said, “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”

As for the flood of fact-based films, it’s become an annual ritual for bloggers and the media to point out, usually with horror, how each film differs from reality. Sometimes the shaming comes from Oscar rivals trying to denigrate a front-runner; sometimes it’s from non-industry types trying to get a name for themselves.

These criticisms are about niggling details that don’t matter: One character in “Green Book” did not teach the other how to enjoy fried chicken, we don’t know that Queen Anne in “The Favourite” said such things, “Vice” omitted some incidents in Dick Cheney’s life, etc. Bottom line: These are just nitpicking.

Shakespeare played fast and loose with the truth in many plays, including “Julius Caesar” and “Richard III.” And those plays hold up quite nicely, thanks.

From “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Life of Emile Zola” through “The Sound of Music,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Argo,” Oscar voters have embraced fact-based movies that took huge liberties with the facts. A fact-based film doesn’t have to be factually correct, but it has to be emotionally honest.

Quentin Tarantino is upfront about fiddling with facts for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” A filmmaker always has artistic license to omit or include certain things. But Tarantino does something different. He takes incidents that are well known, and that affected many lives, and he changes them. His choices are odd and troubling; as Variety critic Owen Gleiberman observed, it’s the movie equivalent of fake news. Yet many people love the film and are not bothered by this. Hm.

As you study the reality of this year’s contenders, don’t obsess over the small details of “accuracy.” Just appreciate the pearls.

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