I was so sure Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio missed the point of their own movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, that I decided to read the book to see what author Jordan Belfort is all about.
DiCaprio has defended the movie by saying that critics missed the “irony” of the script, which he molded and shaped “for years” with screenwriter Terence Winter. But one glance at the book shows whole sections of text lifted nearly intact and inserted into the movie, the better to show us such realities as the-camera’s-on-your-crotch-honey scene, the give-that-candle-a-push-back-there scene and the-quaaludes-made-me-crawl-for-it scene, among others.
A deeper, more conflicted and actually interesting Belfort does come through in the book, but Scorcese and DiCaprio apparently wanted only the snorting-and-cavorting Belfort so they could more dramatically film a fuck-and-suck movie without calling it pornography.
I’m not saying that Belfort as an author shows any conscience about cheating his investors or sending his colleagues to prison. I mean that even when Belfort portrays himself as charismatic, the book reveals torturous self-doubts building inside.
Short, Unworthy and Not WASP
From the early pages, for example, Belfort worries about his height (“on the short side” at 5’7″), his “status as a lowly Jew” in the land of WASPs, his lack of confidence with women (“What a fucking embarrassment I was!”) and his passion for “loamy loins” that strangely evade his grasp (“No choice now but to jerk off”).
Belfort also shows us a mean-spirited, trashy side we don’t see on screen. He describes hiring prostitutes “who could only say hello and good-bye! My favorite!” until a ringing phone in the room makes him think, ”OH, FUCK! MY WIFE! THE DUCHESS! SHIT!” at which point he puts his forefinger to his lips, “the international sign language known to all hookers, which in this particular instance translated into: ‘Shut the fuck up, you whore! My wife’s on the phone, and if she hears a female voice in the room, I’m in deep shit and you’re not getting a tip!’ ”
There are glimpses of cruel humor in the movie, as when DiCaprio coldly discusses dwarf-throwing contests, but generally nothing is exposed of the demons deep down that send Belfort over the edge. Maybe it’s because DiCaprio usually plays fallen heroes (Howard Hughes, Jay Gatsby) that he didn’t want to portray Belfort as a loser. Perhaps he’s only comfortable acting the role of entitled, knowingly handsome and tall (6 feet) leaders of men — for a brief while he even made J. Edgar Hoover look conventionally attractive.
Belfort, on the other hand, makes no secret in the book that he’s more of a strutting-and-rutting bantam who takes on the big guys but never really wins. Interviewers have noticed his self-doubt, as when Belfort told Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, “Hey, being played by Leo is better than being played by Danny DeVito!” Her response: “At 5-foot-7, Jordan would mortgage his soul for [DiCaprio's] kind of height.”
DiCaprio believes he’s given a warts-and-all portrayal of Belfort. He’s told critics over and over that the movie is “an accurate reflection of (Wall Street people who) have been so incredibly corrupt.” His defense of the movie goes like this: As with Goodfellas, Casino and others, the job of a Scorcese movie is not to punish the criminals or dwell on the victims. It’s to show “the absurdity of the world that [criminals] created for themselves, where they just didn’t have any respect for anyone except themselves.”
That accounts for the sleazy side of Belfort, but it doesn’t really look into his complexity. Belfort is a gifted con artist and an inspiring salesman, so of course he’s going to be lying half the time. He wants to look heroic on the page, but he’s not a good writer, so he inserts a “braggadocio” spirit into the text that critics found superficial and tiresome when translated to the movie. Though dazzled at times by DiCaprio’s shenanigans, the audience wonders: Isn’t there more to Belfort than this?
‘The Prettiest Girl, the Richest Man, the Most Rip-Roaring Drug Addiction … ”
Only one person has tried to answer. This is celebrity pothead Tommy Chong (of the weed-smoking duo, Cheech and Chong), who was doing 9 months in federal prison for selling drug paraphernalia when Jordan Belfort arrived to be his “cube mate” (no cells in this country-club prison) during his own term of 22 months for fraud.
According to Belfort’s sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, Tommy Chong was so entertained by the “totally hysterical” Wall Street stories that Belfort told him in their cube night after night, he suggested that Belfort write a book.
“I started laughing,” writes Belfort. “How am I gonna write a book? I don’t know how to write! I mean, I can write, but not a whole book.”
So Chong laid it on the line: “There are two things about writing you can never forget,” he’s quoted as saying. “First, it’s all about conflict. Without conflict, no one gives a shit. Second, it’s about the most of. You know what the most of means?… It means you always write about the extreme of something. The most of this, the most of that, the prettiest girl, the richest man, the most rip-roaring drug addiction, the most insane yacht trip. Now that was what your life was all about: the most of. You get the picture?” (Italics added.)
Oh, lordy, did he. Belfort says he read Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, “two dozen times,” then troweled on the hyperbole. We can see Tommy Chong reading the pages in a cloud of smoke and saying, “Great, man, keep it up. Love that yacht-sinking scene, let me at those loamy loins … Or did I dream that part?”
Enter Aunt Patricia
A deeper, more complicated Belfort begins to surface in the book when the author meets his wife’s Aunt Patricia, a future co-conspirator, in London. Her savoir faire and refusal to judge Belfort for his mistakes inspires him to unload the secrets he’s hidden from everyone else.
“I’m a fucking liar and a cheater,” he blurts out, “and I sleep with prostitutes the way most people put on socks — especially when I’m fucked up on drugs, which is about half the time … What can I say, Patricia? I’m a drug addict. I’ve never admitted that to anyone before, but I know it’s true. And everyone around me, including my own wife, is scared to confront me about it.”
This could be another case of Belfort conning his readers, but the admissions sound sincere the more he pours them out. “I’ve spent my entire life trying to fill a hole that I can’t seem to fill,” he confides to Aunt Patricia. “And the harder I try, the bigger it seems to get.” Even at the peak of his success, “I live the most dysfunctional life on the planet,” he says. “I’m a successful failure. I’m 31 going on 69.”
In the movie, DiCaprio’s Jordan unceremoniously dumps his first wife, Denise, to continue his affair with future wife #2. But in the book, his guilt about Denise has been roiling painfully for years. “I should have been horsewhipped for what I did to Denise. I don’t care if it’s Wall Street or Main Street. What I did was in-fucking-excusable. I left a kind, beautiful girl, who’d stuck with me through thick and thin, who bet her future on me. And when her winning ticket finally came in — I canceled it on her.”
The book touches upon Belfort’s hardships in childhood — in particular his father’s bouts of paranoia that tyrannized the family. But only to Patricia does Belfort describe the terrifying panic attacks that struck at age 7 or 8 (“like your heart is coming out of your chest”), or the “terrible insomnia” that kept him staring at a digital alarm clock all night, every night, year after year.. An insatiable drive caused Belfort to make use of this time, learning that he could “multiply the minutes times the hours” obsessively. We believe it when he says, “By the time I was 6 years old, I could do four-digit multiplication in my head faster than you could do it on a calculator.”
This became the kind of “gift from God” that Belfort believes he wasted. ”Everything in my life became accelerated. I missed my twenties and thirties and went straight to my forties.” Finally a success in his own eyes, he was “an adolescent inside a man’s body …. an accident waiting to happen.” He remained “a scared young kid who’d gotten himself in way over his head and whose very success was fast becoming the instrument of his own destruction.”
I can’t remember much or any of this in the movie (and friends, please correct me if I’m wrong since I’m not going to watch it again). We do see Belfort on drugs trying to kidnap his small daughter, Chandler, after slugging his wife (huh? where did domestic violence come from?), but little foundation has been created to show what kind of father he wants to be. In the book, when Belfort mentions Chandler, it’s the first time he’s interested in anybody but himself.
“In a way, (Chandler is) what keeps me going,” he tells Patricia. “She’s everything to me. I swore I would stop doing drugs after she was born, but who was I kidding? I’m incapable of stopping, at least for very long. I wonder what Chandler’ll think when she finds out that her daddy is a drug addict? I wonder what she’ll think when her daddy winds up in jail?”
Belfort doesn’t open up for long in the book, but come on, Marty. Come on, Leo. Shouldn’t the more complicated Jordan Belfort have been investigated and written into the script for that “accurate reflection” of the real Wolf of Wall Street?
From Wiseguy to Wolf
Back in 1986, I reviewed a memoir called Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, a terrific book about growing up in the Mafia as recalled by Lucchese crime family member Henry Hill. Pileggi worked with Martin Scorcese on the screenplay for Goodfellas, and the result was that huge chunks of the book were transferred to the screen, mostly intact.
In that case, no one complained that Goodfellas the movie omitted back stories of the Mafia’s victims, or celebrated rather than condemned the wild excesses of mobsters, or created a cardboard character out of Henry Hill. Goodfellas was praised as a brilliant film showing the mob members’ point-of-view because Pileggi had thrown out the hyperbole and gotten the real story out of Hill in the first place.
I think Scorcese didn’t realize the huge difference here. Belfort says he turned in a 1200-page manuscript that I bet was pure shouting on his own behalf (an editor carved it down to 500+ pages, which is still a lot of shouting). We’ll never know how much either the book or movie provides that “accurate reflection” of Belfort’s story, because Scorcese needed a Nicholas Pileggi, a professional writer determined to start with facts on the page.
I know I would never have read Belfort’s book if it hadn’t been for the 3-hour mess that Scorcese put on screen, but I’m glad I did. It just goes to show you that when somebody like Belfort bares his soul in book form — even if he disguises it at the same time — some kind of truth comes out, simply because he’s trying to express himself in writing.
A movie, on the other hand, can have a more powerful influence on people who don’t read books as a habit, which brings up that audience Hollywood loves to exploit. As Joshua Brown of TheReformedBroker.com noted, “100% of teenage boys who see this movie are going to want to grow up to be Jordan.” Wonderful.
Perhaps that’s why Scorsese and DiCaprio like to say the movie “pushed the envelope” on limits and taste — the more outrageous the image, such as DiCaprio felating his microphone in front of adoring onlookers, the more that audience with its disposable income is going to want to see the movie again and again.