I just screened this HBO film from 2017 last night and found it extraordinary. The writing, direction, and acting had me in great suspense, because while the subject is the criminality of Wall Street “wizard” Bernie Madoff, much of the treatment relates to Madoff’s relationship with his two sons, Mark and Andrew, and my own father was as destructive as Madoff, albeit on a modest level.
Throughout the film, I kept hoping the sons would finally stand up to their father, a domestic bully when he wasn’t simply being psychologically absentee. In one especially grating scene, at some catered outdoor shindig, Madoff berates a waiter without cause—nothing makes one madder; the rich do it because they can—and forces Mark to eat lobster instead of whatever he chose for himself. What the fuck is it to you what he eats, shithead? And, Mark, tell him you don’t like lobster. No, don’t murmur it—speak up and push back, for gosh sakes! You’re a grown man!
But he isn’t, isn’t he? Bring grown means not taking it from them anymore. When you’re a child, you’re dependent—not after. The Wizard Of Lies is concerned far more with the thousands of lives Madoff destroyed with his Ponzi scheme. But isn’t what he did as a public criminal a vast version of what he did as a domestic tyrant? Madoff in effect bullied his clients by hiding from them what he was really doing with their investments:
Stealing them. Director Barry Levinson and his creatives frame the story with a New York Times reporter’s jailhouse interview with Madoff, and as the tale unfolds, we see how Madoff manipulated and tricked everyone (including government regulators). But note that we are spared the financial details, because this is a crime story, not a math class. It’s not a whodunit: it’s a whydidhe?, and, ultimately, no one can tell us. Levinson and crew strip Madoff’s soul naked to show us he doesn’t have one.
I’d call him crazy if he weren’t so insanely megalomaniacal. “Nothing is off-limits to these people,” he complains, about federal regulators. But nothing is supposed to be, you fucking jackwagon—especially monsters like you. How does he feel about it now? the reporter (played by the actual reporter who filed the story in the Times) asks, and Robert De Niro tells her, “It’ll kill me for the rest of my life.”
Yes, De Niro is Madoff, one of the few stars in the film. But with actors this good, you don’t need stars. De Niro lands terrifically in a difficult part, because Levinson has an odd take on the character: he thinks there’s no there in him. It makes him all the more outrageous, and as I’ve always hated him, anyway, it’s perfect casting. Oh, and it’ll kill you? You don’t look killed to me in your prison, which, from the little we see of it, looks like easy time. Why isn’t this creep in Oz?—the bloodthirsty HBO prison series, not the magic land.
I’m really supposed to be blogging about my latest book, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide. But The Wizard Of Lies has distracted me, because the thing about great movies (and theatre, literature, and such) is the way they pump us full of fascination with how wrong (or, alternatively, right) the world can get. They introduce us to ourselves. Yes, I know some people enjoyed a wonderful family background. I’ve heard men tell me how much they miss their (late) father. I believe them, but I can’t imagine how that would feel, since I banned my own father some thirty years ago yet still hate him with the heat of a thousand drag balls. And, remember, great art isn’t about happy families—they’re too unreal.
The Wizard Of Lies is very real. So much so that I couldn’t figure out who was playing Ruth Madoff. She looked and sounded so like her model that I wondered if they had actually hired…No, wait: it’s good heavens Michelle Pfeiffer! Weren’t you French and classy in Dangerous Liaisons? I wonder how she and De Niro would come off in All My Sons, because—despite the enormity of Madoff’s very public crimes—I still experienced The Wizard Of Lies as the picture of a disgusting excuse for a father. Of a figure of trust and power who is instead one of treachery and impotence. Again: no there in him. At the end, De Niro asks the reporter, “Do you think I’m a sociopath?”
Boss-battle music. Camera slowly recedes. Reporter doesn’t answer. Levinson is asking us, of course, and everyone thinks, Yes he is. But that’s not enough. He’s an evil piece of subhuman filth, and why didn’t his sons ever tell him so? Why didn’t I? Yes, I insert myself into the frame; great films tend to call us in to take part. How would you feel in Oz, either one? What role do you play at the Boys In the Band party?
And I see myself in the sons, especially the one who killed himself, because I never did tell my disgusting father what I think of him. Yeah, it’s easy to say now, to readers—but if you don’t slay the dragon at the time, you’re going to carry it inside you ever after. The sons are squishes, and that’s why I’m reacting so fiercely to this show. They’re like Jeb! Bush, the perfect politician of nothing, forever mouthing empty sentences, as if speaking without consonants.
I actually met the Bush family. It was many years ago, in my music-director phase, when I worked on a two-person revue with Russell Nype and Lynn Stewart. We did it here and there, including at the little theatre in Kennebunkport, and I stayed with Russell and Diantha and went with them to their country club during a tennis championship, and the Bush sons were playing. I was watching the game next to Barbara Bush, who was reading the Times, and George Sr. was nearby. He had just returned from his ambassadorship in
and was now heading the CIA, and Barbara, judging from the noises she was making, was in the middle of a piece about all this that she didn’t like. China
So I piped up with “The New York Times never misses a chance to attack the CIA,” and she replied in a kind of jaded murmur, “You’re telling Noah about the Flood, boy.”
My father always liked that story.