'Did they have Crest White Strips in 1985?"
My friend asked me that recently as she, her co-vivant and I strolled out of the movie theatre that had been screening Dallas Buyers Club.
The film is famous, in part, because its star, Matthew McConaughey, dropped almost 20 kilograms to play Ron Woodroof, a hard-partying, trailer-living, trash-talking, rampantly heterosexual urban cowboy who at movie's start is diagnosed with AIDS and given only 30 days to live.
It's a bravura performance, based, as they say, "on a true story," and almost certain to earn McConaughey an Oscar nod. Moreover, the actor's determination to do right by his character is matched by the film's strenuous, almost pitch-perfect attention to period detail.
Too bad about the teeth. While McConaughey convincingly drinks, smokes, snorts and fornicates his bowlegged way across the screen as AIDS scores his body and soul, his pearlies remain as white and straight as a line of cocaine on an African blackwood table.
There's nary a toothbrush in sight, no bleeding or swollen gums, no sores, no stains on the teeth, no splotches on the tongue. Though haggard of face and gaunt of body, McConaughey's mouth somehow remains immune to the effects of an immune-system-destroying disease.
Ditto for co-star Jared Leto who, pace McConaughey, went on his own weight-loss program for the sake of authenticity and art. Hence, therefore, the perplexity in my friend's question. (And here the answer to it: Crest White Strips weren't commercially available until 2001.)
Of course, everyone's teeth, it seems, are whiter, brighter, more aligned these days, spookily so in some cases. But it wasn't always thus. Bad teeth and bad oral hygiene have been the norm rather than the exception for epochs, often for entire countries.
This was driven home, in a sort of back-handed way, by the two movies I saw shortly after Dallas Buyers Club, both of them – Inside Llewyn Davis and 12 Years a Slave – historical dramas; each, like Dallas Buyers Club, distinguished by a finicky attention to period detail – and each prompting a fit of oral fixation on my part.
Set in 1961, Llewyn Davis is an artful re-creation of the smoke-filled, coffee-fuelled Greenwich Village folk music scene where money was as hard to come by as a decent meal and good night's sleep.
It was, in truth, not a great dental era – fluoridation was a commie plot, dentistry was painful, Bob Dylan's breath reeked from lack of brushing and the mom of one of his girlfriends remembered his molars as being "green." You'd never know this from watching Llewyn Davis, however: The teeth of stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake are 50 years ahead of time, as pale, orderly and unblemished as their complexions.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's teeth aren't quite as orderly as, say, Timberlake's – the result perhaps of being born in England, a country relentlessly lampooned, on this side of the Atlantic at least, for being a nation of bad teeth. Be that as it may, Ejiofor's chompers prove remarkably, well … sturdy throughout his performance as the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave.
Indeed, he doesn't seem to lose any teeth (or weight for that matter) from 1841, when he's abducted into slavery and sent to work on the nastiest plantation south of the Mason-Dixon Line, through to his release from bondage in 1853. This even though slave diets in the antebellum South were low in calcium, fresh vegetables and fruit, and heavy on pork, cornmeal and sweet potatoes.
One field report from the mid-19th century notes "how you will find but few negroes who are not subject to tooth-ache" while "a large portion of [a physician's] practice [is] extracting teeth" from these "negroes."
Of course, Hollywood has not been entirely blind to what disease, diet and behaviour can do to one's canines and incisors. Check out the brown stubs Taryn Manning sports in Netflix's Orange is the New Black, the result, we're told, of her character's years of meth and crack abuse. Still, it's interesting to note how three big, critically acclaimed films, each clearly priding itself on historical accuracy and verisimilitude, can bite it on the bicuspid front. Could we perhaps call these instances of truth decay?
Understandably, some readers will complain that flaws, distortions, oversights and errors are endemic to the movies, no matter how strongly some films may appeal to truth and history, and that I should get back to flossing my own teeth and not fret about Matthew McConaughey's.
It's just that it's hard, isn't it, not to notice something once you've noticed it or it has been pointed out to you? I love the music of Miles Davis and admire T.S. Eliot's poetry – but the misogyny of the former and the anti-Semitism of the latter are, for me, a sort of indelible asterisk or stain on their great achievements; they compromise my pleasure.
And now I'm afraid every film I attend from here on is going to be seen through the prism of its performers' pearlies.
Finding anachronisms, gaffes, goofs and errors is an exercise as old as cinema itself. It's tricky, however, because sometimes the supposed errors are more the stuff of legend than fact. For example, I have heard over the decades that there's a billboard – or is it the Hollywood sign? – in the background in one of the scenes in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic Spartacus. It's something I've accepted as gospel – but recent attempts to firm up the claim have proved unsuccessful. There's also the danger of being hoisted on the petard of one's own (apparent) smarts. Like, I'd swear those cool sunglasses worn by Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained couldn't have existed for real in 1858 in the American South. But, I'm not a historian of eye wear, so who knows? Maybe Quentin Tarantino got it entirely right.
Here are some productions in which we're sure (or at least pretty sure) Hollywood got its period details wrong:
One Million Years B.C. (1966): Raquel Welch's fur bikini, stylish though it may be, is just one of dozens of faux pas in this laughable prehistoric potboiler where hunky cavemen and curvy cavewomen battle pterodactyls, brontosauri and other creatures that, in actuality, were long extinct by the time our ancestors trod the earth.
The Alamo (1960): John Wayne directed and starred as Davy Crockett in this lavish, Oscar-nominated recreation of the famous 1836 siege. The original theatrical version ran a whopping 167 minutes and according to Alamo expert Timothy Todish, "there is not a single scene in the movie which corresponds to a historically verifiable incident."
All the President's Men (1976): The producers purportedly bought 200 desks from the same company that supplied the real Washington Post newsroom and coloured them with precisely the same shade of paint. They also transported mounds of real Washington Post trash, notebooks and the like to the fake newsroom in Los Angeles. So why, for a movie set mostly in 1973 and 1974, is there a scene with a poster for Allen Toussaint's Southern Nights tacked to a bulletin board? The LP was released in mid-1975, almost a year after Richard Nixon's resignation.
The White Queen (2013): Supposedly set against the backdrop of England's Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), this series has noblewomen wearing dresses with zippers and knights in rubber-soled boots.