The Wolf of Wall Street, Controversial Films, and Oscar
By Terence Johnson
What’s an awards season without a little controversy? I’m sure by now you all have heard the news that at an Academy screening of The Wolf of Wall Street didn’t go over particularly well. In fact as documented by Hope Holiday, a screenwriter even ran up to Martin Scorsese and said “Shame on you.” Certainly not the warmest reception for a film that’s aiming to be a big player this awards season. This kind of reaction is not new for Scorsese films, or for Oscar voters viewing films with controversial content.
In terms of Oscar, it helps to have some sort of galvanizing force to push you forward towards a nomination, be that controversy that rallies the fans of your film to vote or being generally liked by large amounts of people. However, when you look at the Academy voters, over 50 yrs old, conservative, white men, it’s not hard to see that controversial films don’t tend to do particularly well with the Academy, especially in the Best Picture category.
Just look at the recent history of films that have won and you’d have to go back to No Country for Old Men to find a violent film that won Best Picture, and in the past 20 years of Oscar, there’s 3, maybe four other winners that can lay the claim to being films with violent content to win Best Picture (Scorsese’s The Departed, for example). In each of these cases, there wasn’t any extreme controversy surrounding the nominee. You’re much more likely to see films in the vein of The King’s Speech and Shakespeare in Love winning awards because they are controversy free in their content (they both generated much controversy after they won).
Oscar is no stranger to awarding controversial films with technical merits or minor categories. Passion of the Christ, the hyper violent Mel Gibson film, managed several nominations in 2004 but couldn’t breakthrough into the Best Picture or Director fields. That same year, Michael Moore won Best Documentary for Farenheit 9/11 and was probably very close to getting a Best Picture nomination, managed to miss. Even when you look at nominees for Best Picture that have been controversial, they more often than not lose to films that are more sentimental/easier to swallow. For every No Country for Old Men win there are at least 3 Brokeback Mountain’s, that even with it’s flawless filmmaking couldn’t overcome its controversial subject matter and lost to the film with more stars and an easier to digest message.
Remember it’s not that the Academy can’t make daring choices but they’d much prefer the film not offend. It’s how you can get a The Hurt Locker to win easily over the #1 box office hit of all time and not but a few years later see Zero Dark Thirty be taken down by everyone and their mother. When you wear your controversy on your sleeve, the Academy is rarely deigned to acknowledge you. The Academy would much rather their films be easily digestible even when they contain hard to deal with elements.
So where does this leave The Wolf of Wall Street? It’s in an interesting situation. Having seen the film, I thought it would be the cool person’s alternative to something darker like 12 Years a Slave. But the reaction at that screening got me to thinking about its subject matter a bit more. The Academy tends to do a bit better with violence (especially if in the guise of war or mobster violence) than they do drug use or sexuality. The Wolf of Wall Street has those last two in spades. You can barely go two scenes in the film without someone doing drugs and there’s sex everywhere.
Now while I don’t think this “controversy” will hurt the film’s nomination tally, it stands to reason that if enough Academy members feel this way, the picture could easily move down the list of contenders to challenge 12 Years a Slave.