For years, the Oscars have been trying some right. Maybe it’s time to try some wrong.
In the contemporary film era, the Oscars have historically rewarded something safe enough to watch with your grandmother. Even if it was explicit like Braveheart, or gritty like Unforgiven, ultimately there was still a clear-headed view of who wore the white hats and the black hats. You can’t win with an edge in today’s Oscar race, which is why you’ll never again see honors bestowed upon something like 1969’s prizewinner Midnight Cowboy, an x-rated film about a male prostitute and his pimp.
A tremendous brouhaha (as well as a boondoggle and donnybrook) has surrounded Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street for depicting a famous, sexy movie star as a real-life crook who swindled hundreds of foolhardy investors. Some believe that the film is immoral, and that it lionizes Jordan Belfort and his criminal exploits. Some think that the film does nothing of the sort, and instead uses satire to create, and destroy, a real-life demon who made a fool out of others and ultimately paid for his crimes. And I think both of these are true, and that we shouldn’t shy away from them... and neither should the Academy.
If you could be any protagonist from a film nominated for Best Picture, who would you want to be? The folks in American Hustle are attempting a high wire act, trying to subsist on their own crimes to feed their insecure, needy egos. Captain Phillips isn’t about a hero, it’s about the struggles Phillips underwent to be one. Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof has AIDS, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is trapped in space. There is no character to aspire to in this category, only victims.
Which movie, however, had a lead character getting so fabulously wealthy that he could seduce Margot Robbie in front of her boyfriend while his best friend masturbated? What movie had a lead character so villainous he throws seafood at FBI agents and punches his wife in the gut? What movie had enough coke to fuel the economy of a third world country? And which movie did you have the most FUN seeing amongst the Best Picture frontrunners? If this wasn’t it, it’s only because the confident three hour runtime was a further mark of the tacky excesses and extravagance of this period.
What’s more, Wolf Of Wall Street ends on the sourest of notes. The other films in the Best Picture race find hopefulness and triumph at the end of the rainbow. But [SPOILER ALERT] the close of Scorsese’s bacchanalia finds the Wall Street Wolfman hosting a seminar, face-to-face with a sea of slack-jawed dimbulbs not unlike the majority of members in any large audience that saw the film. They are us, and they are absolutely gobsmacked at how Belfort dominated his trade. They know Belfort’s a criminal at this point (not to the extent we do, admittedly), but their knowledge of his wrongdoings is dwarfed by their complete desire to be him. Belfort, and the film, hold us in contempt.
Ultimately, there’s something very American, nakedly so, about The Wolf Of Wall Street, which will keep allowing the film to be debated years from now. If it’s out there, you can take it, even if others suffer. The Academy isn’t a goodwill organization. They have no need to be polite, or to reflect the ideal status of the world. This is Best Picture, not Nicest Picture. By the way, 42 years ago, another film with a central criminal figure won the Best Picture award, even though it committed the sin of depicting terrible, selfish, bloodthirsty acts on film, almost as a tacit endorsement of them.
That movie was The Godfather.