The actor will be snipping goat gonads in Charlatan.
Fresh off the back of starring in not one, but two movies featured in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (Suburbicon and Downsizing), Matt Damon is showing no signs of slowing down. As Variety is reporting, he is set to play the hoodwinking lead in Charlatan, a 1900s-set movie based on the true story of quack John R. Brinkley. Produced by Kimberly Steward (with whom Damon worked with as producer on Manchester by the Sea), the film will be based on a script adapted from Pope Brock’s bestselling “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam”.
As the book’s title suggests, “Dr.” Brinkley was a total fraud. A med school dropout, he purchased a diploma from a sketchy university so that he could claim medical expertise and profit off of unsuspecting patients.
Soon, Brinkley was making a name for himself as the savior of impotent men. The story goes that in 1918, a Milford, Kansas farmer came to Brinkley’s practice to complain of an embarrassing lack of sexual appetite. Brinkley is alleged to have made an off-hand quip about the astonishing sexual virility of goats – a comment the farmer took in earnest. On the condition that the doctor would be made $150 richer, Brinkley acquiesced to the farmer’s pleas, and the man went home with a pair of goat glands between his legs.
Sometime later, the farmer’s wife gave birth to a baby boy (aptly named Billy). This fluke proved excellent publicity for Brinkley, who hired a PR agent to capitalize on his apparent triumph. Word of mouth began to spread, and with the help of a relentless advertising campaign, business began to boom. Brinkley’s price sky-rocketed, too, with each transplant then bringing in $750 (about $9,000 today). The money proved so good, in fact, that the quack made a shrewd business decision: he would double his potential clientele by opening his practice up to women. Brinkley wasn’t exactly fussy about science, so he simply carried over the same basic idea, and set about implanting goat ovaries into women desperate to conceive.
Despite the teeny trifle of being responsible for the deaths of tens of patients – and the fact he was under investigation by Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association (AMA) – Brinkley’s business continued to thrive. His earnings received a huge upsurge when Harry Chandler, then-owner of the LA Times, championed Brinkley’s apparent medical genius after inviting the conman to perform his signature goat gonad operation on an editor (and, as rumor has it, on Chandler himself).
While visiting Chandler in California, Brinkley learned about a potential game-changer for his insatiable appetite for publicity – the radio – and returned to Kansas keen to innovate. The station he subsequently set up was a huge success, boosting his reputation amongst the more trusting members of the population (and, oddly enough, the careers of burgeoning country stars like Hank Williams and the Carter Family). Money poured in – some of which was spent on improving the town, building sidewalks and setting it up with electricity.
Ultimately, though, any good Brinkley did do couldn’t stop the inevitable. Fishbein and Brinkley’s other detractors stepped up their efforts to see him barred from medical practice, and he was soon stripped of his license. This only spurred Brinkley’s characteristic self-promoting streak on, and he responded with verve by setting into motion a gubernatorial campaign, launched on his radio station, that was very nearly victorious.
With every bit of public attention, though, Brinkley attracted the increasing ire of Fishbein and the AMA. In a move that would eventually result in a libel trial, Fishbein published “Modern Medical Charlatans”, a series condemning the goat gland doctor as a fraud. His hard work paid off, and an onslaught of fraud trials followed the libel hearing (which Brinkley lost), leaving the pseudo-doctor disgraced and bankrupt.
Brinkley’s story is a remarkable one and well-deserving of wider attention. This is exactly what he’s been getting in the last year, thanks to a sudden surge in Brinkley projects: aside from Damon and Steward’s movie, the conman enjoys centre stage in a 2016 documentary (Nuts, from Penny Lane) and a podcast episode from January of this year (Reply All’s “Man of the People” piece). Of most interest for Charlatan’s team, though, will be Richard Linklater’s unnamed Brinkley biopic, which boasts Robert Downey Jr. as its lead and is based on that Reply All episode.
Initially announced in February, Linklater’s film (which Downey is also producing) still lacks mention of a writing team, which may indicate a stall in proceedings. Damon’s movie, on the other hand, boasts a strong duo behind its script – Brian Koppelman and David Levien of Ocean’s Thirteen fame – but is currently missing a director.
Aside, from this, Charlatan has an edge the Downey Jr.-starrer may well lack. Although it is well-researched, Reply All’s episode is ultimately limited as source material by its only being 42 minutes long. Brock’s 300-plus page biography of Brinkley, on the other hand, will undoubtedly provide Charlatan’s screenwriters with all the historical particulars they desire. One example: the plethora of famous faces that make an appearance in Brock’s “Charlatan” – both Sigmund Freud and W.B. Yeats feature, as do Eugene Debs, Sinclair Lewis, and Mussolini – should help ensure Damon’s movie doesn’t lack for interesting minor characters. In comparison, the aforementioned names are entirely absent in “Man of the People”.
Of course, the above doesn’t mean that Linklater’s movie can’t feature the same level of detail as Damon’s. The facts unearthed in Brock’s book don’t belong to anyone. What it does suggest, though, is that Linklater’s biopic might have to be warier about infringing the copyright laws that protect Brock’s telling of Brinkley’s story, which the New York Times described as being full of “uproarious brio” and topicality. While this legal issue is somewhat murky, it does indicate that Damon’s movie will likely have an easier ride than Linklater’s, since the former enjoys complete legal access to the most comprehensive Brinkley biography to date.
Whichever movie comes out on top – or comes out, full stop – one thing is certain: Brinkley would have loved all the attention he’s getting this year.