We’ve all seen those stately biopics (usually with Oscar aspirations), in which renowned actors portray real-life historical figures (Patton, Queen Elizabeth, Gandhi, etc). They are often interesting as history, sometimes less so as fully-realized movies. But a fascinating sub-genre exists when a real historical figure interacts with a fictional character. What happens when a make-believe protagonist is thrown into the mix?
The results can be funny, ironic, touching and everything in between. While this might be a device more attuned to literature than film, there have been many instances where fictional characters and historical figures have collided in the movies. The result is almost always fascinating—providing us with behind-the-scenes glimpses of normally one-dimensional iconic figures. One of the most well-known examples is Woody Allen’s 1983 faux-documentary Zelig, about a unique man who can change his appearance to look like those around him. The clever editing inserts Allen into real historical footage—playing baseball with Babe Ruth and meeting President Woodrow Wilson. A similar technique was utilized more than 10 years later in Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.
The latest example of history merging with fiction can be seen in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Inspired by the real life of Eugene Allen, the movie tells the highly fictionalized story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who witnesses a string of historic events during his 34-year tenure, serving for eight presidential terms from 1952 to 1986. The all-star cast includes Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and, portraying the U.S. Presidents: Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan).
Despite its factual roots, The Butler takes a fair share of artistic license in bringing Allen’s story to the big screen. According to a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, the film at times “bears about as much resemblance to Allen’s real story as Cusack does to Nixon.”
With The Butler just hitting theaters, MM thought it a perfect time to look back at some shining history-meets-fiction examples in cinema from the past two decades.
Forrest Gump (1994) directed by Robert Zemeckis Perhaps the most widely embraced fiction-meets-reality movie, Zemeckis’ much-loved adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel swept the 1995 Academy Awards, earning six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Tom Hanks) and Best Director. The epic story follows the simple-minded yet goodhearted title character through his fantastical life, as he encounters significant figures in American history ranging from Elvis Presley to John F. Kennedy. The movie was a hit with audiences, and the film’s impressive visual effects (such as Hanks appearing to shake Kennedy’s hand in stock footage) made it easy to believe the fictional Gump truly existed.
I.Q. (1994) directed by Fred Schepisi In this sweet romantic comedy set in the 1950s, Ed, a garage mechanic (Tim Robbins) falls head over heels in love with Catherine, a young woman (Meg Ryan) who, one day, stops in with her fiancé (Stephen Fry) to have her car fixed. As the mechanic later discovers, the young woman is the niece of none other than legendary mathematician Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau). As the two men become friends, Einstein grows determined to have his niece fall in love with Ed at any cost—including having him pretend to be a genius physicist. Matthau plays Einstein as a lovable, eccentric old kook; his endearing performance provides the heart of the movie. Further blurring the line between fiction and reality are appearances by Einstein’s real-life mathematician buddies Kurt Godel (Lou Jacobi), Boris Podolsky (Gene Saks) and Nathan Liebknecht (Joseph Maher), as well as a brief appearance by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Keene Curtis).
Il Postino (1994) directed by Michael Radford Set in 1950s Italy, Il Postino revolves around the fictional friendship between real-life Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) and his under-educated, rural postman (Massimo Troisi), who gradually learns to love poetry from the old master. As in I.Q., the renowned, real-life older man also helps his younger friend woo the woman of his dreams. In the end, both men are irrevocably altered by their improbable friendship. Il Postino was a critical smash, garnering several Oscar nominations, including a posthumous Best Actor nod for star/co-writer Troisi, who tragically died in 1994 at age 41 before the film was released.
Dick (1999) directed by Andrew Bergman This goofy satire is about two ditzy teenage girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who witness the 1970s Watergate scandal. To keep them quiet, President Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) hires them to be official White House dog walkers; it doesn’t take long, however, before they start to screw things up. While Dick is undeniably a silly movie (especially with its constant innuendos concerning President’s Nixon’s nickname), it’s also a lot of fun with solid comic actors like Will Ferrell (Bob Woodward), Bruce McCulloch (Carl Bernstein), Dave Foley (Bob Haldeman) and Harry Shearer (G. Gordon Liddy) lending hilarious support as well-known public figures who are undoubtedly much funnier in the movie than they ever were in real life.
Me and Orson Welles (2008) directed by Richard Linklater Based upon the novel by Robert Kaplow, this charming coming-of-age story is told from the point-of-view of a fictional teenager (Zac Efron) , who in 1937 is cast in the Mercury Theater production of “Julius Caesar,” helmed by a burgeoning young director named Orson Welles (Christian McKay). During the course of the film, the wide-eyed protagonist interacts with members of the real-life Mercury Theater troupe, including John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) and Joseph Cotten (James Tupper). Also starring Claire Danes, Me and Orson Welles serves as a great showcase for McKay—who not only bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Welles, but also perfectly captures the legendary moviemaker’s blend of charm, genius and egotism.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) directed by Quentin Tarantino Arguably Tarantino’s most audacious film to date, this gripping period piece centers around two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in German-occupied France during World War II, one planned by a young French girl (Melanie Laurent) whose family was murdered by Nazis, the other by a team of Jewish-American soldiers (led by Brad Pitt) known as the “Basterds.” While most of the characters in the film are fictional, several of the chief Nazi antagonists—including, of course, Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth)—are real-life figures, as well as Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor), then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who makes a brief appearance in the movie. At the film’s conclusion, Tarantino provides the perfect collision of history and fiction; providing a daring bit of wish-fulfillment revisionism concerning Hitler’s fate.
Have a favorite history-meets-fiction movie not featured above? Let us know in the comments!