In today's cinema, how much verit?

It's long been a conundrum for Hollywood: How much do you fiddle with the facts in a movie about real events?

Even Al Capone reportedly couldn't resist sending his thugs to the set of "Scarface" in the 1930s to see how the movie, loosely based on his life, was depicting him.

But the issue of just how much truth we get - or should get - over a tub of popcorn is being questioned now as perhaps never before. In fact, four movies up for Oscars this Sunday are under fire.

"The Hurricane," "The Insider," "Boys Don't Cry," and "Music of the Heart" have all had their veracity challenged - some in court - by people or organizations they depict.

Public scrutiny of movies goes in waves, say observers, but this large dose is coincidental with Hollywood producing more of what people want right now: stories about real-life subjects.

" 'Based on a true story' is a great hook for a movie," says Susannah Grant, screenwriter for "Erin Brockovich," the Julia Roberts movie that took in a walloping $28.1 million last weekend.

"People are fascinated with Erin" she says of the real Brockovich, a single mother who won $333 million for the residents of a small town whose water had been polluted by a utility. "They want to know all about her."

Distinguishing where media leaves off and real life begins is increasingly difficult in an age that is rapidly making MTV's "The Real World" seem quaint. That movies would more frequently translate real stories to meet audiences' increasing appetite is not surprising.

Access to technology has also given individuals besides journalists the ability to research the details of movies more easily.

In the mid-1900s, bio-pics of people like Benny Goodman were often told with little more accuracy than a correct spelling of the name. Today, "we've entered a new age of public discourse with the Internet," says Jack Mathews, movie critic at the New York Daily News. He recalls that when the controversy over Oliver Stone's "JFK" erupted a decade ago, it was debated mostly on Op-Ed pages.

Now, critics can put up Web sites to spread the word. Cal Deal, a journalist who covered the story of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's murder conviction for The Herald-News in Passaic, N.J., has created a site detailing the facts in the movie he says are incorrect and providing links to other media sources.

"Imagine 20 years ago if this had come up and the Internet did not exist, I'd probably be sitting biting my knuckles wondering how to get the story out," says Mr. Deal.

"The Hurricane" has been criticized for inaccurately portraying Mr. Carter's conviction for the 1966 murder of three people and subsequent release in 1985. A major criticism has been the movie's use of a fictional lead investigator to fill the role of villain.

"We made a movie and in making a movie we used the tools of drama," says Rudy Langlais, an executive producer of "The Hurricane." "Is the dialogue in 'Lawrence of Arabia' real? Is the dialogue in 'Silkwood' real? No."

While none of these movies claim to be a documentary, fact-based dramas -especially recent ones -are being held to a higher level of scrutiny. "The stakes are raised now and there's a stronger sense that these films are not just entertainment," but that they influence thinking, says Robert Brent Toplin, a documentarian and author of "History by Hollywood." But, he adds, the need to fictionalize aspects of a true story is age-old. "Shakespeare did this and it's been done ever since."

Two of the four Oscar movies in question have been hit with lawsuits. Earlier this month, Fox Searchlight reportedly settled a lawsuit related to "Boys Don't Cry," about the story of Teena Brandon, a woman who lived as a man until her murder in 1993. The ex-wife of tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand has also threatened to sue Disney for defamation of character and for portraying her and her children in "The Insider" without permission.

Such lawsuits could take a toll on the way fact-based films are made in the future. "It certainly makes you wary in the worst way, because the finish line keeps moving.," says Mr. Langlais. "All of a sudden you're making movies to please critics or avert criticism rather than telling a truth."

Based on what he calls the "ferocious assault" made on "The Hurricane" in the media, Langlais says he's heard filmmakers already talking about making movies that lean away from dramatization to avoid criticism.

While Denzel Washington is a contender for Best Actor, "The Hurricane" is thought to have been passed over for more Oscar nominations because of the controversy surrounding it.

But that's difficult to judge says Jonathan Taylor, an executive editor at Variety. "It's very hard to extrapolate any bigger meaning from Oscar votes," he says. There is a common "knights of the round table" misperception about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where people envision a group of people handing down edicts, he says. The reality is that Oscar decisions are made by 6,000 individuals who are usually "sitting at home watching videotapes."

While some moviegoers feel cheated if the facts have been tinkered with, others say they don't confuse Hollywood with history. "I always assume they've taken liberties with reality to make a compelling movie," says Lois Harvey of Boston after seeing "Erin Brockovich."

Indeed, observers say if the movies didn't have composite characters, condensed time frames, and a narrative arc -no one would sit through them.

Filmmakers say they understand their responsibility. "You lose the power of the film and the power of the message if you don't tell the truth," says Carla Santos Shamberg, an executive producer of "Erin Brockovich."

So far, those involved in that story say the movie accurately represents them and the case. "They went to great pains to make sure it is an accurate portrayal of what happened," says Ed Masry, the attorney Brockovich works for. "Everything you see on the screen depicting [Pacific Gas & Electric] is absolutely accurate, " He notes they even copied the short skirts Brockovich favors, although, he adds, "I don't ever recall seeing her brassieres."

PG&E spokesman Greg Pruett says a confidentiality agreement limits what the company can say, but people should keep in mind "this is a dramatization, it's a movie."

Cultural experts say the debates currently raging over the veracity of movies are healthy. "It makes people think that movies are translations of events," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University in New York. "It keeps reminding us that this is all illusion, all interpretation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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