HOLLYWOOD BIOGRAPHIES True stories? Whatever

Sometimes, it's impossible to tell the whole story in a single movie. Sometimes there's more to it.
In "The Aviator," Howard Hughes is depicted coming to Katharine Hepburn's rescue after she's ended their affair. Hughes learns that a sleazy Hollywood tabloid is about to publish incriminating photos of her with Spencer Tracy. Hepburn's new lover is married, and Hughes realizes that the publicity could ruin her career. There's a dramatic scene of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes negotiating for the negatives, which ultimately are handed over in return for stock in his airlines.
The only problem is none of this happened. "The Aviator" -- nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture -- is one of several current biopics that distort aspects of their subjects' lives.
Hughes did help Hepburn in a moment of need. After she'd been branded box-office poison in the late 1930s, he bought the rights to "The Philadelphia Story" as a star vehicle for her. But to show DiCaprio reading a script wouldn't pack the same wallop as him perusing hot pictures of his ex in the arms of another man.
DiCaprio, who helped develop "The Aviator," defends this fabrication. "The intent is the same, to show that Howard still loves her," he told me.
Common ingredient
The whoppers that "Aviator" and its competitors tell about their subjects often concern sex -- or the lack of it. "Beyond the Sea" leaves the impression that Sandra Dee is the only woman Bobby Darin ever was intimate with. Darin, however, married again after their divorce and reportedly was known to participate in orgies. Well, it was the '60s. But Dee and Dodd Darin, her son with the crooner, might not have supported Kevin Spacey's efforts to get the film made had he penciled in an orgy scene.
Ray Charles' first wife isn't mentioned in "Ray," nor are nine of the children he fathered with five mistresses, one of them French. Director Taylor Hackford says it wouldn't have been possible to portray all the great man's liaisons in three hours.
"Neverland" offers a sanitized version of J.M. Barrie's relationship with the young boys who inspired him to write "Peter Pan." I heard Marc Forster tell an audience that before agreeing to direct the film, he researched Barrie's life and became convinced that he was no pedophile -- a certainty not shared by some literary scholars. But it does make for a sweet family movie rather than "The Woodsman" as a costume drama.
By contrast, "De-Lovely" reeks of sex. As if to make up for "Night and Day," an earlier Cole Porter biopic that conveniently overlooks his being gay, the new film never lets you forget his sexual orientation. Kevin Kline's Porter is shown with so many lovers, it's amazing he had time to write songs. Porter's wife was eight years older than him (which might explain her tolerance for his infidelities), but you'd never know it from "De-Lovely," in which she's played by Ashley Judd, who's 20 years younger than her co-star.
The fallout
None of these misrepresentations is likely to cause the furor that "A Beautiful Mind" did when it was an Oscar front-runner (and eventual winner) three years ago.
The movie was accused of conveniently leaving out information about mentally disturbed mathematician John Nash, such as his being anti-Semitic, homosexual and the father of an illegitimate child. The sheer number of movies about real people competing during this award season lessens the chance that one will be singled out for failing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Also, audiences have become savvier. They realize that a biopic has little in common with a well-researched biography. When it comes down to it, a biopic is only a movie.
We'll soon know what lies and distortions will be told about Johnny Cash, Truman Capote and heavyweight boxer Jim Braddock when their biopics come out this year. Capote is a special case, since he was an inveterate fabricator himself, leaving the filmmakers open to claim that they're portraying his lies and not theirs.
Ironically, there's been little movement on the one film project about a celebrity that seeks to tell his true story. San Francisco filmmaker Phil Kaufman is still struggling with a script about Liberace that will once and for all yank the flamboyant entertainer out of the closet.
On the other hand, Martin Scorsese gave up on a Dean Martin biopic. The director had been working with Martin biographer Nick Tosches, and Tom Hanks was even announced to star.
"We just couldn't get a handle on this one," Scorsese told me. "For a guy who seemed so passive, Dean lived a lot of different lives. You could make a movie just about his creative relationship with Jerry Lewis. It was like a marriage, and then there was the divorce. We couldn't figure out what to leave out."
At least there would be no need to embellish.

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