Them’s the first lines of a blog post by Ben McGrath over at some niche magazine called “The New Yorker.” (I believe I am pronouncing that right.) The whole post is great, and succinctly explains why I can’t watch movies anymore. Well, that was not McGrath’s point—to explain why I, Dennis O’Toole, some guy no one heard of, can’t enjoy movies, though it may as well be.
The Truth is rarely good enough for Hollywood. The Truth needs a stronger jawline and could lose about ten pounds. (Or gain about 75, in Jonah Hill’s case.) “Make it entertaining” is the idea. But to a brother like me, I find the embellishment less entertaining. So, I don’t go to the movies no more.
The examples of Hollywood Truth-Stretching are legion. Let’s just look at sports movies: Take Rudy. (The entire Notre Dame football team did not actually threaten to quit if some dork wasn’t allowed to play.) Take Cool Runnings. (The East Germans did not try to ostracize the Jamaican bobsled team; someone decided a villain was needed when in real life the other teams loved the Jamaicans, even the Commies!) Take Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch. (In real life, Bud’s puppies were not kidnapped by a raccoon named Rocky in order to clone a race of super-athlete dogs.)
Sure, those movies are crap, but this kind of stuff is not limited to B-movies. Take the based-on-a-true-story classic, Hoosiers. A troubled coach meets a hapless team, and despite Adversity, Discord, and Having Dennis Hopper for a Dad, they somehow win the state championship.
I knew a guy in college whose uncle played on the real life Hoosiers team. I asked him what it was really like. “They weren’t underdogs,” he said. “They were a small school from a small town—that part’s true. But really, they beat the shit out of everyone for years. No one was surprised when they won the state championship.”
Isn’t that far more interesting? To hell with scrappy. Show me talented. Talent is rare thing. You can’t just develop outsized talent because you want it. We all know that, and I guess that’s the gift Hoosiers gives us—the idea that we can win the Big Game if we Want It Bad Enough.
It's a nice myth, but I think the original story is just as compelling, if harder to tell. It would be riskier, since there’s a mysterious, even mystical element to talent. (Origin of the word talent: a little-book-that-could called, “Los Bible”; talents were the gold coins that a king entrusted to his servants, coins he distributed—nota bene—in unequal measure. The author of that one? A young screenwriter known as, “Jesus.”) A Hooisers I’d prefer to see might ask the question: “How the hell did that much talent wind up in a small town?” A million Malcolm Gladwells couldn’t answer it, but the attempt could be fun.
In the based-on-a-true-story flick The Great Debaters, Denzel (Washington) coaches the debate team of a small, historically-black college named Wiley. Against the odds and the prejudice of the day (the day being the 1930s), the wily kids from Wiley best the mighty Harvard University. Yeah, dude: that Harvard.
In real life, the scalp belonged to the University of Southern California. But hey—Harvard is smarter, famouser, and the ultimate literary device to convey “gifted, elite students” to American audiences. Harvard never actually lost to, or debated, Wiley, but still. Who ever heard of the Southern Cal debate team? Maybe if Wiley beat USC in the Rose Bowl… Hmmm… Nah, the screenwriters said (it’s always a plural), making it football would be too much of a stretch.
Actually, what a “co-screenwriter” said was, “We used Harvard to demonstrate the heights they achieved.”
Right. That’s called “bad faith.” What he really means is: “Their actual heights weren’t high enough.”
As for Moneyball, that may as well be Michael Lewis’s word for “writing.” Whenever he plays it, he makes a lot of it. Or, he sells a lot of books. I don’t know if he lights his cigars with flaming diamonds, but you get my point: even people who hate reading love his books. It doesn’t matter if he is talking sports (“The Blind Side”) or finance (“The Big Short”), he’ll find a good story and tell it well. “Moneyball” spent 20 weeks on the bestseller list--and it’s about statistical analysis. To lots of us, the judgment and track record of a guy like Michael Lewis might be proof that his characters were interesting enough.
Well, not to Hollywood. I haven’t seen and probably won’t see the movie—mainly because I am a bookish freak—but I would not be surprised if Jonah Hill’s casting is the least of the embellishments. My guess is that in the final act, Billy Beane has to face off with his old foe, Rocky the Racoon. That li’l scamp is always up to something. Heh heh heh...