« An Effective Measure on Piracy? | Main | 29th St. Rep Loses Performance Space »

"Based on a True Story": What Does it Mean For You?


Online at Filmmaker Magazine's website, Shelley H. Surpin, Esq. has written a piece about some of the challenges specific to filmmakers who are making movies about real people.

Surpin writes, "I am often asked by producers, writers and directors if they need to acquire the 'life-story rights' of a particular person whose story they would like to develop... However there really is no such thing as 'a life-story right.' The pattern of incidents comprising a person's life is not a piece of property — not even intellectual property to be copyrighted, trademarked or patented. This truth does not give a free pass to the filmmaker wishing to exploit another's life narrative but rather uncovers the entrance to a thicket of issues."

The article delves into the complex legal issues associated with turning one person's life into another person's art, and while the advice is aimed primarily at the filmmaker behind the camera, Surpin has prompted Blog Stage to think about what it means for actors to take on the task of playing a real person instead of a purely fictional character.


Biopics, from Citizen Kane to Capote, have always been popular. And in recent years, it seems, playing a historical figure on screen equals a guaranteed Oscar nomination.

"When a famous person like Jamie Foxx does a great job portraying another famous person like Ray Charles, academy members think, 'Wow! That's acting!' " film critic Pete Hammond told writer Tom O'Neil (The Envelope) the year that Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, and others were honored for their portrayals of true-life characters.   "They have something to measure it against. The trend of rewarding those kinds of performances is now getting so out of hand that soon they'll have to change the name of the award from best actor to best celebrity impersonation."

Beyond impersonation, though, playing a real person sometimes requires the same skills that made that person notable in the first place. For example, Joaquin Phoenix learned to sing and play guitar (and also became an alcoholic) to embody the late country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.


Stars of sports, music, arts, theatre, film, business, politics -- all have been the subjects of films "based on a true story." Aside from the legal or physical demands of the role, what about the more abstract moral issues presented in fairly and accurately portraying someone who, alive or dead, probably affected people and already left a legacy of their own? Should actors, as well as writers and directors, always have the blessing of those they are portraying? Should they try to accurately imitate the person, or create a new character through their performance?

Have you ever played a real-life historical figure on stage or screen? What are the specific challenges you've faced as a result? Leave a comment below and let us know!

-- Daniel Lehman

Pop Quiz: Is the musician pictured above Ray Charles, or Jamie Foxx? Take your time.

Dig This


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Based on a True Story": What Does it Mean For You?:


The comments to this entry are closed.