Biopics. They’re a staple of modern cinema, but what do we expect from them? Historical accuracy? Actors gunning for awards? To be a little bit bored? Well, to quote Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad. Biopics have never been concerned with complete honesty when it comes to the lives of their subjects. They mix-up events, invent characters and tell the occasional white lie, all to make the final product popcorn ready. But (relatively) recently, I saw two biopics that took this general disregard for the truth a step further. Both were about kinda unsavory figures, and neither presented what I imagine is an accurate narrative account. For one film, this relative disinterest in fact is its greatest asset. As for the second movie, well, it’s The Greatest Showman.
The Greatest Showman has been a bit of sleeper hit in 2018. While initially opening fourth in the box office, it’s made almost 20 times that initial gross in its more than two month run. If that doesn’t seem impressive, compare it to The Last Jedi. The opening weekend for the blockbuster accounts for about one third of its more than $600 million domestic gross. More comparable is perhaps Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which has been another surprise hit, netting nearly $1 billion in worldwide gross. While Star Wars held the top box office spot for two weeks, Jumanji usurped it and held onto it for four, then regained it after losing to The Maze Runner: The Death Cure. This is clearly a film with ‘legs’—an industry term for strong box-office stamina and audience drawing power after opening weekend. But The Greatest Showman is still technically leggier. Jumanji’s overall domestic gross is only 10 times that of its opening weekend.
While most films’ ticket sales peter out relatively quickly, The Greatest Showman keeps pulling in audiences at a steady rate. The dollar amounts may not seem impressive when stacked against The Last Jedi, Black Panther, and yeah, even Jumanji, but it’s an undeniably significant success. It is the highest grossing original musical ever and the fourth highest grossing musical period. And it achieved all this while being about P.T. Barnum.
Yeah, I made you wade through a bunch of box office numbers just to get to the simple fact that The Greatest Showman is about P.T. Barnum. In my defense, those numbers are interesting, and the long term success of this thing is mind-boggling. Especially when you realize that almost nothing in the movie is accurate. It’s a film full of musical whimsy that makes a hero out of a man who was essentially a con artist, exploiting marginalized groups, animals and racist attitudes to draw crowds. So basically, the antithesis of Hugh Jackman.
It would be futile and much too time consuming to point out all the historical inaccuracies in The Greatest Showman. Some big ones include:
- Barnum and opera singer Jenny Lind only had a business relationship that ended because she did not approve of his aggressive promotional style. They parted on good terms, no scandal or aborted love affair.
- Charles Stratton, famously known as General Tom Thumb, was not an adult when he began working for Barnum but was actually only four years old. Barnum didn’t find him by chance; Stratton was actually his distant cousin.
- Barnum’s first big attraction was Joice Heth, a black woman that Barnum ‘rented’ (because it was illegal to own another person in New York—thank God there are loopholes to those pesky human rights laws!) and claimed was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. When Heth died, Barnum hosted a live autopsy, charging fifty cents for admission. Heth’s story didn’t make it into the film, nor did the infamous ‘Fiji Mermaid.’ That monkey-fish mashup is perhaps the best known crock of shit that Barnum sold to the public.
- Zac Efron and Zendaya’s characters were created for the film. So that progressive couple that transcends both class and race? Totally fictional.
So how did the life of a pretty terrible guy get made into a feel-good biopic and a musical starring Hugh Jackman no less? Well, the truth is we’ve been telling ourselves stories about P.T. Barnum for years. Benjamin Reiss, a professor at Emory University and the author of The Showman and the Slave, nicely outlines how Barnum’s story has been woven into America’s cultural fabric, complicating everything. “The story of his life that we choose to tell is in part the story that we choose to tell about American culture,” he says in an interview with Smithsonian.com. “We can choose to erase things or dance around touchy subjects and present a kind of feel-good story, or we can use it as an opportunity to look at very complex and troubling histories that our culture has been grappling with for centuries.” To look at Barnum through an unvarnished lens is to look at American history through an unvarnished lens, and a lot of people aren’t willing to do that.
In some ways, The Greatest Showman is the perfect showcase for P.T. Barnum. It’s empty spectacle that entertains you as it lies to you. Watch Hugh Jackman sing; look at Zendaya’s pink wig, and ignore the ugly cultural foundation it’s all built upon. But should that foundation be ignored in 2018? Should we perpetuate a myth about showmanship, acceptance and joy that is largely understood to be false? Probably not, and yet, The Greatest Showman will likely be one of the biggest box office success stories of the year. It’s the little movie that could, and it only builds into the cultural mythos of Barnum.
But I’m not the first person to criticize this film for glorifying something less than, well, glorious; this is old news. I’m interested in how The Greatest Showman is happy to let us sit comfortably in misinformation, while another film really wants us to feel uncomfortable with it while still offering very little fact. That’s right, we’re finally ready to talk about the other movie that got me thinking about biopics and what we expect from them: I, Tonya. The bad news is I don’t have a box office breakdown of I, Tonya to share with you. I mean, I could make one, but it wouldn’t be as interesting as that of The Greatest Showman. Sad but true.
I, Tonya follows a much more recent cultural icon, but one we’re just as invested in telling stories about: Tonya Harding. Through a mix of re-created talking head interviews and traditional biopic stuff, it recounts the life of Harding (Margot Robbie), including the abuse she suffered from both her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and the infamous attack on Nancy Kerrigan that got her banned from competitive figure skating.
Like The Greatest Showman, I don’t think I, Tonya is necessarily perfect in its presentation of fact. In my opinion, it’s a little too ready to assign the lion’s share of the blame for the Kerrigan incident to Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s former bodyguard. The film unsurprisingly paints Harding in a sympathetic light, giving her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to her involvement with the attack on Kerrigan. More surprising is how it presents Gillooly. He is just another victim of Eckhardt’s plotting, pulled along by his dimwitted friend and ultimately, forced to take the fall. Eckhardt passed away in 2007, and it seems a tad bit suspect that the narrative presented is the one that pins the crime on a dead man who cannot dispute it.
But truth, I, Tonya wants to remind us, is not always objective. Its very title announces its concern with subjectivity. It refers to Robert Graves’ seminole work of historical fiction, I, Claudius, which presented the history of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty from the perspective of one man. The mix of historical fact and individual perspective clearly informs I, Tonya. Harding, Gillooly, LaVona and a handful of other characters are shown in interviews, giving their accounts of the events the film depicts. It creates some shocking juxtapositions. In an interview, Gillooly denies abusing Harding while we are shown graphic and unnerving domestic abuse. LaVona downplays her use of corporal punishment, and we watch her throw a knife that becomes lodged in a teenaged Harding’s arm.
It’s clear that even though the film shows us multiple narrators we are being shown one person’s account of Harding’s life and career: Harding’s. Gillooly and LaVona’s senses of truth are both explicitly challenged within the film, but what Harding tells us carries as fact across interviews and the cinematic recreation of events. What she tells us happened is what we are shown. There are perhaps one or two deviations, but they are paired with fourth wall breaks to reestablish Harding as narrative authority. It’s the Gospel according to Tonya.
But in giving Harding the space for her own narrative, the film also plays it’s dirtiest trick on the audience. It makes our complicity in telling stories about Harding for two decades obvious. Harding directly calls us out as her abusers. We’re just as bad as LaVona and Gillooly or the figure skating officials that never wanted Harding to compete because she didn’t fit the ideal image of the sport. The villains of the film are those who twist the truth to create narratives that they then cast onto Harding, and a pretty large chunk of society fits that bill.
It’s not the truth that matters. I, Tonya ends with Harding basically admittingly the subjectivity of the film. She calls the story “my truth,” highlighting the impossibility of objective, capital T Truth. What matters are the stories that people tell, the ones that catch on and those that are forgotten. It’s a shocking reversal of Barnum. We remember the pageantry of the circus and forget Joice Heth. We remember a baton being taken to Kerrigan’s knee and that Harding was always kind of white trashy and forget that she was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition and the victim of terrible abuse. We beautify and celebrate Barnum’s legacy because if we don’t, we have to confront some ugly truths about America’s past. We vilify and mock Harding because if we don’t, we have to question cultural narratives of gender, class and abuse.
Are the The Greatest Showman or I, Tonya likely to change what types of biopics roll into theaters once awards season hits again? Well, between the successes of The Greatest Showman on the big screen and Hamilton on the stage, we may be seeing more musicals about famous figures, which sounds like such a terrible prospect I’m kinda psyched for it. But beyond the additional rhythmic stomping and ludicrous dance breaks, probably not. What they do offer, however, is an interesting look at why and how we tell stories about cultural figures. What parts of the story do we privilege? What do we feel comfortable omitting? Who do we cast as a villain, and who do we cast as Hugh Jackman?
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