IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, PLAN TO SEE IT, AND DON’T WANT TO HAVE PLOT POINTS REVEALED TO YOU, STOP READING!
Based on a true story.
This is the most deadly phrase I can read or hear in a movie ad.
In fairness, Dallas Buyers’ Club, which I saw with my daughter, uses the words inspired by a true story in its ads and trailers. Inspired makes it sound a bit more as if it’s intended as fiction, although I suspect that distinction is lost on most moviegoers. Anyhow, this movie version of Ron Woodroof, the AIDS activist who founded the Dallas Buyers’ Club, follows him from his diagnosis, all the way to a court case against the FDA. Along the way, he battles doctors, customs agents, the FDA, and his own worsening state of health. It’s a moving story, and for someone my age, it effectively brought back memories of that time–the cluelessness of the experts, the rampant homophobia, and the ignorant, often hysterical, fear regarding the possibility of being infected. These larger points I recognized as truly depicted within the film, based on my memory of the history.
On the short drive home, my daughter and I discussed the film, and began speculating about its basis in truth. We both doubted that Dr. Eve Saks was a real person. My daughter was not a fan of the pseudo-romantic relationship between Ron and Eve, the going out to dinner and so forth. I wasn’t either. More importantly, we wondered whether or not the character of Rayon was a real person. We hoped so, but we had our doubts.
Rayon, depicted as Woodroof’s business partner, is portrayed by Jared Leto in a gut-wrenching performance that ought to win him many awards. This is one hell of a performance, and one hell of a character.
I looked it up as soon as I got home, and found these:
Alas, Rayon is not real. The Slate article states, “The real Woodroof didn’t have any particular Rayon in his life…”, and was created (quoting screenwriter Craig Borten), “…as a character to give Ron a dramatic challenge to his prejudices while facing his disease.”
In other words, she’s a standard-issue screen-written sidekick. Sorry. But I was not surprised.
Let me see if I can articulate why I am annoyed.
I remember the eighties and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, from the first news reports of an odd new cancer that seemed to strike mainly gay men. I recall an early report stating the mortality rate appeared to be about 33%. Soon, the true mortality rate emerged. No one, at first, knew what caused it, except that it was sexually transmitted. Then, the virus was found, but there was no cure.
I remember the homophobia, and the pronouncements from certain religious quarters that AIDS was a judgment from God against gays (while leaving lesbians, inexplicably, especially favored by heaven) and drug addicts. Then we were horrified to realize that blood transfusions were a common vector. This situation lasted throughout the eighties, until effective drug cocktails were developed, approved, and prescribed. But between the original diagnoses and the onset of effective treatments, was a decade of denial, bigotry, and fear. And yes, governmental and drug company intransigence both exacerbated that denial, bigotry, and fear, and was exacerbated by those attitudes.
Many people suffered and died, and many, like Ron Woodroof, did what they could outside the establishment–sometimes, outside the law–to buy themselves and their co-sufferers a bit more time, a bit more wellness. I’ve no objection to someone writing about a straight white guy caught up in the epidemic; his story is as valid and moving as anyone’s. But is an invented transexual addict with a heart of gold necessary here? Rayon is portrayed as pivotal, Ron’s supposed business partner. And she’s not real. She is, in the end, a redshirt, a casualty deemed necessary to the script. She is an invention used to show fictional evolution in Ron Woodroof’s purported character issues. What so-called truth am I supposed to glean from this?
Jared Leto’s performance makes all this even more of a problem for me, simply because he is so astonishing as Rayon. A beautiful performance that comes close to stealing the movie. And it is a beautifully acted, well-written movie. The problem for me is that those very screenwriting skills are what muddle the truth. In a today.com article, the movie is referred to as “…the real life story of…”, “…a true story, a triumph…”, when in fact, key points are completely made up. In addition, the characters of Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks are treated, in the article, as absolutely real. Check it out:
And this is why I have become a biopic cynic, fed up by all this inspired-by, based-on, bullshit. I love fiction, because fiction is true. It is true, precisely because I know it is made-up. With non-fiction, I can never be sure, but at least, I’d like you to try to tell the truth…