Oscar voting opened Monday, and like clockwork, the haters have come calling. As Deadline’s Pete Hammond wrote on Monday, ’tis the season for controversy over fact-based awards contenders: Now, Bennett Miller’s real-life Olympian tragedy Foxcatcher and Tim Burton’s art exposé Big Eyes have joined MLK Jr. drama Selma, the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken in ducking for cover over accuracy issues in mixing fact-based stories with narrative structure.
Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, who’s played by Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, publicly supported the film through its November theatrical release. That changed drastically in a series of angry online rants this week as Schultz turned on the Golden Globe-nominated pic, which won Miller the Best Director prize at Cannes. He blasted Miller and the film on Facebook after he read reviews dwelling on the suggestion of a sexual relationship between him and John du Pont (Steve Carell), who shot his brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to death in 1996 after hiring the brothers to lead his wrestling team:
“Leaving the audience with a feeling that somehow there could have been a sexual relationship between du Pont and I is a sickening and insulting lie. I told Bennett Miller to cut that scene out and he said it was to give the audience the feeling that duPont was encroaching on your privacy and personal space. I wasn’t explicit so I didn’t have a problem with it. Then after reading 3 or 4 reviews interpreting it sexually, and jeopardizing my legacy, they need to have a press conference to clear the air, or I will.”
“Foxcatcher‘s scenes are mostly straight out of my book (except a few),” Schultz tweeted on Monday. “But the relationships and personalities are complete fiction. They’re based on a kernel of truth but not much more than that. Dave was no saint. I was articulate. du Pont was dirtier… Pretty lousy what the director did to my character huh?”
In interviews that included one that Miller did with Deadline at the Toronto Film Festival, the filmmaker
was respectfully circumspect in describing the relationship between du Pont and Mark Schultz. Any creepiness in their scenes comes from du Pont and his ambiguous motives, particularly juxtaposed with the warmup scenes between Mark and Dave Schultz, which wordlessly convey a graceful relationship between brothers. It was a scene so powerful that it prompted Miller to cut 25 pages of dialogue out of the script. Miller must feel terrible about Mark Schultz’s outburst, since he, Tatum and Ruffalo relied so much on the Schultz family in creating the haunting portrait.
Miller wasn’t immediately available to comment, if he even has a comment, but Schultz is plenty incensed, as evidenced by cap-locked tweets issued Wednesday: “YOU CROSSED THE LINE MILLER. WE’RE DONE. YOU’RE CAREER IS OVER. YOU THINK I CAN’T DO IT. WATCH ME…I BUILT THIS HOUSE AND I’LL TEAR IT DOWN. YOU THINK I CAN’T TAKE YOU DOWN COZ UR A DIRECTOR. WATCH ME BENNETT…I CAN TOLERATE A LOT OF THINGS BUT I DON’T TOLERATE DISRESPECT. WE’RE DONE BENNETT… I HATE BENNETT MILLER.”
Miller has company in playing defense this Oscar season, and there is a long tradition of movies coming under attack, some possibly fanned by distributors behind rival films. A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture despite charges of anti-Semitism leveled at its subject, mathematician John Nash. Two years ago, Argo withstood some accuracy attacks to win Best Picture; rival film Zero Dark Thirty, saw its Oscar chances torpedoed after three U.S. senators including John McCain disputed the characterization that waterboarding and other interrogation techniques helped elicit intelligence that led to locating 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Also coming out on the losing end of controversy was the Denzel Washington starrer The Hurricane, about wrongly convicted former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. In the instances of films that got hurt, filmmakers didn’t challenge the disputed claims early, or strongly, enough. It will be intriguing to see how filmmakers and distributors in the current Oscar race handle the brickbats.
Paramount’s Selma, the critically acclaimed account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965, weathered a volley on Monday — just as the Oscar polls opened — over its suggestion that President Lyndon Johnson didn’t quite step eagerly up to the plate to help out King and his cohorts in their quest for equal voting rights. That’s according to two of Selma‘s harshest critics, who also happen to be protectors of Johnson’s legacy: Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, and Joseph Califano Jr., President Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-69. More dissenting voices came forward in today’s New York Times.
Selma helmer DuVernay, the first black woman director to be nominated for a Golden Globe, responded on Twitter: “The notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”
Selma Mayor George P. Evans touched on the topic in a quote issued with a Paramount press release today about the film opening in his town, “We must keep in mind that the movie is just that, a movie, and not a documentary.“
Likewise, The Weinstein Co.’s has been scrutinized by historians who argue the film, directed by Morten Tyldum and scripted by Graham Moore, beefs up Turing’s contributions to England’s codebreaking exploits, his relationship with female analyst Joan Clarke and the degree to which he might have placed on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum in the name of artistic license.
Unbroken, Universal’s biopic of Olympian-turned-WWII POW Louis Zamperini, has shouldered criticism in Japan for the depiction of brutality at the hands of Japanese soldiers. And there also has been some questioning whether Zamperini’s ordeal that included 47 days floating in a life raft after his plane crashed. As for the prison camp torture, the criticism is aimed at the 2010 book by historian Laura Hillenbrand, who previously wrote Seabiscuit. Said Hiromichi Moteki of Japanese nationalist group the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, per the Telegraph: “It’s pure fabrication. If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims. This movie has no credibility and is immoral.” A petition to boycott the film has 9,420 signatures. In an interview with Deadline, producer Matt Baer, who spent 17 years working to get Zamperini’s story told on film, said Zamperini — who died in July at 97 — found many disbelievers when he told the story of his iron spirit; landing a top-flight historian like Hillenbrand to validate his claims meant everything to him, the producer said.
The other new film facing claims of accuracy is Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, The Weinstein Co. picture that stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christoph Waltz as her ex-husband Walter in the bizarre tale about who painted the famed “Big Eyed” waif portraits that during the 1950s became one of the first examples of mass-merchandised artwork. Margaret won a 1986 slander suit against her ex after she claimed to have generated the artwork he took credit for during their marriage. The controversy, and even the notion of whether the Big Eyes portraits were legitimate art or schlock, presented all the makings of a Tim Burton film. Walter took his claims of ownership to his grave in 2000 at age 85, despite a stirring courtroom conclusion depicted in the film and the fact he never painted another picture after he split with Margaret. Now, he’s got someone to carry that torch in his estranged daughter Susan Keane. Days before The Weinstein Co. opened Big Eyes on Christmas Day, she launched the website Bigeyesmovie.com, blasting Margaret’s lack of original artistic ideas and her “false claims” against Walter.
“Despite our best efforts, the Keane Family has been unsuccessful in opening a dialogue with the creators of the film Big Eyes,” the site says. “All of our communications to date have gone unanswered. We are here to dispel the myths perpetuated by the media.” Susan Keane argues her own training as a painter and relationship with the Keanes makes her uniquely qualified to discern who deserves credit for the paintings. The website is also now promoting a new documentary on the “truth” behind the Big Eyes.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski say they were never contacted by anyone identifying themselves as Susan Keane, whose anti-Big Eyes website seems to draw heavily on Walter’s own memoirs. “It’s recommended reading – we did look at that book, but it did not logically make sense. We were telling Margaret’s story,” said the writers, who spent a decade working on the heavily researched project. “Her story makes complete sense. Walter lived till 2000 and had 35 years to produce another painting but didn’t. It’s hard to take Walter’s version of events seriously on any level.”
Musician Matthew Sweet, a collector of Keane art who served as consultant on the film, agrees. When he began a years-long obsession with the Keane paintings, he believed Walter’s claims. After closely studying hundreds of originals, a brush with Walter himself changed Sweet’s mind after he purchased a Keane waif painting from Walter that was dated 1985. “One night I lightly took my thumbnail on the 8, and there was a 6 underneath it,” Sweet told me via phone from Nebraska. “He re-dated a real Margaret painting to try to claim he painted it that year. The propaganda of Walter is so strong you want to believe it, but there is not a single piece of art from him before he met Margaret or after they divorced.”
Still, Alexander and Karaszewski say they’ll gladly speak with Susan Keane about her concerns over the film, which Margaret has seen and supported publicly.
Said Alexander, “To us, there is no mystery,”.