Can Older Academy Members Handle Martin Scorsese's 'Wolf of Wall Street'? (Analysis)
THR's awards analyst thinks that the dramedy's raunchy content could have the same effect on Academy members as the violence in his early films once did.
This year's big new Christmas Day release will be Paramount's Oscar hopeful The Wolf of Wall Street, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir about his time as a debaucherous Wall Street conman, which marks the fifth collaboration between legendary director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. It will be interesting to see how the general public responds to the raunchy film -- and, to me, even more interesting to see how the Academy reacts to it, something we will learn when Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 16.
Following the film's official Academy screening in Los Angeles on Dec. 21, reports emerged suggesting that, after the film ended, one Academy member had angrily confronted the filmmakers as they arrived for a post-screening Q&A, while another had posted an irate message on Facebook -- but that most of the roughly 600 people in attendance (members and their guests) had cheered it while it was still playing and after it ended, particularly when its principal talent took the stage.
So what's really going on here?
Let's begin by addressing what is divisive about The Wolf of Wall Street. Over the course of three hours, the film packs in just about every type of raunchy material imaginable -- from a man snorting cocaine out of a vial in a hooker's anus to a hooker beating a man during an S&M encounter to a man miming anal sex with a client he is swindling over the phone to multiple people throwing midgets at dart boards and just about everything in-between. Some have found these sorts of scenes absolutely hilarious, but others have found them to be horribly offensive.
The fact of the matter is that the filmmakers did not concoct these moments. They actually happened, according to Belfort, and the filmmakers, as part of their effort to tell his story and illustrate the sort of Gatsby-esque excess and outrageous behavior in which he and his Wall Street colleagues engaged, simply recreated them. Nevertheless, to many older Academy members who were raised and/or spent their careers working on movies that had to be made under the Production Code of censorship, seeing this sort of thing on a big screen will never not be shocking.
Which leads to the potential problem for Wolf. "Older Academy members" is, in the vast majority of cases, redundant. The Academy is composed of just over 6,000 individuals from various segments of the film industry. According to a newly-updated demographic study conducted by the Los Angeles Times, today's Academy, despite recent efforts to increase the diversity of its membership, is 93% white and 76% male -- and the average age of its members is 63, well into AARP territory. In other words, it still is, by and large, a group of old white males, many of whom hold more conservative worldviews than the stereotypical "Hollywood liberal."
For proof of this, one could reference the best picture Oscar victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain eight years ago -- or one could just look at Scorsese's own long and tortured history with the Academy. There have always been enough people who admired the director's artistry to get him and his films nominated -- but, until The Departed (2006), neither he nor a film that he had directed had ever taken home the best director or best picture Oscars, respectively, not even his most widely-regarded masterpieces Mean Streets (it received zero noms), Taxi Driver (it lost to Rocky and he wasn't nominated), Raging Bull (it lost to Ordinary People and he lost to Robert Redford) and GoodFellas (it lost to Dances with Wolves and he lost to Kevin Costner).
Many Academy members found the content of those earlier Scorsese films of years ago to be deeply objectionable -- particularly their graphic violence and foul language -- and refused to endorse them. Eventually, though, "the Scorsese snub" became so widely criticized that the Academy had to make it up to him, found a relatively weak year in which to do so and, ironically, honored him for perhaps his most violent movie of all. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Academy members are on board for every Scorsese film that pushes the envelope.
While content of a sexual and/or violent and/or verbally-vulgar nature has certainly become more prevalent in American society since the days of the early Scorsese films -- thanks in no small part to video games, cable television and, yes, movies -- the makeup of the Academy really hasn't changed that drastically over the years since they came along. Wolf's raunchy content is just as upsetting to some Academy members today as the violence of his earlier films once was. (Many, I think, prefer him at his more gentle -- see Hugo's 11 Oscar noms, five of which resulted in wins.)
And that, I'm afraid, could cause Wolf -- a film that is remarkably ambitious for any filmmaker, let alone one who is 71 and has nothing left to prove to anyone -- to face an Oscars fate similar to that of his earlier, pre-Departed efforts: it will be invited to the party, maybe even several times over -- but I don't see it taking home much of a goodie bag.
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