A French man passes himself as a missing Texas teen. A middle-aged woman invents the persona of a young male writer—and then finds someone to play him in public. Truth is far stranger than fiction in these far-fetched tales that no viewers would accept as plausible in a Hollywood movie.
And the very nature of truth is up for grabs in Catfish and I’m Still Here—are they just elaborate jokes being played on the audience?
Whether it’s the subject or the filmmaker bending the truth, these are some of the modern hoaxes we are still scratching our heads over.
The story of literary wunderkind JT LeRoy is a fascinating one: The abused teen burst on the scene with a fictionalized novel of his horrific childhood and quickly became a darling of artists everywhere. Famously too shy to read his own works in public, he had actors and musicians including Lou Reed do the readings for him. Embraced by celebs from Tom Waits to Winona Ryder and Courtney Love, JT eventually began making appearances (always hiding behind sunglasses) along with his manager, 40-something Laura Albert. A movie was made about his life by Asia Argento and everything was looking up … until a New York Magazine exposé revealed the truth: There was no JT LeRoy. Albert had invented him. This is the first film in which Albert tells her side of the story. She says she always felt more comfortable writing with a male persona and that she never intended her alter ego as a “hoax.” Having her sister-in-law portray JT in public, however, was a move that both escalated and unraveled the fictional persona. The documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig raises some interesting questions about fame and celebrity. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
A French con man pretended to be a missing teen from Texas—and the boy’s family inexplicably welcomed him as their long-lost son and brother. Frédéric Bourdin tells his story, as does the family of missing 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay. He had a long history of pretending to be missing and exploited teenagers (the film never weighs in with any psychological explanations why), and he chose Nicholas’s faded photo from a wall of missing children. The impersonation was shaky, at best. Nicholas was blond and had blue eyes while the much-older Frédéric had dark hair and eyes. And then there was his unmistakable accent. Spinning a tale of abduction, sexual abuse and bizarre experiments, he convinced officials and his “family” that he was Nicholas. But why did the family accept someone who was so obviously not the boy who disappeared four years earlier? Were they that desperate to believe or did they have their own dark secrets to hide? The story starts off slowly and then escalates into one of the densest real-life mysteries, one with no clear-cut answers. (Available on Netflix.)
The term catfish—“to lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona”— entered the modern parlance with this doc. It caused a sensation when it premiered at Sundance, with documentarian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) calling the movie “the best fake documentary” he had ever seen. The questions about how much was fabricated about Nev Schulman’s fake online relationship and the filmmaker’s decision to document it in the first place are still up for debate. The Christian Science Monitor reviewer was unimpressed with the apparent blurring of the line between fact and fiction: “The filmmakers, who profess to be as surprised as we are about how things play out, are being disingenuous at best and underhanded at worst.” A TV series on MTV followed in which Nev helped real people determine whether they were being “catfished.” (Available on Amazon Prime.)
In 2009, Joaquin Phoenix grew out his beard to cult-leader length and announced he was quitting acting to pursue a career as a rapper. When this film, directed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, premiered nearly a year later, critics still didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. Was it all just a joke? An elaborate year-long prank? Beginning with Phoenix’s early childhood as a performer with his siblings, the film then shows the now-Oscar-nominated actor ranting, “I’m just fucking stuck in this self-imposed prison of characterization… I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore.” The film, which is shot messily with a handheld camera, is barely watchable, but the length of time that Phoenix and Affleck maintained the ruse lends this hoax legendary status. Despite the backlash, the movie didn’t actually destroy their careers: Phoenix received his third Oscar nomination for 2013’s The Master and Affleck won the Best Actor Oscar for 2016’s Manchester by the Sea. (Available on Netflix.)
Tania Head had one of the most harrowing stories of escaping the World Trade Center and of her fiancé, who tragically did not make it out alive. She became one of the most recognized faces in the survivors community, so it was a shock to the actual survivors when she was revealed as a complete fraud. After being profiled by the New York Daily News in 2006, a 2007 New York Times story exposed the truth). The company she said she had worked for, Merrill Lynch, had no record of her. Family and friends of her supposed fiancé said they had never heard of her. This documentary by Angelo Guglielmo delves into the lies she spun and the damage she caused to a community that was just starting to heal, and tries to get at the truth of who she really was. (Available on Amazon Prime.)
Sharon Knolle is a film noir buff, dog lover and founder of Moviepaws.com. You can follow her on Twitter.