How close to reality do holiday movies get? -- The fact and fiction of ''Shakespeare In Love,'' ''Waking Ned Divine,'' and ''Stepmom''

By Suna Chang
Updated January 15, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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So the holidays have come and gone, leaving you with some ill-fitting sweaters, a little fruitcake-induced agita, and a passel of questions about the season’s movie offerings. For instance, how true to Elizabethan life is Shakespeare in Love? And more practically, how much would it really cost to hire a male model for the day, a la Stepmom? The answers to these questions and others raised by this winter’s silver-screen fictions:

Shakespeare In Love
Q: Did William Shakespeare really cure writer’s block by having an affair with a woman hell-bent on an acting career?
A: Simply put, no. For the most part, says noted Bard scholar Harold Bloom, author of the recently published Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the film is ”pure invention.” In fact, you know that accuracy isn’t going to be a priority when Gwyneth Paltrow’s fiancé says that he wants to go to Virginia, which actually wasn’t settled until the founding of Jamestown in 1607, 14 years after the events of the film. Similarly, according to Bloom, there’s no evidence that the Bard’s quill ever needed a jolt of creative Viagra. ”If there is one writer in history who never had a case of writer’s block, it was Shakespeare,” says Bloom, noting that King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra were all written within a two-year span. Still, some of the story is true. As described in the film, Shakespeare was indeed hitched to an older woman in a shotgun wedding. ”We have every reason to believe it was a most unhappy marriage,” says Bloom. And though the record is scant, legend says ol’ Willy liked to fool around, though it’s unlikely he had a tryst with a Paltrow-like lady of the court, says Bloom. Also, a woman would never have been able to sneak onto a stage then. ”That was very, very strictly enforced,” says Bloom. ”There is just no way that could have happened.”

Waking Ned Devine
Q: Could someone really impersonate a dead man to claim his lottery winnings?
A: No, not even in Ireland. In the film, friends of the late Ned Devine try to cash in on his winning ticket worth 6.9 million [pounds] (about $10.5 million) by conspiring to fool an investigator from the lottery office. But this couldn’t really happen, says a spokesperson for the Irish National Lottery. All winners need to go in person to the lottery’s Dublin office to collect (no roving investigators to trick), where they sign a form; that signature is then checked against the one on the ticket. For the record, the largest jackpot ever won in Ireland was 7.4 million [pounds]. And yes, the winner was very much alive.

The Thin Red Line
Q: Was Guadalcanal really the turning point of the war in the Pacific?
A: Actually, it was one of two. According to Michael Gannon, professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida and the author of the WWII account Black May, the first pivotal victory against Japan came at Midway in June 1942, when U.S. forces established naval dominance in the Pacific. A month later, at Guadalcanal, Americans ”bested the Japanese ground forces,” says Gannon. The victory helped establish an American foothold in the Pacific. Still, watching the film isn’t going to help you pass a history exam. As Gannon points out, James Jones’ book, on which the movie is based, took several liberties. (In his preface, Jones, who was wounded at Guadalcanal, says that details such as the terrain and the battles are all ”figments of fictional imagination.”) But according to Jones’ daughter, Kaylie, Line is a thinly disguised account of real experiences. In fact, the fight for a hill described in both the book and the film as ”the Dancing Elephant” is a recounting of an actual battle that took place in 1943 on a hill called ”the Galloping Horse.”

Patch Adams

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  • Tom Shadyac