Friday, October 2, 2015

Birthday Take: Terence Winter in "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)

Left to right: Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Terence Winter
Born: October 2, 1960 (55 years old)
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated) for The Wolf of Wall Street

The Take

One of the most notorious movies of the past few years has been The Wolf of Wall Street. To a wide group of people, the easy victim would be to the actors or the director himself with Martin Scorsese. After all, he is the one who took on the project and filled it with the narcissistic hatred that some find repulsive. Even then, it's more intriguing that this film has withstood criticism and, almost two years later, has become one of the better movies to be nominated for Best Picture. Was it in the performances? It becomes abundantly clear right away that Leonardo DiCaprio is dedicated to his craft. He plays the role with almost too much charisma. It could be the direction, too. However, I think that the real genius came from the writer: Terence Winter.

True, Scorsese is always applauded for having strong scripts. Consider Paul Schrader on Taxi Driver or Nicholas Pileggi on Goodfellas. They bring a certain quick wit to the film that makes almost all of the bad behavior at least somewhat forgivable. You don't end up all that mad at Jordan Belfort, even if he just conned you out of money and bought a new yacht with that money. He is just too confident and sharp for you to ever get rooted in the problems. It is the magic of Scorsese, who rarely talks about nice people. There's something intriguing about evil that he keeps going back to, and is the master of. Thankfully, he knows people who also know how to bring these ideas to life.

That is why I argue that Winter is the real hero of the film. To date, this remains his sole Oscar nomination, even though he has been writing for decades. What is probably his biggest achievement is being involved with The Sopranos, where he wrote weekly about the ongoing life of a mob boss with a family problem. If one was to watch any of his episodes back-to-back with the film, they would immediately notice his various quirks that come to life. His humor is scathing and dark, but it packs punches. Most of all, it never quite lets its characters off the hook. There are consequences, even if they're very minimal and only seen by close examination. Winter manages to make angry, complicated characters come to life in exciting ways. The same could be said for his later work on Boardwalk Empire.

True, Winter wasn't the only writer on The Sopranos. Casual fans will likely not even notice the difference between him and, say, Matthew Wiener. However, Winter is one of those assured writers that you only dream about meeting. He's like David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin. He has a very specific voice that just jolts onto the page with a fury. You will pay attention to him when he speaks. Considering that The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that is three hours long and never loses energy, there should be a lot of credit due to him keeping us entertained. After all, it goes beyond the direction as to why we care about Belfort. We also care about the underlying sense that he will face consequences someday. They may not quite be present in the film, but it only adds to the anger you have towards him as the closing credits happen.

I don't know that Winter will get his due from those who are seeing The Wolf of Wall Street before The Sopranos. However, I do think that there's something to making a script so immediately memorable about someone so hateful that it deserved more recognition. Yes, it is annoying to write about bad people. However, it is also fun to fantasize about being among those circles, going places that aren't available to the public. In some sense, Winter is the best at that, unable to let the audience take a break as bad things happen around them. The best part of all is that the ambiguous nature of The Wolf of Wall Street will mean that people will misinterpret it as an advocate of debauchery. It really isn't, but you'd have to be smart to understand why.

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