True Crime

truestoryOver the weekend we took in True Story – the Jonah Hill\James Franco movie about a man who killed his wife and kids, fled to Mexico, and assumed the identity of a disgraced NYTimes journalist. Learning this, the journalist meets the guy in prison and writes the story of how he’s actually innocent. It got me thinking about cinema’s strange fascination with real-life criminals, and whether the Hollywood glamorization machine contributes to delinquency.

Personally, I have guilt. I immediately think of The Wolf of Wall Street – I love me some Marty Scorsese, but I had serious reservations about helping to line the pockets of someone who so callously victimized others. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a young man who became addicted to the high life as a stock broker, and realized he could make even more money by scamming and defrauding countless trusting people.

Jordan Belfort was convicted of his crimes but spent less than 2 years in jail because he cooperated with the FBI. I used to believe in a line from True Story – that a criminal cannot profit from his crimes. Turns out, this is not quite true. Most states have “Son of Sam” laws (so named because people were understandably outraged when it seemed David Berkowitz stood wolfto get paid for his story) but these laws tend to be found unconstitutional because of free speech and discrimination based on subject matter. If a case like this is challenged, the criminal tends to win, so mostly nobody bothers to enforce it. So Jordan Belfort wrote a book, and got paid for it. And then Leo bid over a million dollars for the rights (and just for comparison’s sake, Jonah Hill made $60 000 for his work). And then Marty paid him another quarter million to ‘consult’ – he stood around on set, instructing Leo how to act all fucked up on Quaaludes and shit. And then he actually appeared in the end of the movie! So he made $1.2M and even though he’s supposed to be paying his victims back, only $21 000 ever went toward his restitution obligations.

Christina McDowell, daughter of Tom Prousalis, who worked closely with the real-life Belfort at Stratton Oakmont, wrote an open letter addressing Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Belfort himself, criticizing the film for giving insufficient attention to the victims of the financial crimes created by Stratton Oakmont, for disregarding the damage that was done to her family as a result, and for giving celebrity to persons (Belfort and his partners, including her father) who do not deserve it. Hard to argue with that.

It’s this last part that’s getting to me. To what extent are we, the audience, culpable? Are we condoning crimes? Rewarding them? Encouraging them? Jordan Belfort likened himself to Gordon Gekko of Wall Street (the movie) – he was inspired by the character’s unscrupulousness. THERONWe can’t help how someone lacking a moral centre will interpret a movie (or a book, or a song, or a video game) – but we can and probably should stop giving these people a platform, or Hollywood’s version, a whole pedestal. Frank Abagnale Jr. was paid to work as a consultant on Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Aileen Wuornos became a recognizable name when Charlize Theron won the Oscar for portraying her in Monster – but can you name a single one of her victims? Those bratty, fame-obsessed kids who stole from Paris Hilton and her ilk were rewarded with reality TV shows and free trips to luxury rehab in lieu of prison sentences. When Sofia Coppola filmed her movie The Bling Ring based on their misdeeds, she renamed the characters so they didn’t get more famous – but she also paid $100 000 for the rights, which means they did get more rich. Piper Kerman went to prison on felony charges for laundering drug money and was rewarded heavily for it when Netflix decided to make a series out of her memoir Orange is the New Black – they paid her (and continue to), but paid for the “life rights” of several others as well. Nice work if you can get it. Philip Morris was a paid advisor on the film I Love You Philip Morris, in which a con man (Philip’s ex-lover) steps up his game to impress a fellow prisoner, including orchestrating elaborate prison escapes. Henry Hill capitalized on his gangster career with a line of spaghetti sauces, frequent interviews with Howard Stern, and a restaurant called Wiseguys, though Scorsese ultimately went with Goodfellas when it came time to release the movie. It may be the best mob movie ever made, but it glamorized the lifestyle and allowed Hill to thoughtlessly respond  “I don’t give a heck what those people think; I’m doing the right thing now” when asked what his victims might think of the commercialization of his story through self-written books and advising on the movie.

Does this sit right with you?


13 thoughts on “True Crime

  1. Jordan Dodd

    “Are we condoning crimes? Rewarding them? Encouraging them?”

    Not for the majority I wouldn’t have thought, as the story goes, truth is stranger than fiction. True crime is entertaining and fascinating as the plots are often highly varied, whether it is Chopper depicting a vigilante criminal or The Wolf… which depicts another type of criminal. Most of it is stuff I couldn’t ever think of, the book I am writing is about my time in a rehab centre that was actually a cult. There is NO way I could have thought that up!!

    I do get what you are saying though. Thing is, so Belfort profited from the movie, fair enough, but something tells me that 1.2mil is loose change to a guy like him. The comedy comes from the increasingly absurd criminal situations he finds himself in.

    The justice system works 50% of the time if we are being generous, so I’m not sure as a viewer we accept any responsibility.

    On the flipside though, you have documentaries like The Thin Blue Line which actually (after many years) set free an innocent man because of the overwhelming evidence presented. So it can go both ways IMO.

    Sorry for that essay of a post there

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jay Post author

      That’s a good point about the documentaries. A little sad that any justice system isn’t fully accountable until they’re being publicly shamed.

      As for Belfort, I do despise that he profitted from the movie. I’m not sure how much money that is to him, but I think a million plus is a significant amount of money, period. His assets would have been seized when he was arrested. He can’t make too much from his current business as I don’t know who would be stupid enough to engage him. And since large portions of anything he makes are supposed to go to victim restitution, I definitely hope he’s not sitting too pretty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. fragglerocking

    hmm, not sure about the culpability, I’ve watched Wolf of wall street not because it’s a true story but because I rate De Caprio and Scorsese, Goodfellas because I was in love with Ray Liotta at the time 🙂 I think if I really wanted to find out about a real story I’d wiki/google it or watch a documentary, but no I don’t like that the bad guys profit from having a movie about them, they should have to recompense their victims first.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Salty Popcorn

    Nice article Jay, I find no personal guilt in it and I think the majority of people do not watch these “true based” movies because they want to see a docco, they watch it purely for entertainment value. For Wolf I watched purely for Leo – my onscreen god of acting. In the back of my head I know Belfort is a tool, but I am watching the film for Leo. I know there are a lot of “liberties” taken in making these movies – again with Belfort – the Justice Department is still in proceedings to get more money out of him for his victims.
    I think the general public feels no obligation to the true stories, we just buy a ticket and become a voyeur and to be honest we probably enjoy the embellishments.
    I do like Jordan’s thoughts though that certain doccos have helped in changing the story for the better in real life.
    And never even knew OITNB was based on a real life memoir. Bloody love the show!


      1. Jordan Dodd

        I’ve heard good things about Freaks and Geeks but have never seen it. Now that you’ve mentioned it I reckon i should watch it, Franco or no Franco I’ve been meaning to for ages.

        Thank you for unintentionally jogging my memory mate 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Jay Post author

      James Franco is pretty hit and miss for me. I got to see him do Of Mice and Men last year on Broadway and it was spectacular. I didn’t care for him in The Interview (although I just plain old didn’t care for The Interview) but I do love Freaks and Geeks. It’s not really about him, and he’s probably pretty low on the list of reasons why I like it so much. I did like him in Milk, and in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I admire him for trying so many different venues but they don’t all work.



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