Truth and Lives on Film

The Legal Problems of Depicting Real Persons and Events in a Fictional Medium

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About the Book

From the advent of cinema, Hollywood’s acquaintance with the unbridled truth has been passing, at best. Nonfiction has always been standard fodder for filmmakers, but rare is the screenwriter who ever met a story that couldn’t use a touch of embellishment. As early as the silent film era, lawsuits were filed against movie studios for their fictitious depictions of purportedly real events. The moviemakers claim artistic license; as Picasso said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” When the lie and the truth become inextricably mixed, the effect on the lives of the people involved can be dramatic, even devastating.
The first lawsuit claiming a libelous onscreen portrayal of a real person was filed in 1916, and the debate about filmmakers’ responsibilities when depicting real people and events has raged ever since. This examination of fact-based films and the law begins with a history of the legal issues surrounding the fictionalization of real events and people. The court case over The Perfect Storm—a film that spawned lawsuits from the families of the people depicted in the film—is then explored in depth. The next chapter analyzes fact versus fiction in 13 courtroom dramas, movies for which court documents provide clear historical records. A chapter devoted to actors so identified with a character that they sought legal acknowledgment of exclusive rights to that fictional persona follows. Notes, a bibliography and an index accompany the text.

About the Author(s)

Attorney John T. Aquino specializes in media law. His legal articles have appeared in American Lawyer, Intellectual Property Strategist, IP Law Weekly, Entertainment Law Weekly and the Washington Post. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Bibliographic Details

John T. Aquino
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 220
Bibliographic Info: notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2005
pISBN: 978-0-7864-2044-5
eISBN: 978-1-4766-0652-1
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments      vii

Introduction      1

I: FICTIONALIZATION IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION      9

II: THE PERFECT STORM      53

III: COURTROOM MOVIES: FICTION BASED ON FACT      69

Trial of Thomas More (1535)

Film: A Man for All Seasons (1966)      70

Amistad Trial (1840)

Film: Amistad (1997)      77

Trial of William “Duff” Armstrong (1858)

Film: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)      82

Andersonville Trial (1865)

Film: The Andersonville Trial (1970)      86

Trials of Oscar Wilde (1895)

Film: The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960)      96

Leopold-Loeb Trial (1924)

Film: Compulsion (1959)      102

The State of Connecticut v. Harold Israel (1924)

Film: Boomerang (1947)      108

Scopes “Monkey Trial” (1925)

Film: Inherit the Wind (1960)      112

Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1925)

Film: The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)      118

Nuremberg Judges’ Trial (1948)

Film: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)      123

Reynolds-Pegler Libel Case (1954)

Film: A Case of Libel (1988)      136

Big Dan’s Tavern Rape Trial (1983)

Film: The Accused (1988)      140

Von Bulow Murder Trial (1985)

Film: Reversal of Fortune (1990)      144

IV: WHAT PROTECTION FOR DRAMATIC FICTIONAL PERSONA?      149

Afterword      179

Chapter Notes      181

Bibliography      197

Index      201

Book Reviews & Awards

“provides a framework for thinking about legal issues in film”—Choice.