Dog Day Afternoon: The Real Story

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Bilge Ebiri explores the real story behind one of the most indelible movies of the 1970’s, Dog Day Afternoon. The gritty reality of Sidney Lumet’s direction, the strangeness of the story (according to the film, the motive for the robbery was money to pay for the sex reassignment surgery of the transgendered romantic partner of one of the robbers) and the stunning performances by Al Pacino, John Cazale, and Chris Sarandon captured the moment. Audiences of the era remembered the bungled bank robbery as it unfolded, with the hapless criminals stuck inside the surrounded bank ordering pizzas and the hostages and the crowd outside rooting for the robbers.

Ebiri looks at the contemporary coverage of the robbery and the film. According to this story, there was a mob involvement as well. And the guy behind it all learned that “moviemaking, like crime, does not pay.”

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Dunkirk: The Real Story

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Dunkirk was in most ways a loss, the Allies driven by the enemy to the shore and trapped there to be picked off. But it became a moral and morale victory that has resonated for nearly seventy years. It is featured in two films this year. “Their Finest” depicts a fictionalized version of the WWII propaganda operation that selected the rescue at Dunkirk as ideal for reassuring the British civilians. And Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a gorgeously filmed re-telling that is grand in scope but intimate in focus. While some of the details and characters are imagined, the overall story is true.

To learn more about the real story of the heroic evacuation of more than 300,000 men, watch some of the documentaries about the rescue operation.

And read The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord.

Here is then-new Prime Minister Winston Churchill giving one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century after Dunkirk.

Never surrender!

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The Real Story: The Zookeeper’s Wife

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“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” starring Jessica Chastain, is based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Warsaw zookeepers who helped Jews hide from and escape the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Copyright Zabinski 1939
Copyright Zabinski 1939

Yad Vashem, the world’s most comprehensive resource on the Holocaust, paid tribute to the Zabinskis and Dr. Zabinski planted a tree on the Mount of Remembrance there.

Dr. Jan Zabinski was the director of the zoo. He was the author of many popular-knowledge books about biology and the psychology of animals, as well as the producer of a number of very popular radio-shows. Despite the enormous problems he faced as the director of a zoo during wartime, he was not blind to the suffering of the Jews. When the Warsaw ghetto was established Jan and his wife, Antonina, began helping their Jewish friends. As an employee of the Warsaw municipality he was allowed to enter the ghetto. Under the pretext of supervising the trees and small public garden within the ghetto area, he visited his Jewish acquaintances and helped them as best as he could. As the situation in the ghetto deteriorated, he offered them shelter.

“Dr. Zabinski, with exceptional modesty and without any self-interest, occupied himself with the fates of his prewar Jewish suppliers… different acquaintances as well as strangers,” wrote Irena Meizel. She added: “He helped them get over to Aryan side, provided them with indispensable personal documents, looked for accommodations, and when necessary hid them at his villa or on the zoo’s grounds.” Regina Koenigstein described Zabinski’s home as a modern “Noah’s ark”. According to the testimonies, many Jews found temporary shelter in the zoo’s abandoned animal cells, until they were able to relocate to permanent places of refuge elsewhere. In addition, close to a dozen Jews were sheltered in Zabinski’s two-story private home on the zoo’s grounds. In this dangerous undertaking he was helped by his wife, Antonina, a recognized author, and their young son, Ryszard, who supplied food and looked after the needs of the many distraught Jews in their care.

Here is an interview with one of the “guests” who hid at the zoo.

And a documentary about the Zabinskis.

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The Real Story: “The Feud” Between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

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“The Feud” is the new series from Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Nip/Tuck,” “American Crime Story”), with three Oscar-winning actresses in the real-life story of three Oscar-winning actresses. Susan Sarandon played Bette Davis, Jessica Lange plays Joan Crawford, and Catherine Zeta Jones plays Olivia de Havilland in a story that takes place at in the 1960’s, when their stardom was waning. Davis and Crawford, both known to be temperamental divas who were intensely competitive and loathed each other so much it was almost a hobby, were cast in the grotesque horror film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” They played sisters, both performers (yes, that means actresses are playing actresses playing actresses). Davis was Jane, a former child star and Crawford was Blanche, a one-time movie star, now paralyzed following an accident, and thus dependant on Jane, who delights in torturing her.

“The Feud” is the behind-the-scenes story of Davis and Crawford as they made the film. The cast includes Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Oscar winner Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, and Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page.

Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud has more details about the decades-long animosity between the two stars, including Davis ordering a Coke machine for the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” crew — because Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi.

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Gold: The Real Story

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In “Gold,” Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, who, with Mike Acosta, finds a rich gold mine with deposits worth billions of dollars, and then has to cope with financial, corporate, and political predators to keep them from stealing it.

It is inspired by a real story that is even wilder than the one in the movie. SPOILER ALERT: The following gives away important plot details of the film that are best enjoyed as a surprise, so read this only after you’ve seen the movie.

Wells is based on David Walsh. In the film, Wells is proud of being a third generation prospector, who grew up in a family with a heritage of seeking — and finding gold. Walsh was an investor who tried various ventures before he went looking for gold in Indonesia, with the help of geologist John Felderhof. They had an exploration manager who was later found to be a bigamist with four families, but that’s another story. After many close calls and escapades they were shutting down when they hit gold, or at least it looked like it. The company, Bre-X, became a Wall Street darling. It was valued at billions of dollars, which attracted the attention of the Indonesian government, which came in to take a big piece of the action and force partnership with their favored corporation. But then things got worse — a suicide (or maybe a murder, or maybe a cleverly orchestrated escape), and then the uncovering of a massive fraud. For more information, see the documentary below.

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