Do you like facts? I know I do! That's why I get a little obsessed when I notice published mistakes, especially when it's about something really important, like a movie.

I was writing an article about Raging Bull a couple weeks ago, and in the course of my online browsing I read the movie's Wikipedia entry. The paragraph under "Awards" caught my attention. It has since been changed slightly (by me), but here's what it said at the time:
Raging Bull was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Sound, and Editing) at the 1980 Academy Awards. However, when it was revealed that John Hinckley, Jr.'s assassination attempt of the then president Ronald Reagan had been influenced by his love for Taxi Driver, this hurt the chances for the film to pick up the Oscar. Out of fear of being attacked, Scorsese went to the ceremony with FBI bodyguards disguised as guests who escorted him out before the announcement of the Academy Award for Best Picture was made - the winner being Ordinary People.
Huh! I thought. Here is a detail of Oscar lore that I'd never heard before. I knew about John Hinckley's obsession with Taxi Driver and Jodie Foster, of course, but I'd never realized the assassination attempt had coincided with Raging Bull being nominated for Oscars, much less that backlash against Martin Scorsese had been perceived as hurting the movie's chances. It sounded reasonable, though. It reminded me of a few years ago, when Eddie Murphy's shot at winning for Dreamgirls might have been sunk by Norbit being released just as Oscar voters were filling out their ballots.

But then the other parts of my brain started to kick in. The smart parts. Something about the timeline seemed wrong. I checked the dates. Reagan was shot on Monday, March 30, 1981 -- the very day the Academy Awards were supposed to be held. (They were pushed back to the next day.) The fact that the shooting had been inspired by a Scorsese film couldn't have impacted Raging Bull's chances. By the time it happened, the Oscar ballots had already been collected and tabulated.

This wasn't a difference of opinion. This was a flat-out mistake. Scorsese's indirect connection to the Reagan shooting did NOT cause Oscar voters to punish Raging Bull, not unless they traveled through time to do it. Now, finding an error on Wikipedia is not an entirely uncommon phenomenon, but I wondered where this mistaken idea came from, and why it had not been corrected before. There was a footnote citing this source: "Evans, Mike. The Making of Raging Bull, pp 124-129." Apparently this book made the ludicrous, impossible claim that Raging Bull lost at the Oscars because of the Reagan shooting. And apparently citing this source was enough to keep people from fixing the error on Wikipedia.

Well! I thought. I shall have to track down this book and see for myself just what kind of tomfoolery is going on here! But my local library had never heard of a book called The Making of Raging Bull. Neither had Barnes & Noble. At Amazon, only used copies were listed -- apparently it's out of print. Now extremely curious, I shelled out six bucks for a used copy. (Believe me, I've spent far greater sums on far stupider things.) When it arrived several days later, I eagerly turned to pages 124-129 to see what it said about the Reagan shooting turning voters against Raging Bull.

And here's what it says about it: nothing. The book makes no such claim. Whoever wrote that part of the Wikipedia entry cited The Making of Raging Bull as the source, when in fact The Making of Raging Bull doesn't say that. But since it's enshrined on Wikipedia -- with an authoritative-sounding book listed as the source! -- it gets passed along as fact. Here's an article from a few months ago in the Telegraph -- the bestselling broadsheet newspaper in the United Kingdom -- that repeats the falsehood:
The awards came amid claims that Scorsese was being punished for his earlier film Taxi Driver, which apparently had influenced John Hinckley Jr in his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
What do you want to bet the writer of that article got his information from Wikipedia?

Now I was intrigued by The Making of Raging Bull for other reasons. It's cited as the source for more than two dozen statements on the Raging Bull Wikipedia page, yet even a cursory glance shows it to be poorly researched and edited. Here's this:
The Oscar ceremony itself, set for March 30 1981, was postponed for the first time in its history, after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan earlier that day by John Hinkley.
One, his name is Hinckley, not Hinkley. (The mistake is repeated every time the shooter is mentioned.) Two, this was actually the third time that the Oscars had been postponed. It happened in 1938 because of flooding in Los Angeles, and in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. These facts are very easy to track down, especially in the age of the Internet. Why had this Mike Evans character been so careless? And why had someone chosen THIS book, of all the books written about Raging Bull, to use as the main source for the Raging Bull Wikipedia page?

Now I was suspicious of everything. The Making of Raging Bull goes on to say:
The ceremony took place the following day, by which time the Hinkley/Taxi Driver story had broken, and Scorsese was shadowed at the ceremony by FBI bodyguards, who ushered him out before the Best Picture was announced, telling him "the Redford picture was going to win anyway."
This information is repeated in the Wikipedia entry, the book cited as the source. But was it true? Had word gotten out, just 24 hours later, that Hinckley was crediting Taxi Driver for his assassination attempt? And did Scorsese know about it? And was he sufficiently alarmed to have FBI bodyguards accompany him? And did they really hustle him out of the theater before the Best Picture was announced? All of those things are plausible, but my faith had been shaken.

The Making of Raging Bull had one part in quotation marks: "the Redford picture was going to win anyway." Where had that quote come from? Evans doesn't cite sources. Instead, there's a "selected bibliography" at the very end, a one-page document that lists 14 books that Evans apparently used in his research. One is left to infer that the part in quotation marks came from one of these 14 books. Or maybe it didn't, since this is only a "selected" bibliography anyway.

Google that phrase -- "the Redford picture was going to win anyway" -- and you get exactly one hit (well, probably two, now): Andy Dougan's Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro, published in 1996. (This is not, for the record, one of the 14 books Evans listed.) Google Books has much of Untouchable online, including the relevant page (141):
Although his own film was nominated, Scorsese was offered little consolation by the FBI man who told him there was no point in waiting since 'the Redford picture' was going to win anyway. He was right and Scorsese was left to go backstage to congratulate his star [De Niro had won Best Actor] and put out some kind of joint congratulatory statement on their success.
Ugh, wait a second. The Making of Raging Bull was quoting Untouchable -- but apparently Untouchable was quoting something else: notice the quotation marks around "the Redford picture." Untouchable's bibliography wasn't online, so I had to get it from the library. Luckily, the library is down the street from my apartment, and I have nothing better to do with my time.

Untouchable turns out to be more thorough and responsible than The Making of Raging Bull, but not by much. Page 1 claims that the title of the film is the only "splash of colour" in the black-and-white Raging Bull; but in fact there's a minute or so of De Niro's character's home movies that are in color. A small mistake, perhaps, but it's on page 1, which doesn't bode well. Dougan also says 1981 was the first time the Oscars had been postponed, solving the mystery of where Evans got that false idea from.

Throughout the book, Dougan puts material in quotation marks -- including "the Redford picture" -- without saying where the quote came from. His bibliography, like Evans', simply lists a handful of books, leaving it up to us to figure out which quotation came from which source.

I Googled "the Redford picture" Reagan Scorsese and got a hit: someone had scanned in part of Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Mary Pat Kelly's biography first published in 1991. That was indeed one of Dougan's sources. I got the book. It was the best one yet. Unlike Dougan's unauthorized De Niro biography and Evans' half-asleep Raging Bull dissertation, Martin Scorsese: A Journey is an oral history, consisting almost entirely of verbatim interviews with Scorsese and others. Everything is straight from the horse's mouth, authorized and on the record. Now we're talkin'!

Here's what Scorsese himself says about it, on pages 97-98:
In terms of the John Hinckley shooting, people ask me how l feel about it. Well, I'm a Catholic. It's easy to make me feel guilty. In fact, I only learned about the connection on Academy Award night, the day after the President was shot. I was washing up and dressing. I'd been nominated for Raging Bull, but I knew I wasn't going to get the award. I knew it. I knew I wouldn't get it, but it was okay, I was going to go anyway. There were some pictures on the TV of the President being shot the day before, but I had turned the sound off; so I didn't know any connection to Taxi Driver existed.

When I got to the Academy that night, it was myself and Harry Ufland, my wife, and De Niro. We were the first ones let in. I said, "This is great. This is terrific." And then I had to go to the men's room, and suddenly, these three big guys came with me. Three big guys with jackets, with a lot of metal inside. I'm not kidding! I thought they had radios, they had wires and things hanging out of their ears. I said, "Gee, this security is incredible tonight. The security is remarkable." A few years earlier, at the awards, when Jodie Foster and I were nominees, I had received a threatening letter about Taxi Driver : "If Jodie Foster wins for what you made her do, you will pay for it with your life." So we got the FBI then, and that night when Billy Friedkin was directing the awards show, he let me in first. They showed me my FBI person, a woman in a gown, with a gun in her bag. Jodie didn't win so that was that. So now I said, "Well, the security is even better than the last time, this is fantastic!" Now, even in the men's room, they say, "Are you okay?" "Yes," I say. "I'm fine, I'm washing my hands. I'm fine."

When Lillian Gish was on stage to give the award for Best Picture, someone said to me, "Come on, it's going to be the Redford picture [Ordinary People]. Let's get out of here." I said, "No, no, no, you can't. Lillian Gish is on the stage. You don't get up and walk out on Lillian Gish." But it was the FBI that wanted me out!

I went backstage with Bob to put some sort of statement together.... They didn't want me moving around. Everybody knew why but me. Bob told me that a connection to Taxi Driver had been made in the shooting of the president. I never thought in a million years that there was a connection with the film. It turned out even the limo driver was FBI.
So there you have it. According to Scorsese himself, he didn't know about the Taxi Driver connection until after the Oscars. The Wikipedia assertion that "out of fear of being attacked, Scorsese went to the ceremony with FBI bodyguards" is wrong: He didn't know he had any reason to be afraid, and the FBI guards were there without his knowledge.

There are several lessons to be learned in this curious game of Telephone. For one thing, you can put something false on Wikipedia and keep it there for years simply by attributing it to a print source that no one's going to bother to check out. ("Well, he cited a source, so it must be true!" people will say.) For another thing, even if you really did get your information from an actual source, if that source is wrong, you're going to be wrong too. Dougan said, erroneously, that the Oscars had never been postponed before, and Evans blindly repeated the claim. That Telegraph article said the shooting influenced the outcome, probably because the writer saw it on Wikipedia and didn't double-check it.

Speaking of which: Who put that false statement on Wikipedia in the first place? And why? And why did he or she attribute it to The Making of Raging Bull by Mike Evans? Obviously further investigation is needed. I will not rest until the matter is solved, or until I get tired of it and do something else.
categories Oscars, Awards, Cinematical