We do love a con man as long as he isn’t cheating us and he isn’t cold-hearted. This month, we have two real conmen whose stories are on the silver screen: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle.” How these two movies treat women illustrates women’s place in the American society.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a lurid tale of sex, drugs and greed. The women are all beautiful and mostly hookers. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) begins as a stockbroker with good intentions. He’s married with a wife and kids. At the first stockbroker firm where he works, he refrains from joining his first mentor , Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), in his martini and cocaine habit, but that doesn’t last long.
After passing his Series 7 Exam to earn his broker’s license, Belfort spends his first day as a full-fledged stockbroker watching the stock market crash. It’s Black Monday (19 October 1987). Belfort eventually finds work selling penny stocks with an aggressive take-no-prisoners pitching style. His success brings him a new partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and they begin their own firm, recruiting some of Belfort’s friends who are experienced drug dealers.
The firm has some success, but Belfort decides to upgrade the clientele, by repackaging the firm’s image, taking the name Stratton Oakmont and training his friends to stick to a script and to dress better. These are wolves dressed as designer sheep. As the firm grows rich by screwing people, both rich and poor, the firm hires more people and Belfort throws lavish parties at work and at home. Each party includes cocaine, Quaaludes and prostitutes. Sometimes there are midgets to be tossed.
When you go from humble to humongous ego, what kind of gift do you give yourself? A trophy wife. Belfort soon trades in his wife Cristin Milioti (Teresa Petrillo) for blond gold digger Naomi (Margot Robbie). Having a new wife doesn’t stop Belfort from taking drugs or Belfort prostitutes. As Belfort tells it, prostitutes are a bonding experience for his company.
When the FBI investigation looms over Stratton Oakmont, and bribing the principal agent in charge, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), fails, Belfort resorts to smuggling cash to Switzerland using Naomi’s British aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) as a front. Eventually, Belfort is caught and brought down–indicted on securities fraud and money laundering, but just how will different audience members view this movie?
Stylistically, this is Jordan Belfort’s story and DiCaprio breaks the fourth wall intermittently to tell us his side of the story and we learn that he doesn’t always tell us the truth. Can you really expect a drug addict to tell the truth? Director Martin Scorsese gives us visual cues and Terence Winter’s script cleverly re-winds to show us we can’t quite trust what Belfort says. I won’t spoil those surprise here.
Still Scorsese has presented Belfort’s life as a well-wrapped package of excess and don’t Americans like excess? Will some people ignore the lies, the casual misogyny and see only the glamor ? Will they want to embrace the bacchanalian lifestyle we see portrayed in “The Wolf of Wall Street”?
And by doing so, will they be embracing the misogyny? While one might argue the Jordan Belfort’s sales tactics are basically base and misanthropic, not just misogynistic. Yet the men are not treated the same as the women. In order to be part of Belfort’s sales force, women were willing to be humiliated in ways beyond cheering on the fornication of prostitutes of all standards. The women see other women ranked and rated. The hookers were rated from the high class blue chips to the low class disease-ridden pink sheet hookers. The women working for Belfort’s company give blow jobs. Another woman gets her hair shaved off in front of her predominately male coworkers to earn $10,000 from Belfort for her children? For her education? To pay off her mortgage? No. To get a breast augmentation to take her to a D cup.
Did such things really happen? You can see a comparison between the movie and Belfort’s book courtesy of Time Magazine. We learn that Belfort also ruined small businesses, not just the wealthy 1 percent and that he hasn’t paid up his restitution.
Of the misogyny, one reporter claims that “The film doesn’t begin to capture the absurdity of that era. The experiences my female Wall Street friends and I had would be considered outrageous today. Yet the incidents barely registered at the time because they were so …normal. We didn’t even notice enough to be offended.”
The problem is the reporter’s timeline. She was a rookie reporter in the 1980s. Clarence Thomas’ confirmation was challenged by Anita Hill in 1991. At that point, the reporter claims the phrase sexual harassment became better known and one guess this means, she became enlightened. This is true, yet that means someone in the 1980s had been thinking about sexual harassment because it had already been an issue for over a decade.
Sex discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first sexual harassment case was filed in 1974 (Barnes v. Train). In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defined sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. In the 1980s, people were discussing sexual harassment including Kerry Ellison who brought a case against the Internal Revenue Service in the 1980s, receiving judgment in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1991. The first class-action sexual harassment law suit was filed in 1988 (Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.) with the final settlement made 23 December 1998.
Far worse are the archives of the New York Times. In the summer of 1975, the New York Times reported it was “literally epidemic.” In 1977, Yale faculty members where charged with sexual harassment. By the end of 1980, Mayor Koch’s office had ordered all New York City agencies to set up procedures to handle complaints of sexual harassment. That reporter and her Wall Street friends either totally ignored the New York Times or are re-writing their history to rationalize their willingness to overlook the open misogyny they witnessed.
The topic of sexual harassment scared men enough that male concerns of false accusations were depicted. David Mamet’s play about a male university professor accused by a female student of sexual harassment premiered in 1992. The 1994 movie “Disclosure” had Demi Moore as a female executive who sexually harasses her former love played by Michael Douglas.
If reporters and Wall Street female stockbrokers didn’t notice the depths of misogyny, then what can we conclude? The question becomes what kind of people are drawn to Wall Street and its misogynistic ways and what kind of women would enter and ignore the objectification and misogyny and even, join in? Other people decades before them recognized such behavior as a problem to clamor for legal change and make legal cases. Where was the reporter during the ethics and legal discussion in journalism?
The Wolf of Wall Street now prowls Southern California. Wikipedia reports that he lives in Manhattan Beach and is engaged. According to a New York Magazine article, he modeled himself after Gordon Gekko, a character of his favorite movie “Wall Street.” The Scorsese movie lets Belfort off too easy. He wasn’t just an inverse Robin Hood–robbing the rich to give to himself, he also ruined ordinary people who are still recovering. He even gets his own cameo near the end of the movie in addition to the money he received selling the rights to his story. You can check online how he’s attempting to make money off the movie, money which apparently isn’t going to pay off his debt to society. Yet make no mistake, Scorsese sees him as a monster.
While the Wolf of Wall Street rose from humble beginnings to become a millionaire and seems to still be doing well for himself, some con men know their limits.
“American Hustle” gives us a Robin Hood who robs the hoods. Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld (based on Melvin Weinberg) as an overweight man with a ridiculous come-over. Although Irving is married to the ditzy Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), he has met his soulmate in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
This based-on-a-true story is reframed as a love story. Two grifter meet and become the perfect team. Rosenfeld owns a dry cleaning store chain and you wouldn’t believe what gets forgotten–designer dresses and even fur coats. Imagine being well off enough to forget where one left one’s mink coat. Perhaps that was the maid or butler’s last revenge. He offers these forgotten items to a woman he has met at a recent party at his house.
The woman, New Mexico-born ,Sydney Prosser becomes Lady Edith Greensly (based on Evelyn Knight) and brings the class via faux British roots to Irving’s con games. The con is advance fees for possible loans from improbably banks for people who can’t get legitimate bank loans. Irving never asks for the loans, but he has warned the people that there were no guarantees.
Irving and Sydney get caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) during a loan scam. Instead of arresting them, Richie recruits them to entrap local politicians in what becomes known as Abscam.
Director David O. Russell gives us vain men, big hair and big voices and big emotions. The movie begins in 1978 and ends in the early 1980s.
Sydney seems to be turning on Irving and flirts with Richie. Is this a woman in survival mode or is something more going on? Richie has a fiancée and he is somewhat vain. Like the women, Sydney and Rosalyn, he wears curlers in his hair. Richie is, like Irving, vain, but he is also cruel, something that Irving is not.
Eric Warren Singer and Russell’s script immediately puts us against the FBI agent almost immediately as he takes a swipe at Irving’s vanity. You might laugh here or you might cringe. Much depends upon this. The movie begins in the middle and backtracks. If the movie had begun with Irving’s affair with Sydney, we might have instantly been against Irving or, the script might have labored to get us to dislike his wife. This script allows everyone except Richie to have a happy ending.
Like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the main law enforcement agent isn’t seen as being cool or kind. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” at least Kyle Chandler’s character is earnest and persistent if not a little boring. Cooper’s FBI agent isn’t boring, but he’s not a nice guy–not to Irving, not to his fiancée and not to his co-workers. In the end, we can’t help but feel a bit sad for Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who in real life was Mayor Angelo Errichetti.
Abscam really happened, but the movie begins with a title card “Some of this actually happened” so obviously some of it did not. The movie is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert W. Greene’s book, “The Sting Man.” Greene passed away in 2008 at age 78, so we won’t know how he feels about this loose adaptation.
The main character, Weinberg, is still alive and well enough to give interviews. He lives in Florida, not far from his third ex-wife. This is one of the things the script for “American Hustle” fudged on. Weinberg at the time of Abscam was in his second marriage. Weinberg and his first wife, Mary, had three kids. His second wife, Marie, was his former secretary/mistress. Instead of being a 23 as Jennifer Lawrence is, the second wife was in her late forties (You can see a photo of her here.) . Interestingly enough, Amy Adams who plays Sydney is 39–the same age as Christian Bale. The real Weinberg was 19 years older than Knight.
In the movie, Rosenfeld seems to be trading in his younger wife for an older woman, refreshing and perhaps it makes Rosenfeld more sympathetic than the real Weinberg who eventually did marry his English mistress. They now are divorced and living close to each other.
The misogyny in “American Hustle” is the easy justification of trading in one wife for another. The screenplay rationalizes this as a matter of true love, soul mates meeting and the man is chained to a crazy, ditzy wife. How far we’ve come from the classic gothic novel “Jane Eyre.” In the movie, the wife finds another man. Everyone is happy except the advertisers who feel its necessary to Photoshop and improve upon Jennifer Lawrence’s hands, waist and bust, etc. Granted that was in a 2011 cover, but would an additional two years be cause for more concern? The misogyny is in the objectification of women.