The Pros of Being a Conman: Probable Oscar Glory

With the Academy Awards a mere day away, perhaps it is time to reflect on what really makes a movie Oscar-worthy. Should Oscar movies be uplifting tales of personal triumph in the face of adversity? Should they be Earth-shattering narratives? Compelling dramas?

No. If you take two of this year’s main contenders: Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell’s American Hustle, who have fifteen Oscar nods between them, it seems that all you need is the autobiography of a conman, drugs, a questionable moral compass, sex and more drugs. All of these mix perfectly to form quite an entertaining cocktail, provided you have a star-studded cast and an experienced director.

Based on the memoirs of a notorious Wall Street swindler, Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street centers around the life and crimes of the aforementioned snake-like stockbroker. Belfort sold useless penny stock totalling $200 million to investors who were none the wiser. He conducted business out of his boiler room office at Stratton Oakmont Inc., where sex, drugs and sex were the order of the day, if Belfort himself is to be believed. According to legend, this self-professed wolf motivated his underlings to peddle more fraudulent stock by hosting liquor-soaked blowouts right in their New Jersey office, where prostitutes and drugs were supplied and paid for on the company card.

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Belfort told The Guardian that the office debauchery was probably worse in real life than in the film. But to be fair to him, his drug of choice was the Quaalude, not cocaine. I guess that makes up for the fact that this swindling stockbroker served just half of his four-year sentence. To this date, Belfort has paid less than 10% of his court-ordered $110 million in restitution to his victims, with none of this coming from the cool $1 million he made from licencing his memoirs for the screen. I don’t like using generic phrases, but Belfort’s case proves that crime can pay.

Hustle, on the other hand, tells the story of New York conman Melvin Weinberg. Melvin’s gig was much simpler. In the mid-seventies, he began conning people with bad credit into applying for loans with a non-existent company called London Investors in return for an advance fee. The loans were always turned down but the fees were non-refundable. Easy money, eh?

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The FBI, as they often do, got wind of his little operation and recruited him for a scam of their own, known as Abscam. This was a sting operation designed to lure politicians into taking bribes from an FBI agent posing as a fictitious Arab Sheikh. Nineteen convictions were secured during Abscam, including several Congressmen and a mayor. All of Weinberg’s previous convictions were washed away and he rode off happily into the sunset with his wife, and his mistress (who he married some time later after his wife committed suicide).

I’m not saying that the Academy should pick only light-hearted, uplifting tales when it comes to Oscar season. They should, however, be mindful of not over-glorifying films of doubtful morality at the expense of films of real substance like Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave. We all crave a bit of debauchery now and again. But for me, the Wolf Of Wall Street in particular goes too far. It has been justified as a cautionary tale against excess, but if that were true then the protagonist would have some doubts about what he is doing or other redeeming qualities. But that is not the case. It is far from the cautionary tale it has been justified as, it is an exaltation of the excess, greed and corruption that is rampant amongst the so-called financial fraternity.

Images: Travel Thru History

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