Fact vs fiction – How far is too far for biopics?

Stan and Ollie is a brilliant example of comedians using their aptitude for mimicry to bring a dramatic story to life. In Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, a lesser-known period of the careers of one of the world’s greatest ever comedy duos has been immortalised in film forever more.

The only problem I have with it is that almost all of it is fabrication.

Admittedly, writer Jeff Pope wasn’t there personally to verify the specifics of the script. This is forgivable.

But the plot is not.

Thanks to a wealth of online resources, not least the website Letters From Stan (which provides a record of every available letter Stan Laurel sent in his lifetime), there is enough factual evidence to piece together a fairly accurate timeline of events during their final tour of the UK and Ireland to know how much of this is real.

For a start, the tour started in September 1953 in Ireland (see letter to Dorothi and Jac dated 12th September 1953) and ended in England, allowing the duo to start their tour earlier due to a visa issue. In Stan and Ollie, the change in the plot allowed them to end on a triumphant emotional high with Oliver Hardy fully fit and able to perform. This is arguably a small change that makes sense from a story-telling point of view.

You will also note from the letters that Stan’s wife Eda joined him on the ferry crossing: “Had a nice crossing – calm sea all the way. Eda caught a cold so is now in the Pill & nose drops dept.” This is another small but critical plot point that was changed for arguably a good reason – it gives the viewer some time with Stan and Ollie without their wives, allowing the plot to explore their relationship thoroughly before the introduction of more characters on the tour.

Indeed, Stan Laurel himself was also ill for around a month in the lead up to Christmas, meaning they cancelled several shows. It makes sense to not include this in the film for timing and pacing reasons. Even if it was just a 20 second montage of him being ill for a month, it doesn’t really add anything.

The fabrications start to impact more when you think about their planned triumphant return to cinema, in this case an adaptation of Robin Hood. This is the plot device used as the driving reason Oliver Hardy agrees to do the tour. Robin Hood is a film that was mentioned once in an interview in 1947 during a previous tour of the UK, but never existed even as a concept. This factual change impacts hugely on the portrayal of the pair’s relationship.

If Oliver Hardy was only doing the tour to return to cinema, the suggestion is that his relationship with Stan is purely professional and the tour is only being completed to allow his film career to get back on track. Several times in the biopic he makes it clear he is only doing the tour to facilitate doing the film. On the contrary, in reality the pair had toured the UK four times between 1937 (when Way Out West was released) and 1953. They also released a film in 1951 (the unpopular and critically-panned Atoll K). This wasn’t a comeback for them and wasn’t something that brought them back together, and there was no film in pre-production. All three are fabrications.

The dramatic plot developments and emotional journeys of the main characters are built on a timeline so chopped and rearranged that the end result is a dishonest representation of the events. The crux of the film is a falsity.

The same can be said of the Oscar-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody, which also played around significantly with the timeline to make sure there was a triumphant ending for Freddie Mercury and Queen. The details are explored thoroughly in the article ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Fact Check: Did Freddie Mercury Really Tell Queen He Had AIDS Just Before Live Aid?.

In this film, the Live Aid performance was used as a way to reunite the band in the wake of Freddie finding out about his diagnosis. Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon had been angry after Freddie Mercury had released several solo albums in the early 1980s. As the film shows it, the band agree to reunite after a long hiatus and Freddie tells the band about his AIDS diagnosis late on in the rehearsal period.

In reality, the band had released an album together in 1983, Roger Taylor released two solo albums in 1981 and 1984 and Brian May released an EP in 1983. Queen had played a series of shows two months before Live Aid in 1985, so they had never really been apart. It is also thought that Mercury didn’t find out about his diagnosis until April 1987 (according to his partner Jim Hutton).

These are critical changes to the timeline that completely alter the impact of the story. I agree it is completely appropriate to finish on the high of the Live Aid show. Similarly, it is impossible to tell the story of Queen without mentioning Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. So, what were the filmmakers to do?

It’s a fine balance between telling a truthful story and telling an entertaining and dramatic story.

With Stan and Ollie, the result is a whimsically funny film that achieves its main goal of bringing one of the greatest comedy duos back to the attention of the public. It’s not a bad film at all. It’s just important to know where the fact stops and the fiction starts. This is a decision that ultimately lies with director Jon S Baird, writer Jeff Pope and producer Faye Ward, all of whom will presumably be happy with the critical response and the box office takings. Similarly for Bohemian Rhapsody, director Bryan Singer, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and producers Graham King and Jim Beach will not care a jot about the changes made, especially if they pick up an Academy Award for their efforts.

History will forget whether or not the facts are correct. Inevitably what is on screen will take priority over the truth, hidden away in books and on websites for only the most ardently-interested fans to find. How the films themselves are remembered will only become clear years down the line.

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