An Oscar Shutout for Financial Fraud

This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in a scene from "The Wolf of Wall St
This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in a scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Mary Cybulski)

It's now been nearly 18 hours since the last Academy Award was handed out, which makes it an old story in today's hyper-accelerated news cycle. But here's a final observation -- a question, really -- before Sunday night's relatively unmemorable gala fades from memory forever.

Why were the only two films to deal with financial scams also the two surprise shut-outs of the night?

Those two movies were Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell's American Hustle. Both were based, at least loosely, on actual events. Both were heavy favorites in the early forecasts.  And both featured financial con artists as their protagonists.

American Hustle's plotline centered on "Abscam," the '70s-era FBI sting which targeted bribe-taking politicians. The Wolf of Wall Street was based on a memoir by '90s-era financial fraudster Jordan Belfort.  Both were nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor categories. (Hustle was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay and in a number of other categories, including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, for Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively.)

The point isn't to second guess the Academy on artistic grounds, but to ponder this striking omission on the part of its voters.  The voting process has been the subject of speculation and study, but one thing is clear: the Oscar winners offer a glimpse into Hollywood's state of mind. They also provide a reading of the current zeitgeist, as performed by a group of people who read the zeitgeist for a living.

It's a truism by now that Academy members like to vote for movies that make them feel good about themselves. While it's not a hard and fast rule, idealistic movies are often favored, especially for Best Picture. (Think Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, and Schindler's List.) It takes nothing away from the achievements of 12 Years a Slave to suggest that its award might give Hollywood a better feeling about itself than would a Best Picture Oscar for the story of a con artists.

Then there's the award-sweeping Gravity, which begins as a "woman in distress" movie and ends as the uplifting tale of someone who improves herself in order to survive against all odds. It's a visually stunning film whose imagery and (often leaden) dialog heavily evokes the kinds of spiritual but determinedly nondenominational religious themes -- death, resurrection, sacred iconography and geography, the meaning of life itself -- which have long been Oscar bait.

Father Robert Barron riffed on its religious themes at length. "The Ganges in the sun," said Father Barron, "the St. Christopher icon  the statue of Buddha, and above all, a visit from a denizen of heaven, signal that there is a dimension of reality that lies beyond what technology can master or access."

When the alternatives were a seedy con man with a bad combover and a three-hour drug-fueled orgy, the Academy may have felt more comfortable going with the higher dimension of reality.

Wolf has been accused of "moral ambiguity," although others have seen it as a black comedy whose moral point was self-evident. There was also an air of ambiguity to Hustle. (Spoiler alert: The remainder of this paragraph reveal plot developments.) The principal characters include an over-ambitious FBI agent and the grifters who are brought into his sting against their will. The con artists gain the upper hand in the end and ruin the agent's career, a resolution which is unsatisfying unless the audience has developed affection for the crooks.

Both Wolf and Hustle have done well at the box office, and both picked up their share of earlier awards. You'd think they'd have won something.What happened? The Academy's been unfazed in past years by either criminals (The Godfather) or the "lovable scam artist" trope (The Sting).

But this decade differs from others in one crucial respect: Sure, people have always been ripped off by con artists. But in the runup to the financial crisis of 2008, and in the bailout which followed, most Americans got conned.  Mortgage fraud, taxpayer-funded rescues for millionaire bankers, fraudulent bank charges ... unless you're a Wall Streeter yourself, chances are you've been on the losing end of somebody's scam.

And they got away with it, something which always rankles a crime victim.

Nebraska also failed to pick up a win. That film also concerns financial fraud - the legal kind which takes place every day, as mass marketers send out deceptive and misleading "You are already a winner!" mailers to millions of Americans.  The lead character, played by Bruce Dern, heads to Nebraska to collect his what he believes is a million-dollar prize.

In one scene a marketing-company employee asks his son, "Does your dad have Alzheimer's?" No, the son answers, "He just believes stuff people tell him." The employee clucks sympathetically. "That's too bad," she says. In today's corporate-driven America, trusting other human beings is a disabling condition.

It's possible that each and every Oscar handed out last night was given strictly on the merits. But it's also possible that these two films, once heavily favored, were shut out for other reasons. Maybe Americans don't want to celebrate films, even excellent films, about charming and funny scam artists. They don't seem quite so charming once you've been scammed yourself. And nowadays, who hasn't?