To all of the many controversies that have arisen in response to the release last week of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” add one more: There’s an open letter, written by the daughter of one of the victims of ‘Wolf’ protagonist Jordan Belfort’s financial scams, which was published last week in L.A. Weekly. Written by Christina McDowell, the letter castigates the film, director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio for “exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.”
Now, when I heard that there was an open letter out there from the daughter of one of Belfort’s victims, I assumed it was one of the people Belfort scammed in a fraudulent stock deal or one of his other financial shenanigans. But that’s not it at all- McDowell’s father, Tom Prousalis, was in fact one of Belfort’s co-conspirators, who went to jail as well, leaving McDowell and the rest of the family in deep debt. Belfort was later slated to testify against Prousalis, although his testimony was ultimately not used.
So what’s the problem with the letter, aside from the smug, condescending tone throughout, and its insistence that all depiction equals endorsement? A few things:
- One, it’s pretty clear that McDowell hasn’t seen the film. If she had, she’d know that it does not “glorify” the crimes of Belfort and Co.- not even close. The film treats its subjects as degenerate, criminal scum. The filmmakers haven’t been “conned”- they knew exactly what they were doing and what they were dealing with. Does McDowell think “The Wolf of Wall Street” is primarily the story of Jordan Belfort, financial genius, and that it somehow downplays that what Stratton Oakmont was doing was illegal? The characters’ criminal and sociopathic tendencies are both established relatively early on.
Sure, some idiots have misinterpreted the film and believe that Belfort and his friends are heroes and role models. But the same thing happened with Breaking Bad and “Team Walt,” too. Was Breaking Bad an irresponsible project that glorified crystal meth, and therefore shouldn’t have existed?
- McDowell’s father sounds like a complete scumbag, who not only participated in Belfort’s crimes but stole from his own family and later tried, twice, to steal his daughter’s identity. For that I have sympathy. But you know what? McDowell should be mad at her father, and at Belfort and the other conspirators. Not at the people who made a movie about it.
- McDowell compares her mother to Cate Blanchett’s character in “Blue Jasmine” and says “she looks like a cross between Sharon Stone and Michelle Pfeiffer. Totally your leading ingénue type.” Which indicates that maybe her real beef is that she wishes Scorsese had made a movie about her story instead.
- The author writes that “this kind of behavior brought America to its knees.” Which, while a bit subtle, is exactly the film’s point.
- Scorsese and DiCaprio “call themselves liberals,” and DiCaprio drives a Honda hybrid? What on earth does either of those have to do with anything? And besides, I haven’t known Scorsese to have association with any political cause, aside from early-20th century film preservation.
- “What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story?” Like they used to say on The Wire, “deserve got nothing to do with it.” Does Hannibal Lechter “deserve” to be protagonist of a film? Do the people who perpetuated Abscam? Does every Nazi, serial killer or mobster who’s ever been subject of a biopic? Does Henry Hill?
Subjects of films aren’t chosen on the strength of how much they “deserve” to have a film made about them, and a world that worked like that would lead to much worse movies.
“The Act of Killing” is a documentary about a bunch of men in Indonesia who led death squads in the 1960s. They did things many orders of magnitude worse than what Stratton Oakmont did. But the film was one of the most compelling, enthralling documentaries I’ve ever seen and one of the best movies of 2013, in part because it looked deeply at the nature of evil. Do those people not “deserve” a film being made about them?
- As for McDowell’s avowal that she’d preorder tickets to “August, Osage County, rather than “Wolf”? I’m sure the entire ‘Wolf” team is quaking in their boots over that threat.
I sympathize with Christina McDowell’s ordeal and I wish it hadn’t happened. She has every right to be angry. But that doesn’t change that no one has any business writing an essay that trashes a film they haven’t seen.