Rocky vs. Your Memory: The Movies We Misremember

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2015

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

I have a terrible memory. The other day I blanked on Angelina Jolie’s name, and she’s only one of the most famous people in the world. If I didn’t take notes while watching some movies, I’d be totally lost when it came time to write about them – even if that time was just hours later. Thankfully I also have the internet to help me (ironically I’m sure the resources of the web negatively enabled my forgetfulness in the first place), so it should be rare that I make mistakes regarding plot points or, um, character names. But it still can happen, because we want to trust our minds and not always rely on a computer.

It used to be a lot more common for people to misremember movies. I recently watched the 1992 documentary Feed, about that year’s presidential race, and there’s a clip featuring Senator Paul Wellstone (who was not running but appears with his endorsed candidate, Tom Harkin) answering the question of what is his favorite movie. “I like Rocky!” he exclaims. “He comes back, wins, up there at the steps. That’s great. The underdog wins the whole thing.” Of course, Rocky doesn’t win at the end of Rocky, and the fact that Wellstone was clearly just referencing the movie to align Harkin with the character, as an underdog in the election, is unfortunate.

That was a fairly standard mistake in the days before we could all fact-check things immediately with smartphones – never mind how convenient actually owning movies on video cassette must have been compared to before VHS came into the world. In an interview with Rocky director John G. Avildsen last year, critic Joe Leydon noted that in the ’80s and ’90s he regularly had to field calls in his newsroom from people wanting to settle a bar bet about whether or not Rocky won his match against Apollo Creed. Avildsen said the funny thing is that who won doesn’t even matter, it isn’t the point.

When using something for political purposes, though, it definitely matters. Just look at how Ronald Reagan appropriated the message of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in his first year in the White House, for his promotion of volunteerism over welfare, further complicating the legacy of a movie written by an extreme liberal and directed by a fairly conservative, anti-New Deal Republican. Actually, critics of the president’s quoting of a seemingly socialist-leaning work were just as mistaken. Frank Capra’s whole career, let alone specific films, has been misremembered and misunderstood since he started making them. The term “Capra-esque” is typically used by people who don’t really get the filmmaker at all.

Most of the things we tend to misremember from movies is dialogue, and that’s a problem for the mainstream as a whole. Incorrect quotes from movies can go down more iconically in pop culture history than correct ones, as evidenced by “Play it again, Sam” (Casablanca), “Mirror, mirror, on the wall” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), “Luke, I am your father” (The Empire Strikes Back) and others. Those are more likely to have come from titles released prior to home video. They’re also a lot easier to find a record of online than any admission of misremembered movie scenes and endings.

One that I did find concerns the ending of Big. It seems there was a rumor of an alternate ending in which Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) makes a wish to be young and reunites with Josh (David Moscow as the kid version of Tom Hanks). Many people claim to have seen it. Others swear it was a tested but rejected ending that never saw the light of a theater. Apparently Penny Marshall has even officially denied it. And clearly, it’s a mix up for people who must have also seen Disney’s 14 Going on 30, which is from the same year and has the same plot and does have that ending.

Personally, my biggest mistaken memory – I guess – is one from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which I was certain featured a scene where Ferris (Matthew Broderick) takes cash out of some sort of container, which I recalled being for his college savings, and that was how he paid for his big adventure. Why that money wouldn’t have been in a bank, I don’t know. Well, a scene like that is in fact in the script, albeit involving a savings bond located in a shoebox in his parents’ closet, and it’s also in the novelization, which I read but only many years after seeing the movie in the theater and many times on video. (I still believe I saw the scene.)

I’m sure there are other confessions of misremembered movies all over the internet, and maybe there are some widely shared mistaken memories, as well. Maybe you even read this and were immediately surprised to learn you’ve been wrong about the conclusion of Rocky. What other scenes or endings have you misremembered, and which ones are you sure actually existed but have simply vanished from all trace as if we’re in some alternate timeline where it just didn’t happen? Maybe the alternate ending to Big does exist, just in the dimension where “The Berenstein Bears” (as opposed to “The Berenstain Bears”) exist.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.