This year, of the two front runners for Best Picture, The King’s Speech is the most obvious addition to the long list of “based on a true story” nominees and the fact vs. fiction questions that arise (as they do with any “Based on a True Story” movie) are largely immaterial. Conversely, The King’s Speech biggest competition, The Social Network, has been dogged by these questions from the start. And not unfairly. The former is considered largely accurate and the latter’s relationship with the truth is spotty. Yet…I don’t care.

The question of The Social Network’s authenticity is once again rearing its head as the inevitable backlash against the frontrunner begins. Andrew Sullivan already linked to one screed from The Awl that I mostly disagreed with. But it wasn’t until later that a friend was humming Mozart to herself that I drew a connection between The Social Network and Amadeus, the 1984 Best Picture winner; both are predicated on a glaring biographical lie.

In Milos Forman’s film, we are told the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Salieri is a jealous, spiteful, and senile old man when we first meet him. On his deathbed, he calls in a priest to confess one final sin: killing Mozart. For the next two plus hours, the Peter Shaffer script (based on his play by the same name) weaves an engaging story of Mozart’s path from child prodigy to alcoholic trainwreck — and how Salieri drove Mozart to his untimely death.

Much of what we are told about Mozart is faithful to the era, but there is one big falsehood that today would likely cloud its Oscar chances: everything about Salieri is based on centuries old slander. Not just the supposed murder (which even in the film is seen as the ramblings of a crazy man), but Salieri’s entire relationship with Amadeus was invented as a narrative technique. Music scholar A. Peter Brown broke down the truth vs. fiction in an incisive 1991 essay: “‘fictional ornament [using a term coined by Shaffer]’ understates the gulf between what was the invention of the authors and historical truth.”

Brown takes down many of the myths concocted about Salieri: that he was jealous (their relationship was a “healthy professional one”), that his music was simple and unworthy of the royal court (he was “a highly respected and successful” composer), and that he conspired to kill Mozart (“Salieri’s two attendants attested that they had never heard such words from their charge.”) Brown makes a great effort to show his admiration for Amadeus, in spite of the fact that Shaffer drew the central conceit of the film from unfounded rumors that had been circulating since Mozart’s death.

And Brown is absolutely correct in his evaluation of the film — it is brilliant, engaging, fun, and suspenseful. And the leading and supporting male actors put in career-defining roles.

I’d say the same thing about The Social Network — and it too derives its plot from a giant, but in the end immaterial, lie: that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in an attempt to get others (girls, finals clubs, the world) to like him. The critique I linked to above by Richard Rushfield gets into it, as have others. Sorkin, with help from author/fabulist Ben Mezrich, ignores the fact that the real Zuckerberg has had the same girlfriend for years — predating Facebook. He apparently had no interest in the finals clubs; he was a member of a fraternity. Rushfield writes, “Zuckerberg is portrayed as an angry, vengeful sociopath, which by most accounts and all appearances, he is not.”

So why should we judge these films differently? Shaffer made the decision to tell the story of Mozart through the prism of a manufactured competitor just as Sorkin told the story of Facebook by taking Eduardo Saverin’s side and twisting it a bit to make it more dramatic. The more I think about the comparison between these two films, the more it fits. And if The Social Network wants to combat the backlash it will get as the frontrunner of the Oscars, it would be good for them to consider what made Amadeus‘ half-truths seem less relevant to voters*

*Yes, the 80s were a different era of Oscar voting. Yes, I know one had 200 years of murky history and one had 5 years of rather well-documented history. I still don’t think it matters.

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