Scorsese has fallen foul of the Hollywood curse of the F-bomb
Violence has multiplied in Hollywood movies over the past 30 years, but swearing still gets middle America hot under the collar. Ed Power reports
A rampaging typhoon of F-bombs and sundry lesser profanities in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street has cut a swathe of controversy through Hollywood -- though unfortunately, from Scorsese's perspective at least, the movie isn't generating the sort of opprobrium that helps garner Oscar nominations.
A line-by-line analysis of the dialogue by Variety magazine has revealed that the director's scabrous tale of stockbroker bad behaviour in the early '90s has a higher F-word count than any other motion picture in Hollywood history -- topping even Scorsese's own Goodfellas.
Critically panned and already accused by some of glamourising serial fraudster Jordan Belfort (portrayed with oily, coke-snorting aplomb by Leonardo Di Caprio), news of the movie's expletive "score" -- there are 506 fucks in its two hours 59 minutes running time -- has whipped the moral majority (in America a considerable constituency) into something approaching a frenzy.
Bad enough that Scorsese has chosen to depict a huckster and drug taker as a swashbuckling rock star -- he's also, it is implied, tried to bestow auteur cachet upon the 'F-word'. If Scorsese's characters, so smart and sexy, are allowed turn the air blue with impunity, what's stopping our kids doing likewise?
There is something quintessentially American about the debate, which must be viewed through the prism of a historic uptightness about 'bad' language. A hangover from the nation's origins as refuge for puritan dissenters fleeing the licentiousness of the old country, the US gets jittery about the strangest subjects. For instance, as of last week, it's perfectly legal to walk into a store in Colorado and help yourself to a party-pack of marijuana yet, if patronising a licensed premises in Massachusetts, you will likely be prevented from bringing your alcoholic beverage to the verandah because of an antediluvian ordinance regarding drinking in "public" (ie, where you can see the sky).
Of all American sensitivities, however, none is more acute than swearing. We've all had friends working in the US who, on the first day at the office, spiced their patter with a casual 'for fuck's sake', only to look up and find the entire room glaring in open-mouthed silence. Indeed, in 2011, a New England town went so far as to impose a $20 fine for swearing in public -- in response, it was explained, to the number of bored young people hanging about using foul language.
"To the moralists, the pervasiveness of swearing is a clear symptom of the collapse of civility and the coarsening of American culture," linguist Geoff Nunberg told America's National Public Radio last year. "As they tell it, the dissolution began with the foul-mouthed demonstrators and hippies of the '60s and was amplified by Hollywood, rock music and hip-hop, turning us into a society that has lost all sense of shame or stigma."
The hypocrisy that fuels such attitudes is highlighted by the fact that Scorsese is generating a scandal because of the profanity in his films rather than the violence. Indeed, even as Hollywood remains highly wary of foul language, it has turned ever bloodier -- statistics show that, across the past 20 years, mainstream cinema in the US has grown progressively trigger-happy, no matter that swearing and, especially, sex remain beyond the bounds.
Granted, there has been a decline in the number of R-Rated movies (the US equivalent of an 18 rating) over the last decade. What has happened instead is arguably more insidious: rather than weaning off violence, filmmakers have found ways of massaging it so that it gets past censors. Thus, though violence on screen is less extreme, it is increasingly commonplace. A study by Ohio State University has found that gun violence in PG-13 films has tripled since 1985. In a survey of the 30 top-grossing movies every year between 1950 and 2012, it was discovered 396 of the 420 most popular since 1985 contained at least one five-minute segment of violence, an astonishing 94pc percent of the total.
When it comes to fuddy-duddy morality, the waters run deep. Admittedly, in its scrappy early days, Hollywood regarded polite sensibilities as an irrelevance. However, as the movie industry matured, officialdom started to intervene with ever greater vigour. In 1915, the US Supreme Court ruled America's constitutional guarantee of free speech did not extend to cinema. The judgment cleared the way for the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code. Among its many strictures, the code, adopted voluntarily by studios, prohibited 'pointed profanity' -- including inappropriate use of 'God', 'Jesus', 'Hell', 'Damn', and 'Gawd'.
The code began to fall apart in the late '50s, as Hollywood flinched in the face of competition from television and, especially, foreign cinema, which, to buttoned-down Americans, could feel almost intoxicating in its permissiveness.
Still, though the shackles loosened over time, the old puritanism endured, particularly in relation to bad language and nudity. Such attitudes prevail to this day. Real bombs are fine on our screens and yet the F-bomb remains a point of contention.
While likely to be overlooked for an Oscar nomination, it may give Martin Scorsese encouragement to know that, if nothing else, The Wolf of Wall Street has demonstrated to the world the hypocrisies that continue to inform and define Hollywood.