Cover Story: The Art of Lying

Moviemaking magic often depends on and builds from lies

Geoff Raker and Takashi Seida

The Human Stain shows how Hollywood loves the lies.

The longstanding lie surrounding Anthony Hopkins unravels the moment he tells you he's not the patrician actor and blue-blood Englishman people believe him to be.

"Blue collar, that's all I am," Hopkins says calmly, shattering a rock-solid persona built over years of portraying members of the gentry and culture aficionados with just a few choice words. "There's nothing spectacular about acting, no mysticism. That's bullshit."

The imaginary Hopkins is a man movie audiences believe they know well thanks to famous roles over the years in films such as The Elephant Man, The Silence of the Lambs, Amistad and Howards End and TV productions of classic plays like Hamlet and Uncle Vanya. Based on what they see onscreen, moviegoers are convinced he's two steps away from Britain's Royal Family.

It's an impression that's far from the truth. As Hopkins puts it — speaking on a September morning shortly after the Toronto Film Festival screening of his latest movie, The Human Stain — the public image that he's an aristocrat is "cock and bull."

"I enjoy working," he says. "It keeps me out of trouble, keeps me off the streets and keeps me out of the bars.

I just do the job because it's a job, and I enjoy it more now because of this paradoxical attitude: nothing to win and nothing to lose. I enjoy the procedure, I guess, the showing up."

The cult of celebrity prioritizes innuendo and rumor over what famous actors want fans to know and not know. On this particular morning, the Welsh-born Hopkins comes clean about his longstanding battle with alcoholism and his 26 years of sobriety. He talks about his reasons for relocating to the United States, where he now holds an American passport, and the negative publicity it caused back in England.

Such life issues are secondary to career news regarding whether Hopkins, 65, will ever make another return performance as Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (unlikely) or a sequel to the popular 1998 adventure The Mask of Zorro (possibly).

Hopkins didn't intentionally create the false regal impressions around him. They're more a runoff of his work, his credible play-acting of men who lived lives different from his own.

As a result, he often has to set the record straight in interviews. His noble look — he's dressed on this particular fall morning in a blue suit coat and a crisp white dress shirt — multiplies the fantasy.

Hopkins speaks politely, precisely, clipping the end off each word with authority. His manner is calm. His accent is polished. His tone is confident, appropriate for a man who's been knighted by the Queen of England.

He's called Sir Anthony, yet Hopkins insists the title means little compared to his family, his childhood, his birth home and who he truly is — things people pay little attention to because they're too focused on the fantasies.

Age of gossip
Lying is king in the age of celebrity gossip, and the art of lying is best experienced in movies.

In The Human Stain, veteran director Robert Benton's adaptation of the acclaimed Philip Roth book, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is a retired dean at a small liberal arts college in New England. He becomes the subject of town gossip when he begins a romance with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a janitor.

The fact that they're from different economic classes and Silk is old enough to be her father attracts gossip and derision. The townspeople believe something is wrong with Silk because of the way he's carrying on with the young, sexy Farley, but they don't know half of his story or the depth of his complicated deceit.

Movies by nature are objects of fakery. The goal is to find something emotional inside them that rings true.

The fake stories are often easy to spot, even when they're portrayed as true-life adventures. They're films featuring chainsaw-wielding maniacs (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and winged monsters that prey on teenagers caught alone on rural highways (Jeepers Creepers 2). A story about a human (comic Will Ferrell) raised as an elf at the North Pole is clearly a fairy tale. In Timeline, a son travels back in time with a group of young archeologists to rescue his father in 14th-century France.

Add up the costumes, makeup, special effects and tricky camerawork from the typical Hollywood blockbuster, and you have an elaborate fantasy as equally detailed as the world outside the theater.

The futuristic hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his battle against robotic machines in The Matrix Revolutions, the second of this year's two sequels to the 1999 sci-fi thriller The Matrix, is pure fantasy. But its lifelike, computer-generated detail and philosophical mumbo jumbo promote its world as a possible future lying around the corner.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson builds his epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy around its rich re-creation of Tolkien's Middle Earth with its snow-covered mountains and magical creatures and heroic adventurers. But it's all done with a staggering sense of realism.

In the movies that qualify as human dramas — films like The Human Stain that flit closer to naturalism — the lies are more difficult to pinpoint. They often nibble away at parts of the story that are emotionally accurate or historically true.

Cleverly concealed lies can aid the storytelling immensely. Consider director Ron Howard's recounting of mathematician John Nash's battle with mental illness in A Beautiful Mind, which wouldn't be as uplifting and emotionally satisfying without its steady stream of lies or dramatic license.

Howard valued emotional accuracy in A Beautiful Mind, but that wasn't enough to keep from being heavily criticized in the media. It's not that people are offended by lies in movies — they just don't want them to be easily spotted. Howard would have saved himself grief if he'd changed Nash's name, boosted the melodrama and used Nash's life simply as a starting point for movie melodrama.

Some movies, particularly those based on actual people and events, attempt to use honesty and accuracy for dramatic gain. Director Joel Schumacher's fast-paced melodrama Veronica Guerin is about the crusading Irish journalist who was brazenly murdered by gangsters in 1996 for her series of stories on the Irish drug trade. The fact that Cate Blanchett resembles Guerin in appearance boosts the film's authenticity a few notches.

Movies aren't meant to be civics or ethics lessons, and when they are it's often because something dramatic has been lost.

Journalism, or the disgraces of journalism, is the subject of director Billy Ray's Shattered Glass. It's the story of magazine reporter Stephen Glass, who wrote for The New Republic in the 1990s and fabricated more than half of his stories.

In the film, Glass (Hayden Christensen) is portrayed as a cloying careerist who ingratiates himself with his superiors in order to cover his misdeeds. Shattered Glass unfolds as a detailed, achingly matter-of-fact story about lying.

Specific historical tales — whether theatrical films like Shattered Glass, A Beautiful Mind and the military drama Black Hawk Down or TV movies about Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart — require historical accuracy, something that regularly hinders the storytelling. The creative acrobatics come from promoting these dramas as true stories but inevitably creating the fictional moments and combined characters.

Documentary films such as Winged Migration and Capturing the Friedmans continue to reach new audiences, while reality TV shows like Big Brother and Survivor continue to grow in popularity. The effect is that audiences can determine between what is honest footage and what is staged and made up.

CBS pulls a planned miniseries about former President Ronald Reagan because of complaints from conservative groups about its inaccurate portrayal of Reagan as a befuddled leader. The argument is that viewers would accept everything in the Reagan miniseries as factual because the lying is sleek, polished and convincing.

Secrets and lies
Then there are films that create and uncover lies at the heart of their stories. In The Human Stain, the lies are inherited directly from Roth's book.

The first lie is that veteran teacher Coleman Silk knew that two students who hadn't yet attended class were black when he referred to them as "spooks" during roll call. He didn't, but the mistake costs Silk his job and tarnishes his career.

The second lie involves Silk, a light-skinned black man, passing for white when he was young. He abandoned his mother, sister and brother in order to create an elaborate new life and identity.

Roth's own words create the lie powerfully when, early in the book, he describes Silk as "a small-nosed Jewish type with facial heft in the jaw, one of those crimped hair Jews of a light yellowish skin pigmentation who possesses something of the ambiguous aura of the pale blacks who are sometimes taken for white".

The third lie in The Human Stain — perhaps the most important for the film — has nothing to do with the book and everything to do with Hollywood machinations. It's the lie of casting.

The idea of Kidman and Hopkins together in bed becomes comical because of all we believe about both celebrity actors. The idea that Hopkins is a black man becomes a hindrance to the story because we know full well he's white. The outside lie, the lie that shouldn't matter, takes priority over Roth's lies, the ones that matter to the story.

"What you can do in a book is what changes a movie," says Human Stain director Robert Benton. "Words are evocative, but they're not literal. I can say to you, 'Outside in the hall is the most staggeringly beautiful girl,' and you will all get a picture in your head. But I show you the girl, you might not think she's staggeringly beautiful. Words do one things. Images do another."

The Hollywood lie is a lie so elaborate you're convinced it must be true. Movie lies are potent, and it's disappointing to see them wasted on meaningless tales. Young twentysomething women jump and leap through the air like Wonder Woman in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and none of it is true or do we expect it to be.

"There is a certain moral weight to a lie," says Anna Deavere Smith, the veteran actor, playwright and teacher who plays Silk's mother in The Human Stain. "Someone once told me that the devil is the father of all lies. ... I wouldn't call what are in the movie lies, I would call them fictions. People say actors are liars, but I think they come close to truth because they have to delve deep and surmount defense mechanisms. We create fictions in order to tell truths, not to tell lies."

The best Hollywood lies are the ones tossed at you without hesitation, no matter how outrageous they might be. Hopkins is cast as Coleman Silk, and the lie is thick, forcing you to make a stand either with it or against it.

Back in the hotel room, Hopkins sums up his acceptance of The Human Stain in pragmatic terms. To him, getting into bed with Kidman was simply part of the job.

"I'm old enough to be her father," he says. "I've nothing to lose and no reason to be self conscious. If I looked like Brad Pitt, that would be different. I'm 65, and what's the big deal? I don't do any nude scenes. She does all that. It's all done discreetly. No raunchy stuff. This guy is besotted with Faunia, and it changes his life."

Playing Silk, a black man passing for Jewish, did cause Hopkins to hesitate. It was a lie too grandiose even for him to handle.

"I was told they wanted me to play a black man, and I thought they had taken leave of his senses," he says. "How can I do that? I read the script, and it was an excellent script. I met Benton and the producers in a hotel in Santa Monica and had lunch, one of those meetings they do in Los Angeles. I said, 'You honestly think I can play this?' They said yes. I asked, 'What about my eyes?' They said, 'We'll use green contact lenses and a very, very light layer of makeup.' I was asked to stay out of the sun so not to turn reddish.

"I said, 'If you believe in it, then I'll do it.' I always ask a director, 'Why do you want me to do it?' I told Benton I'm not even American, and he said it didn't matter."

Lying — elaborate, complex, larger-than-life lying — is what syncs Roth's novel with Benton's adaptation. In the book, Silk creates a complex, fictitious back story for his false father that describes him as a blue-collar Jewish saloonkeeper with ties to the Jewish mob.

Benton takes Roth's lies and partners them with some of his own making. He presents Hopkins as a black man and then tosses him into bed with Kidman.

The awful truth
Stare at the image a film projector throws at a movie screen when there isn't film running through the machine, and the square of light is Old Testament dazzling. A film engineer can explain in detail the brightness of the Xenon bulbs that power film projectors. He'll explain how fans need to cool down the hot projectors and the size of the vent needed to pull the hot air out of the projection booth.

He can explain everything about the burning white light except for its inability to burn away the on-screen lies. When the lies between the factual production and the fictional story begin to bleed together, the effect is dizzying.

Midway into Roth's book, Silk summarizes his relationship with Faunia like this: "I owe all of this turbulence and happiness to Viagra, and without Viagra none of this would be happening."

Asked about his feelings on Viagra, Hopkins leaves the room laughing.

Imagine if the quotes were reversed and words celebrating Viagra and second-chance erections spoken by fictional Coleman Silk were incorrectly attributed to Anthony Hopkins. Now that would be some incredible lie. ©

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