With prevalence of ‘true’ tales, is fact worth more than fiction in Oscars?

by Michael Thurston

AFP-JIJI

Truth can be stranger than fiction, so they say. But when it comes to movies, truth can also be more powerful than fiction, at least judging by this year’s Oscar nominees.

No fewer than six of the nine films nominated for the best picture Academy Award are based on true events — possibly the biggest proportion ever vying for Hollywood’s highest honor.

“It’s always been something of a trend, but has become an explosion in the last couple of years,” said film critic and author Molly Haskell, a day after the Oscar nominations were announced in Los Angeles.

“I think audiences seem to want this truth, or pseudo-truth, as readers want memoirs. Maybe fiction as such is no longer something we can believe,” she said.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled its nominees for the March 2 Oscars show in a predawn ceremony Thursday at its Beverly Hills headquarters.

The nine best picture nominees are “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Gravity,” “Her” and “Nebraska.”

All but the last three are based on real events. That is a significantly higher proportion than in any recent list of Academy Award best pictures.

What is more, it seems to follow a trend for winners. Last year’s winner, “Argo,” was about an infamous CIA operation in Iran. Two years before that, the winner was “The King’s Speech,” about Britain’s stuttering King George VI.

And “The Hurt Locker,” 2009′s winner, was about bomb disposal teams in war-torn Iraq.

The obvious question is, why?

Industry watchers offer various reasons: a real-life tie-in helps to market a movie; cinemagoers are more easily drawn to a story they already know about; and telling a story is easier if you know what happened.

“For some reason we as a society are obsessed with reality,” said Tim Gray, awards editor of industry journal Variety, noting also the explosion of reality television shows in recent years.

Closer to home, “we all videotape ourselves, we post it. We post photos. We are starring in our own life story, so it only seems logical that when you go to a movie you should see something real,” he said.

Citing current Oscar best picture nominees “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” he said: “The fact that these stories are based on reality adds an element of urgency to them.

“Dallas Buyers Club” tells the story of homophobic hustler Ron Woodroof, who contracted the HIV virus and became an activist for groundbreaking AIDS drugs in the 1980s.

“Here’s a homophobe who catches AIDS and learns compassion. If that was fictional you’d think ‘Oh, this is manipulative, this is too far-fetched,’ ” Gray said. “But you say, ‘No this is based on truth and this is fact’ and it lends urgency.”

“American Hustle,” which shares top Oscar nods with space drama “Gravity,” is based on a 1970s FBI sting operation known as Abscam.

“12 Years a Slave” recounts the life of Solomon Northup, sold into slavery in 1841.

“Captain Phillips” is about the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” tells the story of fraudster Jordan Belfort and the excesses of high-finance life.

“It’s a great selling point. It’s like: ‘Look, this is an incredible tale . . . and it’s true! But also, when you’re doing publicity, you can trot out the real person, the real life Philomena Lee, she’s been on the circuit,” Gray said, referring to media appearances of the Irish mother who searched for 50 years for her illegitimate son, given away for adoption by Catholic nuns. “Even with Jordan Belfort, with ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ he’s been doing publicity,” said Gray.

Pop culture professor Robert Thompson said the trend toward reality-based movies goes hand in hand with the way television is taking over as the place for big money and big productions.

” ‘Based on a true story’ is nothing new, but it does seem that this is becoming a near-prerequisite for a movie to be taken seriously,” the academic from Syracuse University in New York state said.

“As TV has taken on the role of high-brow fiction, movies seem to be searching for their gravitas in the relevance of ‘reality,’ ” he said.

Gray added: “I also think one of the reason is, when you’re dealing with real-life events, it helps in terms of developing the story. . . . It’s like, ‘No, this is what really happened, we have to stick with the facts.’ It’s like you know where the story’s gonna start, and you know where it’s going to end.”