When, in January, I slipped away from a conference to catch a screening of The Wolf Of Wall Street, I joked that it was with the intention of trying to figure out if I was on “Team Depiction” or “Team Endorsement.” It was the best way I could explain the debate over what’s become the most controversial of the nominees for Best Picture, Martin Scorsese’s rollicking portrait of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a securities fraudster whose career provides perspective on the corruption of 1980s Wall Street. The film’s been criticized for everything from obscuring the harm Belfort did to the victims of his various schemes (not to mention his real-life partners), to grotesque sexism in its many scenes of wild partying and chauvinistic sexual encounters.
Depiction of an act is not always or necessarily endorsement, of course, and putting ugly behavior on screen can be a powerful way of revealing the truth and encouraging us to act against it. But as the critic Anne Helen Petersen said of the HBO show True Detective, “Depiction does not automatically [equal] fetishization, but it also doesn’t automatically [equal] critique.” Whether or not The Wolf Of Wall Street leaves the Academy Awards on Sunday with a raft of glitter that might satisfy even its venal hero, the movie has become a fascinating test case for our sense of when the depiction of an act shades into complicity with it, failing to deliver the critique the creator may have intended.
Towards the beginning of The Wolf Of Wall Street, there’s a remarkable scene that illustrates both the reach of Martin Scorsese’s powers, and his inconsistent application of them. As part of the weekly hijinks at Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, a female employee of the firm, Danielle Harrison (Natasha Newman-Thomas), has offered herself up as the entertainment. In exchange for $10,000, Danielle’s agreed to let one of her male colleagues shave her head. But what she’ll do with the money is part of an ongoing spectacle.
“Danielle has already promised to use this $10,000 for breast implants,” Jordan declares in his carnival barker’s tones. “She’s already a C cup, but now she wants double fucking Ds!”
Does she, though? The gulf between Jordan’s version events and Danielle’s feelings is evident, and yawning. While he directs what he feels to be a grand spectacle, Newman-Thomas’ face contorts as Danielle tries to resettle the lines of her face to conceal her misery, to appear as if she’s having as good a time with her own humiliation as everyone else. And as Jordan ushers a parade of gymnasts and strippers into the office, Danielle stumbles off through the bacchanal, counting her money, touching the patches of hair that cling to her scalp. It’s a remarkable illustration of the fact that one person’s good time can be another’s act of outrageous emotional cruelty, of the toll of letting people cut off parts of you so you can fit into a repulsive culture.
And there’s a similar sequence towards the end of the film, when Jordan comes home and tries to initiate sex with Naomi (Margot Robbie), his second wife, who’s become increasingly miserable as Jordan’s philandering and drug use have increased. She doesn’t consent, telling him “No, Jordan, stop it,” and as he continues anyway, not even bothering to remove her clothes, telling him. “I hate you, Jordan. Get off me.” And as Jordan continues, Scorsese focuses less on his enjoyment, but on her brittle, miserable face. When Naomi tells Jordan, “I want you to fuck me like it’s the last fucking time,” we understand what’s going to happen to Jordan before he does. Naomi is leaving Jordan, turning Jordan’s sexual invasion of her person into as much of an advantage as she’ll ever have over a man used to getting his way. “That was the last time,” Naomi informs Jordan when he’s finished, his assault on her person treated with more gravity than countless other incidences of harassment, including a groping on a golf course and a humping of a beleaguered airline stewardess. “That was the last time we ever have sex. I want a divorce…Get off me, I want a divorce.”
That The Wolf Of Wall Street reaches such heights in scenes where the film draws a clear distinction between Jordan’s perspective and reality, it’s striking that the film doesn’t do it more often. And it left me wondering, in the moments where Scorsese doesn’t bother to give us multiple windows into a given event, if we’re supposed to accept Jordan’s memories.
When Jordan talks about Pam, the Stratton Oakmont employee with “an amazing technique,” who’s spotted giving oral sex to one of her colleagues in a glass elevator, and has sex with many others, are we meant to believe that she suffers from none of the conflicts that Danielle does? That she’s comfortable being an office joke if it means she has a firmly-established role at Stratton Oakmont?
In another sequence that stood out to me as unpleasant, as Jordan runs through a cost-based hierarchy of the prostitutes Stratton Oakmont regularly hired, the camera seems to agree with his assessment. When he talks about the women who charged the highest fees, and posed the lowest risk of transmitting venereal disease, we see a well-dressed, fully-clothed woman walking through the offices with the air of a courtesan. But when Jordan describes his disgust at the least-expensive women, who cause the extreme inconvenience to him and his colleagues of requiring that they use condoms, we see a heavier woman, with less cared-for hair, her exposed breasts sagging without the enhancement of silicon, being penetrated on a desk by a mostly-clothed businessman. Perhaps he and his audience are disgusting for having sex with her. But the camera tells us that this woman is as distasteful as Jordan makes her out to be.
And it seems to be no mistake that the two women who are involved in the federal investigation and prosecution of Jordan are presented in a very different light than the compliant beauties who are constantly offering themselves up to Jordan and the other men in his circle. The judge who presides over his hearing, the Honorary Samantha Stogel (Fran Lebowitz), is an older woman, sober in her judicial robes, with a frizzy haircut that would be unflattering in any era, and the movie doesn’t give her any more attention than Jordan does. Rochelle Applebaum (Ashlie Atkinson), a government official involved in Jordan’s plea-bargaining process, is the heaviest woman in the movie, buttoned up in plain suits. She barely speaks.
The presentation of both women is in fairly striking contrast to Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), the Federal Bureau Of Investigation agent who spends much of the movie pursuing Jordan. Denham may be poorer than Jordan, and more poorly dressed. But he’s smart, and he’s handsome, and he’s allowed actual exchanges with Jordan, and to get the better of him. “Their fathers are douchebags, just like their fathers before them,” Denham tells Jordan, in a devastating analysis of how Jordan differs from the men whose privilege and style he’s tried to acquire for himself. “But you, Jordan, you got this way all on your own.” In both Jordan’s perspective and in the movie’s, Denham is a worthy adversary, someone worth trying to intimidating and bribing. The women on his side have so little to do, and are presented with such plainness, that they barely count as augmentation, much less ornamentation.
With the exception of these officers of the law, there’s hardly a woman in The Wolf Of Wall Street — at least those who are white, and over the age of consent — who the movie isn’t eager to offer up for our consumption, carefully manicured pubic hair on full display. And while the film offers up Donnie Azoff’s (Jonah Hill) penis as a spectacle in keeping with his more general ridiculousness, it’s quite strikingly protective of Leonardo DiCaprio’s body, particularly in contrast to those of his female colleagues. When Jordan wanders through a hotel suite full of the human wreckage from his bachelor party prior to his marriage to Naomi, we see his backside, but the rest of his anatomy is concealed with an uncharacteristic restraint. When we learn he’s been seeing a dominatrix, we see Jordan with a burning candle in an uncomfortable location, but it’s his mind that’s exposed more so than his body — and even then, the inner recesses of Jordan’s brain yield up few secrets we haven’t previously known of him. In a climactic sex scene with Naomi, Jordan even gets to keep his shirt on.
That same courtesy is only extended to one woman, Jordan’s first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti). Perhaps it’s because she’s seen as pure, rather than some sort of sexual adventuress like Naomi, who seduces Jordan away from Teresa, or Chantalle (Katarina Cas), the girlfriend of Jordan’s friend, who helps him launder money, or the prostitutes Stratton Oakmont hires. And until the moment that she has explicit confirmation of Jordan’s sexual betrayal, Teresa is a portrait of supportive wifehood, even telling Jordan, “We could pawn my engagement ring,” when the couple hits a rough patch. However cruel Jordan is to Teresa, The Wolf Of Wall Street is generous to her, at least in the sense that not stripping her naked for our entertainment counts as kindness.
But it extends no such care to Naomi. When she invites Jordan up for tea after their dinner, the camera shows us why Jordan’s in such sexual thrall to her, lingering over her nude body in the evening light. And later, when she tried to sexually blackmail him, telling him, “From now on, it’s going to be very, very short skirts around the house. And you know what else, Daddy? Mommy’s really tired of wearing panties,” the camera participates in Jordan’s revenge on her. As we see her masturbating on a security camera, Jordan tells her she’s being spied on by his security guards, telling her: “Say hi to Rocco and Rocco.” The Wolf Of Wall Street could have shielded Naomi from the Roccos’ eyes. Instead, we share their perspective, and The Wolf Of Wall Street doesn’t exactly do anything to make us feel as bad about watching Naomi as Naomi feels about being spied on.
I’m not a prude. But it does strike me that this division leaves The Wolf Of Wall Street in at least tacit agreement with Jordan, who believes that he is a subject, and many of the women around him are objects, whether they’re for temporary hire for sex, available to be harassed during a transcontinental flight, prepared to have sex with Jordan and his coworkers as a condition of their employment, or even simply as an ornament to Jordan’s stately, but empty, mansion. Jordan, however ludicrous his behavior might be, however ridiculous he looks tumbling down the stairs of a country club in a Quaaludes-induced haze, remains the skipper of his ship of fools. He’s not to be discounted, even in prison. And he’s not to be ogled, at least not in the same way our eyes might consume a woman.
But if The Wolf Of Wall Street is coy with Jordan Belfort’s body, it’s franker with the workings of his mind. And when it comes to the virtues of his work, as opposed to his private life, the movie’s actually much more unequivocal than similar entries in the genre. In Wall Street, if Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) had acquired his wealth legally, rather than through insider trading, the film wouldn’t have a problem with his suits, his opulent office, his musings on capitalism. The union workers he harms are there to counterbalance the grandness of Gordon’s life, to remind us of the morals we might be in danger of abandoning a la Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), Gekko’s protege. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call presents his finance types as similar models of sober good taste, even as they make decisions that are destructive and unattractive, if not illegal. By contrast, Jordan isn’t just committing illegal acts that do great harm to ordinary people. He’s trashy, classless, out of control. Even if his actions were legal, even if he wasn’t talking people who can’t afford it out of their money, we’d be disgusted by him. The Wolf Of Wall Street may be wanton in the way it puts women’s bodies on offer. But it’s almost Puritan about wealth, in a way that’s a radical departure from some of its predecessors.
It’s true, as critics of the film have complained, that we don’t see Jordan’s victims in person. But he and his colleagues’ contempt for the people they sell trash to is corrosive and crude. “Fuck the clients. Your only responsibility is to put meat on the table,” Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Jordan’s first mentor tells him, instructing him that he must never let a client cash out, always encouraging him to reinvest his profits or attempt to recoup his losses.”You don’t let him do that because that would make it real…He will, every single time, because he is fucking addicted.”
When Jordan, after getting laid off in the crash, discovers the business of penny stocks, he’s agog. “Who buys this shit?” he wants to know. “Mostly schmucks. Postmen. There are always postmen. Plumbers,” the man running a seedy trading shop explains to him. “They see our ads in the back of Hustler and they actually think they can get rich.” When Teresa questions the ethics of what he’s doing, asking “Wouldn’t you feel better if you sold this stuff to rich people who could, like, afford it?” Jordan is blunt with her, saying that’s not an option because “rich people don’t buy penny stocks.” His justification is breathtaking in its nastiness. “I was selling garbage to garbagemen. So I was selling them shit,” he explains to us. “The way I saw it, their money was better off in my pocket. I knew how to spend it better.”
But does he? Jordan tells us, at the beginning of the film, that being rich “also makes you a better person. You can give generously to the church, or the political party of your choice. You can even save the spotted owl.” He doesn’t do any of those things, though. He takes “morphine, well, because it’s awesome,” among a host of other drugs, and doesn’t recognize the extent to which they’re are making him sloppy and ridiculous until extremely late in the movie. Jordan may have the money to buy a palatial home, but he lacks the taste to decorate it, substituting price tags for preferences. When Jordan addresses his colleagues at Stratton Oakmont during his fight against the FBI, he preaches a gospel of wealth that reflects that, telling them: “There is no nobility in poverty. I have been a rich man and I have been a poor man. And I choose rich every time. Because at least when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of a limo, wearing a $2,000 suit and a $4,000 watch.”
Jordan is correct to recognize that you can buy you way out of an awful lot of problems if you have enough money. But he hasn’t learned a critical lesson: emphasizing what you paid for your suit and your watch marks you as a parvenu. It may be foolish for postmen to dream that they can become rich by buying penny stocks. But their modest aspirations are less repellent than the spending sprees Jordan has mistaken for class and for character. Even if he came by his money honestly, Jordan Belfort would still be trash for the ways in which he spends it.
And The Wolf Of Wall Street’s repulsion at certain uses of wealth expands to a broader condemnation at the number of us who are tempted by the dreams that men like Jordan represent. To Denham, Jordan presents himself as a charitable capitalist, someone who’s willing to give character-deforming opportunities to anyone, be it an intern with crippling student loan and a sick mother, or a single mother down to her last nickel. His comfort with illicit practices may be unusual, but the idea that the American dream is to get filthy rich by sharking everyone else is not precisely foreign to American thinking. Jordan is afraid of prison, until he remembers that his ability to perfect others’ avarice essentially renders his sentence a place to hone his next con.”For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich,” he tells us. “I was in a place where everything was for sale. Would you like to learn how to sell it?” And in the film’s epilogue, we see just how many of our fellow citizens are answering in the affirmative.
Scorsese’s willingness to turn the camera on ordinary citizens and condemn us for falling for Jordan Belfort’s particular manifestation of the tradition of American confidence schemes is in striking contrast with the way his film often invites us to share Jordan’s lascivious gazing at almost every woman around him. Maybe it’s that when you’re secure in your wealth and your application of it, it’s easier to condemn the people who want it too much and spend it without discernment. But women’s bodies seem to be a different matter: when women’s flesh is bared, Scorsese’s camera can be weak.