Based on a true story? ... Depending on how you define "truth"
“Where the hell are the singing cats?”
The question was asked back in 1993 by a man in the audience at a theater in New York. On stage, instead of the various characters in T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” — as brought to theatrical life in a musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber — was a former weatherman from Indiana with unruly hair and a familiar, gap-toothed grin, taping the first episode of his new talk show.
It was the initial “Late Show With David Letterman,” and the disappointed audience member who interrupted Dave’s monologue was his Connecticut neighbor, Paul Newman.
Times were simpler then, but the sentiment remains the same: Sometimes, when forlorn, frustrated or simply flummoxed by what’s directly in front of us, we’d rather see singing cats.
This holiday movie season, for instance, has featured head-shaking moments that could lead those of us with disposable income to question the intelligence and motives behind the offerings for which we’re being asked to shell out those shekels.
Consider the off-screen stories being told of a pair of films now showing at a theater near you — “Harriet,” the story of the fight to escape slavery engineered by Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad; and “Richard Jewell,” the account of how the man who found the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics went from valor to villain to victim.
Gregory Allen Howard, the producer of “Harriet,” has said during appearances promoting the film that at the start of the 25-year effort to bring Tubman’s story to the screen, a studio executive suggested she be portrayed by an actress recognizable for her unruly hair and familiar, full-toothed smile.
“When someone pointed out,” Howard recalled, “that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.’”
(Yeah, I’m stumped for something to say, too.)
Sure, the story could be apocryphal (even Snopes lists it as “uproven”), but it immediately brought to mind Robert Altman’s brilliant 1992 film “The Player” — a scathing take on the movie-making process in which every time a character pitches a proposed film to a studio exec, Roberts is always mentioned as playing the female lead (opposite, of course, Bruce Willis).
Meanwhile, movie honcho and murder suspect Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins) has the following exchange with the investigator on the case, Detective Avery.
“We’re doing a movie right now, called ‘Lonely Room,’” Mill says, “and Scott Glenn plays a detective much like yourself.”
“Is he a black woman?” asks Det. Avery, played by Whoopi Goldberg.
Whether the “Harriet” story about Julia Roberts has its origins in “The Player” likely is lost to history — but, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Which brings us to 1996, the Atlanta Olympics, and Richard Jewell.
“Richard Jewell was a hero,” it’s stated in a TV commercial by an old man who surprisingly looks and sounds a lot like Clint Eastwood would look and sound as an old man. “I’ve wanted to tell his story for a long time.”
That Eastwood (or any director) would be taping TV spots for what was thought to be one of the year’s prestige films says less about the film itself than what the movie has become through the filtered lens of its accompanying media coverage.
“Richard Jewell” has tanked at the box office, in no slight degree thanks to controversies both on- and off-screen.
At a critical point in the movie, Eastwood has Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs offer sex to an FBI agent in exchange for confirmation that Jewell was indeed being looked at as a prime suspect in the bombing.
The newspaper vehemently denies that this transaction could have or would have taken place, defending both the personal integrity and professional ethics of the now-deceased Scruggs ... as well as the paper itself for the accuracy of its reporting, despite the subsequent media feeding-frenzy that followed and the eventual exoneration of Jewell.
Warner Bros, the studio behind the film has (as of this writing) stood behind Eastwood, questioning the newspaper’s motives.
“It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell,” the studio said, “is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast. ‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”
Then there’s the entire issue of Eastwood himself, or rather the perception of the actor-director’s political leanings — and particularly how they come into play in his depiction of the FBI and the media ... two favorite targets of the current occupier (as of this writing) of the White House.
In making a film “based on a true story,” the ownership of that truth can spur considerations on rearranging history for reasons cynically absurd or culturally questiomnable. Heck, even now in the distance it’s not hard to imagine the drumbeats starting over how “Bombshell” — the new moving depicting the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News — is a political hit-piece at the expense of poor, poor, misunderstood Roger Ailes.
We decide to risk some of our spare change at a theater, in hopes that the movie we’ve chosen will give us what we’re expecting — whether simple entertainment, or an unfettered view of events that we hadn’t (or couldn’t have) remembered. That becomes a challenge, though, as finding out how the sausage gets made makes it harder to swallow our popcorn.
Thankfully — for those of us who just need a couple of hours to escape — another film with no pretense of reality is about to hit the screen.
Bring on the singing cats!
Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin is busy rewatching “The Player” at firstname.lastname@example.org