Biopics are big business at the box office and are frequently showered with awards in Hollywood. In the last few years alone, Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, about the lives of music legends Elton John and Freddie Mercury, proved enormous hits. But these portrayals of “real life” don’t always hit the mark for the folks being immortalised on screen. Here are 20 films that infuriated the real people they were based on.
20. Pain & Gain
Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain told the story of the Sun Gym Gang, a group of bodybuilders who resorted to kidnapping, torture, extortion and murder in order to get rich. It was called, “dumb, shallow, deeply cynical and creatively bereft” by Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers. Perhaps, given that the 2013 movie was based on actual events, it should have approached the material with more respect and nuance.
The movie’s depiction of real-life kidnapping victim Marc Schiller was so problematic, in fact, that he chose to sue Paramount Pictures, Viacom, Michael Bay and even star Mark Wahlberg over it. In 2014 he told the New York Post, “The movie made a mockery of me and of the pain and suffering that I had endured. The horrible person on screen had no resemblance to who I was — or who I am now.”
19. The Social Network
In 2014, Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg spoke about his depiction in David Fincher’s 2010 movie The Social Network. In the first-ever public Q & A session held at Facebook’s headquarters, he said, “They just made up a bunch of stuff that I found kind of hurtful.” This backed up comments he made in 2010, in which he disagreed with how the filmmakers portrayed his motivations in founding the social media platform.
Back then Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford University, “The whole framing of the movie is I’m with this girl, who doesn’t exist in real life, who dumps me.” He continued, “And basically the framing is that the whole reason for making Facebook is because I wanted to get girls or wanted to get into clubs. They just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
18. Patch Adams
Patch Adams starred the late Robin Williams as Hunter Adams, the physician who formed the Gesundheit! Institute, where patients were treated using humor instead of traditional medical procedures. The 1998 movie was panned by critics and Adams himself was not a fan. In fact, critic Roger Ebert tweeted that the first thing Adams ever said to him when they met was, “I hate that movie.”
In an interview with New Renaissance Magazine, Adams said, “After the movie, there wasn’t a single positive article about our work or me.” He continued, “I knew the movie would do this. I would become a funny doctor. Imagine how shallow that is relative to who I am.” Despite this, however, Adams said of Williams, “he was the only actor I wanted to play me, and I think he did a fabulous job.”
17. Walk The Line
Walk The Line told the story of country music legend Johnny Cash’s rise to prominence, along with his romance with second wife June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were both nominated for Academy Awards for their portrayals of Cash and Carter, with Witherspoon winning. However, Cash’s first wife Vivian, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, was not happy with the 2005 film.
In her 2007 book I Walked The Line: My Life With Johnny Vivian wrote that she disagreed with the film’s interpretation of Cash and Carter’s romance, which depicted Carter as reluctant and Cash pushing things. In reality, Vivian said it was the opposite, with Carter relentlessly pursuing the married Cash. In fact, Vivian recalled a backstage confrontation in which Carter told her, “Vivian, he will be mine.”
Baseball legend Art Howe was decidedly unhappy with his portrayal in Bennett Miller’s 2011 hit Moneyball. “They couldn’t have demeaned me more,” a furious Howe told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s disgusting. I’m hurt by it. My reputation is altered by it. People who don’t know me are going to think that’s the real Art Howe.”
The film followed Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) as they tried to change the fortunes of the Oakland Athletics baseball team through a math-based, statistical approach. Howe, who was the team’s manager at the time, was played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. To the real Howe’s frustration, he was depicted as a stubborn traditionalist, angrily opposed to change.
15. The Blind Side
The Blind Side starred Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the adoptive mother of Michael Oher, an NFL offensive linesman. The 2009 movie has been criticized over the years for feeding into a stereotypical “white savior” narrative. Even Oher himself has expressed frustration with its depiction of him as oafish and with little formal football training.
In 2015 Oher told ESPN that the movie negatively affected people’s view of him as a player and led to unfair criticism. He said, “This stuff, people calling me a bust, people saying if I can play or not…that has nothing to do with football. It’s something else off the field. That’s why I don’t like that movie.”
14. Bad Education
Bad Education aired on HBO in April 2020 and was immediately met with rave reviews. The film was based on the largest embezzlement from the public school system in American history, in which $11 million was stolen from the Roslyn school district in Long Island, New York during the early 2000s. Hugh Jackman played Frank Tassone, the school superintendent who personally embezzled $2.2 million.
However, in an appearance on The Coach Mike Podcast, the real Tassone claimed the movie was only 40 to 50 percent truthful. He took particular issue with how the movie showed him having a secret affair with a former student named Kyle Contreras. Tassone said, “I have never, ever, in my 36-year career in education had a relationship with a student or with someone who had graduated.”
Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz was played by Channing Tatum in the 2014 drama Foxcatcher. The movie told the story of Mark and his older brother David’s relationship with multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), which led to David’s murder. Mark was supportive of the film and served as consultant, but around the time of its release he changed his tune.
Angered by critical inferences there was a homosexual element to his relationship with du Pont, Mark posted on Facebook about the, “insulting” movie, writing that it was jeopardizing his legacy. He also called director Bennett Miller a, “punk” and a “liar” on Twitter. However, by 2015 he’d changed again, tweeting that he was, “temporarily insane” when he criticized the movie. He wrote, “I apologize to you before the world, Bennett.”
In 2015, Best Picture winner Spotlight told the story of the Boston Globe journalists who broke the story of systemic child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the city. In one scene, journalists Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdam) speak with Boston College High School president Jack Dunn about whether he and his predecessors knew about the abuse. Dunn says, “It’s a big school, Robby, you know that. And we’re talking about seven alleged victims over, what, eight years?”
Dunn’s lawyers wrote the filmmakers a letter in November 2015 that stated that he believed the scene cast him as some kind of conspirator in the cover-up of the abuse, and that the portrayal was defamatory. In March 2016, the distributor Open Road films issued a statement that said, “Spotlight contains fictionalized dialogue that was attributed to Mr Dunn for dramatic effect. We acknowledge that Mr Dunn was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up.”
11. Black Mass
In 2015 crime biopic Black Mass, Johnny Depp played notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, but he wasn’t able to meet with the criminal to research his role. Bulger refused to correspond with Depp and would not watch the film. The imprisoned mobster’s lawyer Hank Brennan told People, “Johnny Depp might as well have been playing the Mad Hatter all over again as far as James Bulger is concerned.”
Bulger enforcer Kevin Weeks, played by Jesse Plemons in the film, also had no regard for the movie, although he did at least watch it. Calling it a, “fantasy”, he told Daily Beast, “The only resemblance to Whitey’s character was the hairline.” He also took umbrage with his cinematic counterpart, saying, “My character looks like a knuckle-dragging moron. I look like I have Down syndrome.”
10. What’s Love Got To Do With It
Both Angela Bassett and Laurence Fisburne were nominated for Academy Awards for their portrayals of Tina and Ike Turner in this 1993 biopic. The film was based on the 1986 autobiography I, Tina and dealt heavily with the domestic abuse Tina suffered at the hands of Ike. Around the time of the movie’s release, Ike spoke of how it had affected his reputation.
Ike told the Los Angeles Times that he hadn’t watched the movie or read Tina’s book. However, from what he had heard, he believed that both were built on lies. He said, “I guess they needed some drama, they needed to make somebody into the bad guy and this time it was me.” He also claimed, “The only time I ever punched Tina with my fist was the last fight we had. I hit her after she kneed me in the chest.”
Released in 2013, Diana was about the last two years of Princess Diana’s life. The film starred Naomi Watts as the Princess of Wales and was savaged by critics upon its release. The driving plot element was Diana’s relationship with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, played by Lost actor Naveen Andrews. However, the real Khan declared he would never watch the film.
Khan told the Mail On Sunday, “I don’t see this movie doing well at all. It is based on gossip and Diana’s friends talking about a relationship that they didn’t know much about, and some of my relatives who didn’t know much about it either. It is all based on hypotheses and gossip.” He also strongly denied giving the filmmakers his blessing, saying, “It is a complete lie. I have never given any approval.”
8. Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton, the 2015 biopic charting the rise and fall of seminal rap group N.W.A., was a massive success both critically and commercially. It made over $200 million at the worldwide box office and was nominated for an Academy Award for its screenplay. However, one member of the group, MC Ren, was unhappy at his depiction in the film.
On the film’s release, Ren took to Twitter to express disappointment about how the film downplayed his part in the group’s success. He wrote, “True fans know my role in the group as far as lyrics are concerned, don’t let the movie fool you about my contribution to the group.” He had also earlier tweeted anger at being left out of the trailer for the film, accusing Universal Pictures of attempting to rewrite history.
7. All Eyez On Me
This 2017 biopic of hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur raised the ire of Jada Pinkett Smith, who befriended the rapper when they both attended the Baltimore School for the Arts. She tweeted, “Forgive me…my relationship to Pac is too precious to me for the scenes in All Eyez On Me to stand as truth. The reimagining of my relationship to Pac has been deeply hurtful.”
Smith even directly addressed three separate scenes that she felt misrepresented the truth. She wrote, “Pac never read me that poem,” and, “Pac never said goodbye to me before leaving for LA. He had to leave abruptly, and it wasn’t to pursue his career.” She also said, “I’ve never been to any of Pac’s shows by his request. We never had an argument backstage.”
Notorious told the life story of iconic rapper Christopher Wallace aka Notorious B.I.G., or “Biggie” as he was nicknamed, was played by Jamal Woolard, and he would later reprise the role in All Eyez On Me. Fellow rapper Lil’ Kim is featured in the film, played by Naturi Naughton, and when the film was released in 2009 she told Hip-Hop Weekly that she had pushed for changes in the script to make it a more accurate representation of her relationship with Biggie.
“I knew I wouldn’t have control of how I was depicted,” explained Kim. “I did correct the writer about Biggie’s nickname for me. He had written that Biggie called me Big Momma. Biggie never called me Big Momma. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even like that name for me. He used to call me Mookie.”
5. The Fifth Estate
In January 2013, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange published a letter he had written to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who was set to star as Assange in The Fifth Estate that year. He wrote, “I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe this film is a good film. I do not believe it is going to be positive for me or the people I care about.”
Assange, who at the time was living under diplomatic asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, continued, “I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise. Consider the consequences of your cooperation with a project that vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee to the benefit of an entrenched, corrupt and dangerous state.”
Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers was a huge hit in 2019, making $157 million worldwide and receiving widespread critical adulation. Star Jennifer Lopez was praised for her performance as Ramona, the mastermind behind a crew of strippers drugging and robbing rich New York stock traders. However, Samantha Barbash, the real woman who inspired the creation of Ramona, sued the filmmakers for defamation of character, claiming she was never a stripper.
In her lawsuit, Barbash alleged that she refused her consent for the filmmakers to use her likeness, but they did so anyway. The court papers also said, “Anyone who views the film will believe Plaintiff to be an individual of little to no moral or ethical values, devoid of any loyalty to her colleagues, under the influence of hard drugs, and with misandrist tendencies.”
3. The Wolf Of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s riotous The Wolf Of Wall Street features a minor character named Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, played by P.J. Byrne. He is one of the employees at Jordan Belfort’s corrupt brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. After the film was released in 2014, a lawsuit was filed against Paramount Pictures from one Andrew Greene, who claimed the character was based on him.
Greene’s lawsuit read, “The motion picture contains various scenes wherein Mr Greene’s character is portrayed as a criminal, drug user, degenerate, depraved, and/or devoid of any morality or ethics.” He maintained that he did not consent for his likeness to be used and felt he had been permanently damaged by his depiction in the film. In 2016, lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio was ordered to give testimony, but by 2018 all of Greene’s claims were dismissed by a federal judge.
2. Winnie Mandela
Jennifer Hudson starred as Winnie, the wife of anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, in Winnie Mandela. The movie was filmed in 2010 but not released in North America until 2013. It was poorly reviewed and fared badly at the box office. But worst of all, it also upset the real Winnie, who told CNN in 2011 that the movie — described by its director as “an amazing love story” — was actually an insult to her.
“I have nothing against Jennifer, but I have everything against the movie itself,” said Winnie. “I was not consulted. I am still alive, and I think it is total disrespect to come to South Africa, make a movie about my struggle, and call that movie some translation of a romantic life of Winnie Mandela.”
1. The Theory Of Everything
Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory Of Everything. Felicity Jones was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jane Hawking, Stephen’s first wife. In fact, the film was based upon Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, Jane’s 2007 memoir. In 2018, however, Jane said the movie misrepresented their marriage.
Jane told an audience at the Henley literary festival, “I knew if there were mistakes in the film that they would be immortalised, which they have been. I found that very irritating and I didn’t want it to happen. Don’t ever believe what you see in films.” She was especially aggravated that the film glossed over the everyday difficulties of caring for three children and a husband with debilitating motor neuron disease.