Oscars 2014: Academy embraces polarizing ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

Among the biggest mysteries before Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations announcement was just how much, if at all, the film academy would embrace “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The film has been dogged by controversy since it began screening for audiences in early December, and its brash depictions of sex, drugs, greed and lifestyle excess were thought by some to be too rough for academy voters.

Those concerns were put to rest when the film was nominated for best picture, along with nods for Martin Scorsese for director, Leonardo DiCaprio for lead actor, Jonah Hill for supporting actor and Terence Winter for adapted screenplay.

“We knew we were doing a movie that was going to be polarizing,” DiCaprio said in a phone call Thursday morning. “People have a bad taste in their mouth about the world of Wall Street. And that’s the reason we wanted to do the film.”

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Based on a memoir by Jordan Belfort, the film traces the brokerage founder’s rise in the world of Wall Street finance, building a fortune on sketchy practices that skirted regulations and fleeced investors for personal gain. The film’s style is over the top and shocking, with freewheeling depictions of drug use, vigorous sex, ample nudity and lavish excess of luxury homes, yachts, sports cars and a craven appetite for all the things money can buy.

Even the film’s running time, just under three hours, has proved a point of contention for some viewers. But it is the ongoing argument as to whether the film glamorizes or villainizes Belfort that has really stuck. Love it or hate it, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” more than seemingly any other movie in the Oscar frame, has gotten audiences up in arms and debating it all through the holidays and into the final pre-noms stretch.

“Not to disagree with anyone’s taste or what they think of the movie or the subject matter,” DiCaprio said, “but they’re missing the boat if they don’t realize that this is a cautionary tale.”

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The film was bumped from a November release to Christmas Day, and in the rush to finish it was also a scramble to get it screened by the deadlines for some nominating and awards groups.

Many of the earliest precursor awards typically used to judge a film’s chances with the academy proved to be faulty predictors. The film got no nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards. For the Golden Globes, the film was placed in the musical or comedy category — bolstering the argument that some of its rougher edges were intended as satire — and garnered nominations for best picture and DiCaprio (who won) but not for Scorsese, Hill or screenwriter Winter.

The film also did not show well with major critics groups, in part because many voters had simply not seen it before balloting.

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“It was an uphill battle getting people to see it,” DiCaprio said. “But if a movie is worth watching, people will find a way to see it.”

Being among the very last films to enter the waters of this awards season turned out to be a gamble that has for now paid off. Once the film secured nominations with the Directors, Producers and Writers guilds, “Wolf of Wall Street” seemed firmly in the hunt for Oscar’s big show.

“I have no idea what people ultimately respond to or don’t respond to,” DiCaprio said. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And I’ve been in situations where I thought certain films could get recognized and they didn’t. It’s beyond my control, as John Malkovich says in ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’”

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Anyone who might have thought that Scorsese’s recent acceptance by the academy — four of his previous five fiction features have been nominated for best picture and he won a directing Oscar for “The Departed” — would have mellowed the 71-year-old filmmaker were particularly in for a shock with the sex and drugs excesses of the movie.

“I don’t know if that was the intent behind making the film, but you see that film and you know you’re going to garner some strong responses,” said “Wolf” producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff. “There was no surprise.”

Added DiCaprio: “This is the guy who made ‘Taxi Driver,’ but that’s what makes his films memorable. His films are reflections of their time periods, and this film is a reflection of its world.”

The film was a particular passion project for DiCaprio, who worked for years to persuade Scorsese to direct it. The film is now the fifth collaboration between the actor and director, also including “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “Shutter Island.” Winter, best known for his writing on HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” was brought on to adapt the script, retaining the outsized voice of Belfort’s memoir.

“I knew the reactions would be all over the place,” Winter said Thursday morning, on his way to catch a flight from New York to Los Angeles to join his wife, Rachel Winter, herself an Oscar nominee for producing best picture nominee “Dallas Buyers Club.”

To the question of whether the film glorifies Wall Street’s excesses, Terence Winter added, “Anybody in their right mind who looks at the material and says, ‘That is a lifestyle I would like to have,’ has got a screw loose. It makes me laugh when people say, ‘You’re glorifying this.’ No, it’s being depicted and I can’t imagine coming away from that and saying, ‘Oh, I’d like to be that guy, high on drugs and having my life unravel completely.’”

What are its chances of winning? “Wolf’s” five nominations put it behind “American Hustle,” “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Nebraska,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Captain Philips,” and it’s tied with “Her,” but it seems quite firmly in the race.

“We did get a late start,” said Koskoff. “I really felt the momentum pick up over the last couple of weeks. I was thrilled for Marty with the DGA nomination, I felt like that was a good indicator… I think momentum was on our side and we’re in good shape.”