There is a major surprise in “The Wizard of Lies, Barry Levinson’s film about the Bernie Madoff scandal, which premieres on May 20 on HBO and is based on the reporting of Diana B. Henriques: It’s possible to feel a modicum of sympathy for a despicable human being. The film stars Robert DeNiro as Bernie and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth. Both offer not only outstanding, believable performances, but also closely resemble their real-life counterparts. Henriques plays herself and recreates the jailhouse interviews she conducted with Bernie.
“Early on when we were filming [Henriques] told me how similar Bob is to Bernie,” Levinson told me. “She says, ‘I have to tell you that there are moments that are scary to me. It was literally like I was there again.’”
DeNiro is particularly chilling in his portrayal of a sociopath with no moral compass and Pfeiffer is brilliant as a woman torn between her sons and their families, who turn their backs on Bernie.
The film is replete with anti-Semitic threats and curses. I asked if Levinson had any qualms about making a film about a widely vilified Jewish thief.
“No,” said Levinson. “Look, it’s a story of a man’s greed. So I think it’s a story worth telling. If you start making assumptions of how this will be perceived, you will basically stifle yourself. This isn’t a story about the Jewish race. It’s a story about an individual and that’s the way you have to look at it. It’s not his Jewish upbringing that caused this to take place. I think the best thing you can do in the work that you’re involved in is to tell the story. Period. I think if you’re suddenly going to walk away from it because you think it’s not beneficial [to Jews], then you are censoring yourself in ways you don’t understand.”
Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Bugsy,” “Diner”) has mined his Jewish heritage before and described his Baltimore upbringing in “Liberty Heights,” and “Avalon,” the latter of which told the story of how his grandfather came to America and prospered.
“But you know what happens,” Levinson said. “Let’s take ‘Avalon.’ I remember reading that it’s not really Jewish enough, and thinking, ‘Gee, that was as close I can possibly make it to the world I grew up in.’ So you can never ultimately satisfy everyone. It’s not Jewish enough or it’s too Jewish. You don’t hear that about Christians — ‘It’s too Protestant. It’s not Protestant enough, That doesn’t apply. And I can’t figure it out.”
The Wizard of Lies debuts on HBO May 20 at 8 p.m.