Was P.T. Barnum, the pioneering circus owner, impresario and father of the freak show, really the swell bloke – so wise, benevolent and virtuous – portrayed by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman? A basic understanding of history would suggest the famously exploitative, gawk-for-a-penny entrepreneur was the opposite: a shameless shyster who pocketed a tidy profit by monetising human and animal suffering.
The rewriting of history from debut director Michael Gracey, in his frothy musical biopic, is sensational stuff: a standard of dupery-dealing to be envied in Pyongyang. There is an argument to say Barnum’s life story suits the entertainment over truth (at any cost) approach, given the subject’s affection for peddling the former at the expense of the latter.
But The Greatest Showman does more than invite us to leave our brains at the door. Gracey presents a laughably dishonest, history-recalibrating melodrama much more pernicious than the sentiment behind that old line about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. What was it like to be considered a freak, paraded in front of customers who pointed, jeered, laughed and cringed? According to this all-singing, all-dancing feel-good lark, it was fabulous!
The message is clear: these empowered – and not at all exploited – people should be damn grateful for Barnum’s charity.
Screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon frame Barnum’s narrative as the tale of an unfairly maligned person – the son of a poor tailor – dedicating his life to helping fellow outsiders. These include a bearded lady (Keala Settle), the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and an assortment of others including a tattooed man, a giant, a person with albinism and conjoined twins. The message is clear: these empowered – and not at all exploited – people should be damn grateful for this beautiful man’s charity.
And indeed, the eclectic supporting characters belt out a range of uplifting tunes, ‘making no apology’ for their lives and appearances and coming to Barnum’s aid when the man’s spirits need lifting. Barnum’s resolve to help down-and-outers is established early in the film, when, while loitering in a laneway as a child, he is presented with an apple by a hag in a hoodie. This is a moment of kindness that inspired him to risk everything and create a museum populated by “unusual” people.
Outside his theatre, we see vision of crowds holding placards reading ‘Boycott Barnum’. In these brief moments Gracey, though he does not give their views even cursory consideration, acknowledges there is a lingering foulness in his protagonist’s legacy: an elephant in the room, and not the one the protagonist rides on through the streets of Manhattan (!) after informing business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) that he will be scaling back his showbiz commitments to spend more time with his family.
The reason the protagonist’s behaviour is not questioned in any way – quite the opposite – is because it runs counter to the film’s core message: that Barnum was a saviour who, as an initially snooty and later fawning theatre critic portrayed by Paul Sparks puts it, created “a celebration of humanity” in his museum. Did Jackman wince when he read that line in the screenplay? Did any alarm bells go off?
Perhaps the actor hoped Gracey’s song and dance numbers – full of cheesy images and contemporary lyrics, despite the story taking place in the nineteenth century – would tape over any plot or thematic weaknesses. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Jackman, like his character, is something of a huckster himself, well beyond the ‘savvy businessman’, with a classy, clean-cut image that beautifully camouflages a tenacious spirit – and in this instance a dubious, if not downright repugnant product.
The Greatest Showman (is) a doublethink cash grab, painting perpetrator as saviour and exploited victims on the fringes of society as empowering role models.
When Jackman, while introducing The Greatest Showman at its Australian premiere, brought up the recent Fox/Disney merger to a Moët-infused audience, assuring the crowd it would not result in a reduction of quality content, who was he really speaking to, or for? When Jackman reflected on how greatly the script for a Lipton Iced Tea commercial connected with him on a personal level, because that delicious drink “can really keep you cool under pressure”, was he actually talking from the heart? Scarier than the duplicity of a “no” is the possibility of an earnest “yes.”
The current push for greater diversity in Hollywood and the wider entertainment industries constitutes a realignment of the scales, the ultimate aim for our entertainment industries to better reflect the scope and range of human experience. The Greatest Showman turns this meaningful journey into a doublethink cash grab, painting perpetrator as saviour and exploited victims on the fringes of society as empowering role models – figures of inspiration to make mainstream, uncritical audiences feel better about themselves.
Folk like the real Tom Thumb were undoubtedly inspirational people, though god knows what they thought about the state of humanity or the souls of fellow humans. Their lives and legacies have been hijacked for manipulative schmaltz that solicits the same pity-based response Barnum evoked from his customers back in the day: the feeling ‘thank god I’m not one of them’. The impresario’s freak show was honest, or at least obvious, in its gratuitous intent. Gracey’s sensationally disingenuous film is a more elaborate ruse.