Lifetime’s original movies have long been ridiculed and scorned by many critics and viewers for being melodramatic and badly produced. Although the network’s better movies sometimes get nominated for Emmy Awards, the “women in peril”/”women triumph over obstacles” stereotype of Lifetime movies still sticks to the network like an odor that won’t go away. In recent years, the network has been branching out from its usual movie themes of crime and nightmare relationships into doing more celebrity biopics, but even that expansion in programming has gotten mixed results.
In 2013, Lifetime’s separate biopics on sex symbol Anna Nicole Smith, convicted murderer Jodi Arias and Olympic gymnastics champ Gabby Douglas were hits — maybe not with critics, but at least in terms of ratings. In 2014, Lifetime’s (unauthorized) biopics are being slammed left and right, mostly for being inaccurate. Lifetime biopics on the late entertainers Brittany Murphy, Whitney Houston and Aaliyah have all been publicly criticized by surviving family members who say they were never consulted for these movies.
On Sept. 1, 2014, Lifetime’s “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” (which was based largely on “Saved by the Bell” co-star Dustin Diamond’s 2009 memoir, “Behind the Bell”) premiered on the network and was a ratings flop. Diamond was one of the movie’s executive producers. According to Nielsen Media Research and The Hollywood Reporter, the movie only had 1.6 million total U.S. viewers. That’s a big contrast to the 3.3 million viewers who tuned in to watch Lifetime’s premiere of “Anna Nicole.” Meanwhile, “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” got mostly negative reviews from critics.
“The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” costume designer Rebekka Sorensen told The Hollywood Reporter/Billboard fashion blog Pret-a-Reporter that because the movie was unauthorized, they were legally prevented from doing certain things, such as replicating many of the fashions that the original cast members wore on the show because the designs were copyrighted. Sorenson commented, “A lot of research was done on the Internet. We didn’t get to talk to anybody or interview anyone. It was our own creative project of how we thought they dressed. It was our little twist.”
Lifetime’s interpretation of the truth in its unauthorized biopics goes beyond costume design. Murphy’s father Angelo Bertolotti is so incensed with Lifetime that he told Radar Online in August 2014 that he is thinking about suing Lifetime for its biopic “The Brittany Murphy Story,” which premieres on Sept. 6, 2014.
Bertolotti also told yeahstub.com writer Julia Davis in an interview published on Aug. 30, 2014: “I am disgusted and outraged that Lifetime decided to produce such a trashy project, defiling the memory of my beautiful, talented daughter, Brittany Murphy. Frankly, I am amazed at their audacity of calling it ‘a true story,’ without conducting any research or consulting with any members of the family. ‘The Brittany Murphy Story’ is an affront to everything my daughter was in real life. It’s hideous, unauthorized and completely untrue.
“Lifetime’s casting was atrocious. Amanda Fuller, the girl playing Brittany, looks absolutely nothing like her. Everyone looks ridiculous in their bad wigs and the dialogue is nauseating. To suggest that I was never in Brittany’s life since the age of 2 is absolutely despicable. I was always a part of Brittany’s life and supported both her and her mother.”
Murphy died on Dec. 20, 2009, at the age of 32. She was found unconscious at her Los Angeles home, after she was seen throughout the day having difficulty breathing. A coroner report ruled that Murphy died of complications from pneumonia, with secondary factors of iron-deficiency anemia and intoxication from multiple prescription drugs.
Murphy’s husband, Simon Monjack, was a B-movie filmmaker with a criminal record for fraud. He married Murphy in 2007. Monjack died on May 23, 2010, at the age of 40, in the same house where Murphy died. A coroner’s report ruled that Monjack’s death was caused by similar factors: acute pneumonia and severe anemia.
Bertolotti has gone on record in interviews to say that he believes that Murphy and Monjack were murdered because Murphy spoke out in support of a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower. In light of these accusations, Bertolotti has not publicly named any possible specific suspects. However, in an August 2014 interview with yeahstub.com’s Davis, he accused Sharon Murphy, Brittany’s mother, of cruelly neglecting to get medical help in time for Brittany and Monjack. Bertolotti made it clear in the interview that he at least partially blames his ex-wife for these deaths. Sharon Murphy has not publicly responded to these accusations.
Meanwhile, Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic (working title “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B”) is scheduled to premiere in last quarter of 2014, while the “Whitney Houston” (working title) biopic is expected to premiere in 2015. The premiere dates are to be announced. Both movies have been heavily criticized for their casting choices and for not having the respective families of Houston and Aaliyah involved in the movies. Needless to say, the original recordings of Houston and Aaliyah will not be in these unauthorized biopics.