Friday, June 9, 2017

The Wizard of Lies: The Con Man as Misanthrope

Nathan Darrow, Robert De Niro, and Alessandro Nivola in HBO's The Wizard of Lies.

The American con man first shows up in nineteenth-century American literature in the inventions of Herman Melville (The Confidence-Man, 1857) and Mark Twain (the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884). The two archetypal con men in American drama are Hickey, the salesman and son of a preacher man in Eugene O’Neill’s 1947 play The Iceman Cometh, and “Professor” Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical The Music Man – characters immortalized by two great American actors, Jason Robards in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 TV transcription of Iceman and Robert Preston in the 1962 movie of Willson’s musical (both recreating legendary performances they had originally given on the stage). Hickey has sold himself on his own con, though in the play, it turns out, what he’s peddling is death of the spirit: he tricks his barroom buddies into losing faith in their own illusions (“pipe dreams” is O’Neill’s phrase) but doing so hollows them out. Only the eleventh-hour realization that he’s been cherishing his own delusion restores them to their happy drunken selves, safe in their pipe dreams once again. Hill manages to convince the citizens of an insulated early-twentieth-century Iowa town that a boys’ marching band will solve problems they never had in the first place. Hill is operating on the principle Hickey sets out in O’Neill’s play for the success of any sale: figure out what the customer wants and then convince him that only you can supply it. River City doesn’t need a boys’ band, but, though Willson presents them comically, Hill plays on small-town Midwestern prejudices – small-mindedness, corseted sexuality, a suspicion of liberalism in any of its forms – and then presents his product, musical instruments, as a way to guard against the things the citizens fear will corrupt their youth. Like The Iceman Cometh, The Music Man has a twist: as it turns out, River City does need that band and Harold Hill (softened by the love of a good woman, Marian the librarian) winds up a hero. But what puts the sale over  long before that reversal is a commodity that Hill and Hickey both have plenty of: charm. It’s the con artist’s ace in the hole.

In the HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff explores a different sort of con man – one that is, I think, an archetypal American character for the twenty-first century.  Under Barry Levinson’s focused, probing direction, De Niro gives his finest performance in years. It’s the De Niro we recognize: charismatic, authoritative, but ill at ease in the world as the result of an essential misanthropy. The casting is perfect, because in the movie’s view – the screenplay by Samuel Baum, Sam Levinson and John Burnham Schwartz is based on Diana Henriques’s 2011 book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust – Madoff’s ability to manipulate the men and women he defrauded out of an estimated $64.8 billion in the most extensive Ponzi scheme ever perpetrated is based not on charm but on a combination of charisma and an aura of unassailable authority. Madoff, the one-time non-executive chairman of NASDAQ, presented himself to his clients – many of them long-time friends, some of them family members, and one, Elie Wiesel, the image of integrity and an icon in modern Jewish history – as the undisputed expert, the sole man who could navigate the treacherous waters of finance even in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Madoff, as we see in the film, shifts in and out of the roles of trusted family friend and adviser, father figure, rabbi and noodge, alternately lecturing and consoling, bullying and reassuring. His aura of immovable certainty is his client’s bulwark. The fact that he isn’t charming is, for these (mostly) Jews who pride themselves on their tough-mindedness and skepticism, part and parcel of what makes him so trustworthy. How can such an irascible, street-smart, no-bullshit guy be, in fact, sitting on a fortune made of paper and feathers?  His refusal to kiss his clients’ asses, in tandem with his unchallengeable air of authority, is the ultimate con. When Bernie Madoff turns out to be a fraud, trust really is dead.

Madoff is so convincing that he’s already managed to weather one SEC investigation and emerge unscathed; when they come calling a second time, we see how deftly he handles them, presenting himself as an ally, as one of them, the man who was once in the running to helm their very organization. And the shell game he plays with everyone is dazzling. Her employs both his sons, Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola), but his compartmentalization of his business restricts their work to a separate firm on a different floor, so that the left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Only Frank DiPascali (a superb Hank Azaria), his chief financial officer, seems fully cognizant of what Madoff is up to; their urgent meetings as the financial pyramid they’ve built begins to totter are like the confabs of gangsters trying desperate to keep from being caught. The Madoff boys, expensively educated, articulate men, are offended by Frank’s working-class gruffness and his lewd, gross humor; they can’t comprehend why their father has handed him so much responsibility and feels so comfortable in his company. Bernie’s wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) has always done whatever her husband tells her without question; she doesn’t know anything about finance herself and, like everyone else, she believes in the Bernie Madoff façade – the reliable husband, the family man who has always provided for her and the sons she adores, the pillar of respectability, the soul of honesty and strength. (The movie isn’t specific about the involvement of Madoff’s brother Peter, his chief compliance officer, who was sentenced to ten years in prison; he’s a minor character. But Michael Kostroff plays him as so clearly in Bernie’s shadow that he too is his brother’s dupe.)

Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer (as Bernie and Ruth Madoff) in The Wizard of Lies.

Pfeiffer contributes a complex and moving portrait of a woman who loses everything she’s built her life around without understanding how it all could have happened. She has a remarkable scene where, after her husband’s arrest, she ventures out of her apartment, withering under the looks of neighbors in the elevator. She tries to book an appointment at her hairdresser’s, but he explains apologetically that she can’t come there anymore because too many of his other clients have been ruined by her husband. It’s a complicated little scene. Levinson and the screenwriters refuse to use it to make Ruth look superficial because her instinct is to seek out a creature comfort that makes her feel better about herself; which of us wouldn’t do the same? But at the same time we can see the irony in her efforts to cheer herself up at an expensive salon. The world in which she’s lived undisturbed for half a century with her husband is now suddenly unwelcoming to her because of him. It’s only after the Ponzi scheme has gotten out of control and it’s no longer possible for Madoff and DiPascali to patch up the holes that Bernie tells her and their sons what he has done. Andrew and Mark agree that their only option is to turn him in and then distance themselves from him, and as long as Ruth remains allied to him they stop taking her phone calls. It’s an impossible scenario; she’s a good Jewish wife whose life has been defined by the man she married. She even joins him in a suicide attempt, but the Ambien she’s stockpiled doesn’t do the trick; “Well, we’re still here,” she reports in a tone of weary resignation when she shakes him awake in the morning. Ultimately she makes the only choice she can: their sons over her husband.

After I urged my Critics at Large colleague Kevin Courrier to watch The Wizard of Lies, he called me up and asked excitedly, “Don’t you think this movie is a variation of All My Sons?” It’s a brilliant insight. In Arthur Miller’s 1945 play, Joe Keller sends faulty plane parts to the air force during the Second World War because remaking them would cause a delay and he’s terrified of losing his government contract; when a plane go down as a result and young men die, Joe slips out of a prison sentence by claiming that it was his partner who made the call on a day when he stayed home sick. But his two sons, who have revered their father all their lives, come apart as a result of what he’s done: one, an Air Force pilot, crashes in his plane, and the other, Chris, discovering the truth two years after the fact – both of his father’s guilt and of his brother’s suicide – turns against him in horror and outrage. Besides Ruth and Bernie’s, the other central relationship in The Wizard of Lies is between Bernie and his son Mark, who adores his father, though he always feels inadequate – that no matter how hard he works to earn his father’s respect, Bernie doesn’t trust him enough to share the details of his business with him. Nivola is extraordinary in two telling scenes. At an extravagant dinner party in the Madoffs’ Palm Beach home, Bernie orders a waiter to remove the plate of meat Mark has brought from the buffet and bring him lobster instead, even though Mark doesn’t like lobster, and Mark picks at it rather than fight his father. When Mark summons the courage to confront him on his reluctance to let him in to the inner workings of the business and Bernie calls him ungrateful, Mark ends up kissing him and telling him how much he loves him. The revelation that this man has been lying to everyone for years hits both sons hard, but it destroys Mark. Nivola is heartbreaking as Mark, who casts Bernie out of his life but finds it’s too late. His father’s actions are a slow-acting poison: he becomes more and more unstable, and, in a scene that’s like something out of Greek tragedy, a family friend finds him hanging in his apartment with his own infant son in the next room.

Joe Keller shoots himself at the end of All My Sons; in Aristotelian terms, he undergoes an anagnorisis, a moment of recognition that provokes a reversal. The play is a social-problem melodrama, so Joe has to own up to his sin against humanity and be punished for it. (At least in Jack O’Brien’s devastating 1988 TV production, though, it transcends its genre and ends in genuine tragedy: a young Aidan Quinn makes very clear that Chris Keller, too, is destroyed.) Bernie Madoff isn’t a character in a melodrama. The Wizard of Lies dramatizes the scene at sentencing where Madoff turned to the group of former clients gathered in the courtroom and apologized for what he had done. In the movie we know his words are empty because throughout he has shown nothing but contempt for them, insisting privately that their own greed makes them just as responsible as he is. In a jaw-dropping moment, he tells Diana Henriques (who plays herself), when she interviews him in prison, that he was really just a scapegoat for the conduct of financial institutions that bankrupted far more than his 4,800 clients in 2008. The frame of the movie is Henriques’s putting together her book, and it’s the least effective element in the screenplay, but it pays off in the end, during their final encounter. She asks him repeatedly if he sees the peril he put his sons in – that if he’d died before telling them the truth and they hadn’t had the chance to turn him in, they would have inherited the responsibility for his crime. Bernie won’t admit it; he keeps protesting that the way he’d divided up the business and kept Andrew and Mark in the dark about his illegal activities was all the protection they needed. We see that this isn’t self-delusion; as much as he claims he loves them, he acted out of an essential disregard for them. In All My Sons Joe Keller argues that his immoral actions are forgivable because his desperation to keep his business thriving arose out of his love for his sons, who would benefit from it; the title reflects the revelation that makes him kill himself – that he should have valued those dead pilots as he valued his sons. The Bernie Madoff of The Wizard of Lies turns out to value his own sons as little as he valued his clients. At the end of the movie he says to Henriques that he doesn’t understand how the journalists who have written about him could say he’s a sociopath and asks her if she thinks so too. The movie ends on his question. She doesn’t answer him because she doesn’t have to.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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