Feedback
Pop Culture
Oscars

Oscar Fact Check: How True Are This Year’s True Stories?

The Wolf was even worse. Mandela didn't have socks in prison. Abscam didn't quite go down that way.

More than half of this year's best-picture Oscar nominees rely on true-to-life events, but as is often the case in Hollywood, separating the real from the reel can be difficult. Facts have a way of getting fudged before they make it onto the big screen.

Did "The Wolf of Wall Street" really smash up his sports car while on Quaaludes? (Yes.) Could a black woman really have been married to a white plantation owner as shown in "12 Years a Slave"? (Incredibly, yes.) How did the lead con man in "American Hustle" actually get away with that combover? (Not sure, but blame the 1970s.)

"Captain Phillips" sure looked like a nice guy when played by Tom Hanks, but anonymous crew members have been loudly disagreeing. Matthew McConaughey's painfully gaunt Ron Woodroof is portrayed in "Dallas Buyers Club" as a homophobe who changes his beliefs, but some friends say he was never homophobic, and some even say he was himself bisexual. Jennifer Lawrence plays her "American Hustle" character as a bossy, brassy housewife with no fear and no boundaries — which is why it can be tough to find out that the woman who inspired that character came to a sad end.

We've dug into some of the facts behind the films that Oscar may be honoring March 2. Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Mary Cybulski / Paramount

'The Wolf of Wall Street'Story: Stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) lives a decadent life full of sex, drugs and huge Wall Street money until the FBI brings him down.

How true is it? The film sticks pretty close to Belfort's two memoirs. In the film's most infamous scene, a Quaalude-dazed DiCaprio tries to slide down a flight of stone steps and crawl into his Lamborghini Countach, which he smashes up as he drives home. The events were straight from Belfort's book (though the car was a Mercedes in real life). But other facts are Hollywood-ized.

True fact: Belfort did indeed sink his yacht by insisting the captain sail into a storm, and the Italian coast guard did rescue everyone aboard.

Never happened: Matthew McConaughey's character beats his chest in a weird lunch ritual and DiCaprio's Belfort joins in. The real character McConaughey is playing never did this, Slate explains, it was a McConaughey acting exercise that director Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio asked the actor to incorporate into the film.

Wasn't explained: The film skipped over the devastation of those who lost money to Belfort. Belfort himself appeared on CNN with Piers Morgan and admitted he'd never personally met any of his victims, though on his Facebook page Belfort says he is paying restitution.

'Philomena'Story: Teenage Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) gives birth in a Catholic convent/home for unwed mothers, and against her will, her son, Anthony, is torn from her and adopted to America. British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) helps her discover that the boy grew up to become Michael Hess, a lawyer who worked for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but he died of AIDS before his birth mother could find him.

How true is it? Very faithful to Sixsmith's book as far as the parts about Philomena's time in the convent, a little less so when it comes to the depiction of Hess' life. Hess' partner, Steve Dahllof, told Politico the film was "about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy," though added that, in spirit, it was "10 out of 10."

True fact: Hess did try to find Philomena, and he was indeed buried at the Irish convent in hopes she'd find him. The touching inscription shown on the gravestone in the movie is correct, "Michael A. Hess, A Man Of Many Talents And Two Nations."

Never happened: Lee and Sixsmith didn't travel to the U.S. to hunt for her son.

Wasn't explained: Actress Jane Russell's picture is seen on the convent wall. Russell adopted three children, and though the film hints she adopted at least one from the convent, facts suggest she adopted elsewhere in Ireland.

'12 Years a Slave"Story: Solomon Northup, a free black man (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After a dozen years of brutal treatment, a Canadian carpenter (played by Brad Pitt in the movie) helps him return to freedom.

How true is it? Much of the movie comes from Northup's 1853 memoir, including his kidnapping, transfer between various plantations, cruel treatment and eventual release.

True fact: Northup writes in his book that he was indeed forced to horribly whip fellow slave Patsey for the "crime" of daring to acquire a bar of soap.

Never happened: There are some truths and some falsehoods involving Alfre Woodard's character, Harriet Shaw, a black woman married to a white plantation owner. Though it seems this racial mix would be impossible in the South, the character is taken directly from Northup's book. However, the teatime conversation she has with Patsey and Northup was invented for the film.

Wasn't explained: Although it's only hinted at in the post-film credits, Northup's life after freedom is not clear. At least one newspaper reported that he was again kidnapped and returned to slavery. Others argue that by this point Northrop was too old to appeal to slavers, but his final years and death remain a mystery.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Fox Searchlight

'American Hustle'Story: The FBI ropes a con man into working in their own undercover operation, in which an FBI employee pretending to be an Arab sheik tries to get politicians to take bribes. You know it as "Abscam," for "Abdul scam."

How true is it? Not very. Abscam happened, all of us who survived the 1980s know that. But the film even gleefully admits that only some of its depiction is factual. That's OK, it's pretty entertaining.

True fact: The mayor of Camden, N.J., played by Jeremy Renner in the film and given a different name, was indeed involved in the sting and did serve time in jail.

Never happened: Amy Adams' character, Sydney Prosser, is an American who puts on a British accent. The woman who inspired her, Evelyn Knight, was British. While she did have an affair (and eventually marry) Melvin Weinberg (Christian Bale's character), she wasn't involved in Abscam.

Wasn't explained: The character played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie (Rosalyn Rosenfeld in the film, Marie Weinberg in real life) committed suicide in 1982, a week after talking to "20/20" about her husband. Lawrence plays her as a ditzy tough blonde in her 20s, but in real life, Marie was a devoted longtime wife close to 50.

'Dallas Buyers Club'Story: Electrician and rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) doesn't believe the doctors who tell him he has HIV and just 30 days to live. He manages to stretch that 30 days out to seven years, traveling to other countries to buy and smuggle back medicine he believes will help.

How true is it? You can read the 1992 Dallas Morning News article upon which the screenplay was based and decide for yourself, but journalist Bill Minutaglio, who interviewed Woodroof for that first story, says his subject was protective of his personal life. Friends who knew Woodroof have said that much of what's portrayed in the film never happened, though the drug smuggling and the club certainly existed, and Woodroof was nothing if not a foul-mouthed, lively character till the end.

True fact: According to Minutaglio's original article, Woodroof did indeed dress as a priest, as McConaughey does in the film, to help him smuggle AIDS drugs past Mexican-U.S. border guards.

Never happened: Jared Leto won a Golden Globe and SAG Award, plus an Oscar nomination, for playing Rayon, a transgender woman who goes into the drug business with Woodroof. Rayon is a fictional character, as is the helpful doctor played by Jennifer Garner.

Wasn't explained: Left out of the film: Woodroof's real-life girlfriend, daughter and sister.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer's Club. ANNE MARIE FOX / Focus Features

'Captain Phillips'Story: Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) was in command of an unarmed container ship when Somali pirates took it over in 2009 and then took Phillips as their hostage. Members of the famed SEAL Team 6 later shot and killed three of the four pirates when it was believed they were about to murder Phillips. The fourth is now serving time in an Indiana prison.

How true is it: That remains up for debate. The film is based on a book by Phillips, who conducted an Ask Me Anything interview on Reddit about the incident in 2013, and said there the film was "fairly accurate." But 11 crew members have sued the shipping company, and many of them say Phillips disregarded safety protocol.

True fact: Whatever you think of Phillips, don't doubt those Navy SEALs. When they got their shots, they took them, killing the three pirates almost simultaneously, shooting each in the head.

Never happened: In the film, Phillips and crew are enacting a piracy drill at the very moment the pirates approach. In reality, the drill was a "fire and boat drill," Slate reports.

Wasn't explained: The last scene of the film is a stunning portrayal of Phillips completely in shock, being tended to by a Naval medical officer. That woman is no actor, but instead is Petty Officer 2nd Class Danielle Albert, who was asked to treat Hanks as she would a real patient in need of her help.

'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'Story: The film is based on the life of late South African leader Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5, 2013, at age 95. It covers his childhood, young manhood, activism, decades in prison and eventual election as South Africa's first black president.

How true is it? While the two-plus hour movie couldn't possibly contain everything in Mandela's life, a London professor who has taught Mandela's autobiography told the BBC that the movie "clearly depicted Mandela's understanding of the apartheid years ... or, at least, what he wanted to let us know. The BBC gave it three out of five stars for accuracy, but five out of five for enjoyment.

True fact: While in prison at Robben Island, Mandela and the other black inmates were given only short pants and no socks, while their friend Ahmed Kathrada, who was Indian, was given long trousers and socks. "Short trousers for Africans were meant to remind us that we were 'boys,'" Mandela writes in his book.

Didn't happen quite as shown: Mandela wasn't alone when he, the most wanted man in South Africa, was tracked down and arrested in 1962, He was with political activist Cecil Williams, and in fact was posing as Williams' chauffeur. A film has been made about Williams, called "The Man Who Drove With Mandela."

Wasn't explained: Mandela's eyes were damaged in prison by hours spent mining lime. The sun's rays reflected off the lime and into the prisoners' eyes, and for three years, his jailers refused to issue the men sunglasses.

'Saving Mr. Banks'Story: Walt Disney brings "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers to his California studio to convince her to let him make her story into a movie.

How true is it? The basic facts did happen, but the film fictionalizes a great deal about Travers' feelings for her late father and how he inspired the stiff Banks patriarch who eventually softens enough to fly kites with his children.

True fact: Just as presented in the film, the nonsense word "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was not in Travers' book, but was made up by the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard.

Didn't happen quite as shown: In the film, Disney flies to London to give convincing Travers one last shot. Director John Lee Hancock admitted to The Wrap that while Disney had flown to London many times, this specific trip may never have happened.

Wasn't explained: When Travers asks why Robert Sherman walks with a cane, she's told, "Somebody shot him." Sherman was shot through the knee during the last days of World War II in Europe, and would forever walk with a limp.