The controversy: The Film Cinderella Man depicts the main character’s (Jim Braddock played by Russell Crowe) opponent incorrectly.
The controversy: The Film Cinderella Man depicts the main character’s (Jim Braddock played by Russell Crowe) opponent incorrectly. The best boxer of the era, Max Baer (played by Craig Bierko), is portrayed as a psychopathic fighter who loves to kill in the ring.
According to the Baer family, the depiction is far from the truth and creates a false, negative image of a man who was a hero to many Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Other writers have described Baer as someone who loved wine, women, and song, but not as someone who loved the taste of blood in the ring, as he is shown in Cinderella Man.
Cinderella Man brings back a debate that goes on in movie screening clubs, university film schools, and armchair debates: What are the ethical responsibilities of movie makers when dealing with the lives of real people and events? Is there a poetic license allowed in movies that lets screenwriters change facts, appearances, character, marital status, just about everything about real people, just because it makes for a more compelling or popular story?
Let’s say you are a big name director. From the day you were cast in commercials, to your stand out roles as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show to Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, to film roles such as Winthrop in The Music Man to George Lucas’ American Graffiti, to directing from Splash to Backdraft to A Beautiful Mind, the choices were always the right ones. Your TV production company puts together two of the best shows on television—the sitcom, Arrested Development, and the suspense drama, 24.
You married your high school sweetheart, raised a bunch of great kids and gave three of them middle names for the places where they were conceived. Everything in life came easy for you, but you worked very hard when you had an opportunity. Not bad for a kid born in Oklahoma.
Let’s fast forward 45 years. Now one of the best respected directors in Hollywood, you have choices to make. It’s your film company, after all! What films do you make? What stories do you tell? How do you tell them? Should you recreate history for the purpose of film adaptation—to play fast and loose with the facts or go with the way things happened? That is a question that perplexes most film producers and directors.
For the most part, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have impeccable track records with the films they make. But Cinderella Man is different. They got the story wrong, plain and simple. They toyed with a man’s life story and turned a warm person into a psychotic killer.
There should be a law against it.
I remember my class in screenplay adaptation at Cal State Northridge 15 years ago. The professor, a successful adaptor, began telling us how we would break the rules to make adaptations. We would be allowed to change people’s lives, combine biographies, take license. The desired outcome was the best story, not truth. To me, this seemed to be at odds with what I knew of acting. Actors sought to create truths, to be believed, to be real given the character and the scene. Then why, I asked, do screenwriters change truths to make a more popular story? Weren’t the two concepts contradictory? I lasted two weeks in that class and dropped it. Fictionalizing real events? It seemed sacrosanct. Screenplay adaptation sounded like a license to lie.
Anyone taking their pen or keystrokes to a movie script makes choices. In an adaptation (in this case an autobiography of wrestler Jim Braddock), there is a cornucopia of decisions. If the person wasn’t married, do you create a love interest? If they weren’t in love with their wife, do you explain it away with an affair? Do you make a gay man straight to get a sexier leading actor? Do you combine several important people in their life into one or two to simply the story on the screen?
Or, as it was in this case, do you take an opponent and make him a really bad guy, even though he isn’t, to bring up the good/bad, black/white, Hollywood Western sensibility? You need a really good guy and a really bad guy to make the story sell, right? But what if the bad guy really wasn't so bad? What if he did his job the way he should but someone got hurt? After all, isn't that what boxing is all about?
Yes, Max Baer killed one person in the ring. Writer Cliff Hollingsworth and director Howard multiplied that by 2.
That’s what was done here. A virtually unknown screenwriter, Cliff Hollingsworth, wrote the project. Here is a question: how was Hollingsworth selected for this film? It would be interesting to know this with all the negative publicity. Did Hollingsworth own the property and bring it to Imagine Films? Even so, why didn’t someone stop this false characterization of Max Baer? The press said the film was made because Russell Crowe wanted to star in this story.
Hollingsworth, according to IMDB, did one movie before this one, a project called Too Good to Be True. It was a small, low budget film directed by a local Los Angeles community college film instructor. Until now, that was all there was on Hollingsworth’s IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0391132/
Another question ruled out almost immediately is the question of anti-Semitism. Baer was one of America’s 20th century Jewish heroes. Given that one of the two principals in Imagine Films, Brian Grazer, is Jewish, the answer seems obvious to be no. However, the Jewish community is up in arms over this mischaracterization. The local Jewish press in cities across the world have come out against this movie, from mere criticism to great concern about how the memories of great people’s lives can be changed by a single misappropriated storyline in a hit movie. The sports press seems unhappy too.
Today, the public relations voices in Hollywood are trying to spin this film’s controversy. I just wonder what will be the outcome. Will Ron Howard apologize to the Baer family? Will someone make a new film about Max Baer to resurrect his own story and his own truths? Will the controversy keep audiences away from a Russell Crowe/Renee Zellweger/Paul Giamatti film? Will the falsity of the screenplay hurt this film’s Oscar chances? In the news, all those things have been said in the past few days.
Stay tuned. Ron Howard, with all his acting and filmmaking experience, should have known better.