In 1935, a film critic for the Cincinnati Times-Star named H.T. Jordan took issue with the depiction of a Swedish king in Fox Studios’ biopic Cardinal Richelieu. In a piece called “Bad History,” Jordan wrote that the portrayal of the 17th-century monarch Gustafus Adolphus dragged down what was otherwise a handsome production with a gorgeous setting:
It is realized that a writer of motion picture plots is permitted some freedom with historical facts, but when one of the greatest characters in human history is introduced wantonly and unnecessarily into the plot structure and in a manner derogatory and despicable, the occasion gives rise to protest.
Jordan’s critique dovetailed with a period-specific hullabaloo: The Swedish government protested the portrayal—the king, they said, was not so attached to the bottle, nor would he have sold himself and his cronies—and persuaded the MPPDA to censure Fox Studios, which eventually edited out the offending scenes. That sort of intervention hardly seems like it would happen today—yet Jordan’s words nevertheless feel eerily, uncannily familiar.
This past award season, nearly every film with any historic grounding has been the subject of many such critiques. Selma, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Big Eyes, and Unbroken have all been pinned with a scarlet letter by dint of historical inaccuracies or omissions, and pundits, interested parties, and disinterested journalists alike are writing in to detail their factual faults. The frame of critique is getting a lot of attention, despite a history of publicly fact-checking docudrama films that goes back to Watergate and Vietnam, and that's been a regular feature of Oscar smear campaigns since 1999’s The Hurricane. Yet it’s never been a determining factor for which films win Oscars. In fact, many Best Picture winners—A Beautiful Mind, as well as Argo and The Hurt Locker—all suffered their own “controversies” before taking home the gold man.