That sweet lamb in wolf's clothing

Oscar run

It seems likely that Leonardo DiCaprio will not win an Oscar for his portrayal of financial scam artiste Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.

As a rule, Academy voters prefer displays of suffering and stoicism in the face of adversity from leading men. Jordan’s brief sojourn in a country-club prison hardly qualifies; nor do the ill effects of too many quaaludes in the film’s most celebrated scene not involving cocaine and a prostitute’s rear end. And although Jordan gives up stock swindles for sales seminars, he can hardly be said to undergo the kind of redemption that the Academy likes to consecrate.

DiCaprio, almost 40 and still able to play guys in their 20s, underwent no great physical transformation for the role. No tricky accent was mastered, no distant historical personality brought to life. Although he has been nominated three times before, he does not yet belong to the ranks of the snubbed, the robbed or the overdue. If you want to judge by technical accomplishment or emotional range, he might not even be all that great an actor.

But if the Hegelian factions within the various Academy branches were to assert themselves — at long last! — and bestow the award in recognition of the Best (Male) Embodiment of the World Spirit at the Current Stage of the Historical Dialectic, then DiCaprio would be an absolute lock.

Already a series of reductively either-or, decidedly undialectical arguments have erupted around the film. Does it glorify Jordan (an actual huckster with real-life victims whose memoir was the source of Terence Winter’s screenplay) or condemn him? Has the director, Martin Scorsese, composed a satire of financial-industry frat-boy culture, with its crude materialism and pervasive misogyny, or a perhaps unwitting celebration of those same tendencies?

A too-certain attachment to any single answer is a sure sign of having missed the point, which is that a clear moral perspective on what Jordan represents is, like an airline customer-service representative, unavailable at this time. If we decide to hate Jordan in the end, that contempt will only be meaningful if we fall for him first and allow ourselves to succumb to the pleasure of being had, even at the risk of losing our self-respect.

It would not be the first time. DiCaprio’s wolf does not stand alone. Look in the mirror that DiCaprio and Scorsese hold up, and you will see Jay Gatsby and Howard Hughes (in Scorsese’s The Aviator), personifications of the contradictory spirit of American wealth in earlier times — pitiable, admirable or despicable depending on the angle from which they are viewed.

You will also see J Edgar Hoove(in Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar) and Calvin Candie (the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), roles that allowed DiCaprio’s winning smile to curdle into a sneer of cold command. All of these characters, repellent or sympathetic, humanised or caricatured, present various incarnations of power. They are rulers of men, masters of the universe, kings of the world.

And who else could play them with such ease, such charm, such nonchalant refusal of the easy artifice of villainy?

Right in front of our eyes. DiCaprio has been using his charisma, his unmistakable movie-starness, to explore the iconography and psychology of what we are lately in the habit of calling the one per cent. This is less a matter of humanising the wealthy than of putting a face — a handsome face — on the ambivalence that capitalism continues to inspire.

The very rich are either brimming with self-confidence or swimming in self-pity, while the rest of us bounce around among intense and incompatible feelings of envy, hero worship and resentment. Wouldn’t it be great to live the way they do? Don’t we wish we had their confidence, their influence, their suits? But shouldn’t they all be in jail? It is easy enough to pinpoint the moment he made the transition from up-and-coming young actor to full-fledged global movie star.

The year was 1997, the film was Titanic, and DiCaprio, still boyish in his early 20s, proclaimed himself the king of the world. His character, Jack Dawson, was nothing of the kind, of course, but his scrappy refusal to play by the rules of a rigidly hierarchical society was part of his appeal, both for Kate Winslet’s Rose and for the countless millions around the world who turned Titanic into a box office juggernaut. Balzac said that behind every great fortune lay a great crime, but in US literature and popular culture, the link between wealth and criminality is imagined a little differently, with more romance than shame.

Jay Gatsby may associate with gangsters and bootleggers, and may conceal both his origins and the source of his fortune from his neighbours, but his parvenu status and dubious connections make him a purer, nobler fellow than his nemesis, Tom Buchanan.

Howard Hughes built his empire, at least according to The Aviator, Scorsese’s uneven 2004 biopic, partly to compensate for the hurts of childhood. Both men are undone, destroyed by extravagant ambition and failed self-knowledge. He has a tendency to oversell, hitting the plummy accent too hard in Gatsby, twitching and trembling too theatrically in The Aviator, spiking his evil with too much glee in Django Unchained. But that excess, far from a flaw, is exactly what the roles require, since they are all men who have and want too much.

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