Why Did “Wolf of Wall Street” Get a Pass From the MPAA, When Feminist Films Don’t? A Conversation With Jill Soloway


For the next few weeks we’ll all be talking about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, because it’s a big movie, and an awards contender, and, as our own film editor says, pretty damn good. I have not seen the film yet, but per Deadline Hollywood yesterday, it displays the usual Scorsese love of the expletive and even a little more sex than we’ve come to expect from him:

The film begins with an assault of coarse language — c*cksucker, f*cking, and lines like “who’s ever sucked a dog’s c*ck out of loneliness,” and “f*ck this, sh*t that, c*ck, c*nt, a**hole” — and within the first hour and 15 minutes, audiences will see two orgies; heavy drug use (smoking crack, snorting loads of cocaine); a father and son offhandedly discussing (at length) what’s au courant in women’s “bushes”; a woman performing oral sex on one man while getting rammed from behind from another; full frontal nudity of women; and lots of misogyny. There is also a scene later of a prostitute pulling a candle out of the rectum of a married Jordan Belfort (played by DiCaprio) who then drops hot wax up and down his back.

And yet, it received an R rating, to everyone’s surprise. That light rating came about in part, Deadline Hollywood reports, to the presence of a “consigliere” named Tom Sherak who ran interference between Scorsese and the MPAA.

The item did not escape the notice of the writer-filmmaker Jill Soloway, who also had a film come out this year called Afternoon Delight. The movie stars Kathryn Hahn as Rachel, a stay-at-home mom who meets McKenna, sex worker played by Juno Temple. As you can imagine, the premise gives rise to some “racy” situations (at least, by old-fogey-MPAA lights, anyway). And when Soloway went through the MPAA ratings process, she told me, she was forced to cut quite a bit from certain scenes. In one case, she had to cut words, or expressions of enjoyment — “oh yeah” type-stuff — from a scene in which Rachel watches McKenna do her job. “They wanted it to be less intense, less uncomfortable,” Soloway says. “And I went crazy trying to get that done.” In another, there was a problem with the length— which was under ten seconds— of a silhouetted sex scene, which was apparently too much for the MPAA folk.

Afternoon Delight was, of course, a film which only saw limited release. And the MPAA’s system is theoretically optional, in the sense that theatres have been willing to disobey it. Even Soloway told me, “Director friends of mine said, ‘Let it be NC-17,’ what do you care?” But she had a contract with a distributor, and the contract said that she had to deliver an R-rated picture, so she ended up making cuts she didn’t like.

Soloway, of course, didn’t have a consigliere like Scorsese. She was kind enough to discuss the frustrations of this discrepancy with me. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our discussions about the ongoing struggle to either reform or get rid of the MPAA.

I’m not really that familiar with the MPAA process, but did you have any opportunity for a back-and-forth with them, on any of the cuts they asked for on Afternoon Delight?

Yes. They just said, “too sexually intense.” Tony and Joan [Hey and Graves] are nice people, I like them. And you know, when I showed the film at Sundance, I also felt like some scenes were too intense, and I cut them down a little myself for the theatrical version before the MPAA even got involved. Which I sort of regret, because this is a political process and in a way if I had started with a more intense version I could have kept in what I wanted in the end, maybe.

The fact is that when I watch the movie now and I experience that scene, something is materially missing. The [MPAA’s] cuts ended up making that scene worse in a way that I can feel— or rather, I miss what I used to feel— when watching it. The movie is not as good with those cuts.

It’s too bad you didn’t have a consiglieri for it.

Consigiliera, I would have wanted a woman!

So obviously you sensed a theme to the cuts they asked for?

I think it’s about the sexual agency of female characters. The scene portrays two women in a sexual situation connecting emotionally with one another. That might be what was “uncomfortable” for the MPAA. It’s infuriating, to encounter this editing-down after pushing through the many doors to get this movie made. I even won the Directing Award at Sundance, but that kind of lauding didn’t protect me from this organization’s opinion that sex from a woman’s perspective is somehow too dangerous. Did you see that thing about Evan Rachel Wood complaining that a scene where her character received oral sex was cut for the theatrical version of the movie?

Yeah. I mean, I think your film is a better example because now that I’ve seen Charlie Countryman, but reports do not suggest the frame of the movie is self-consciously feminist, where as yours is.

But it doesn’t matter, really, whether the film is feminist or not, it matters that what they cut is the one sex scene where she’s getting the oral sex! It’s about female pleasure making people uncomfortable, it’s insane. Particularly when you think about how much misogyny makes it through in other movies, how much violence, too. Is it weird that I even want affirmative action or reparations that reward women filmmakers for taking the risks of expressing authentic sexuality? I’m so mad that I was raised on the highly commercial, misogynistic characterizations of sexual women as disposable sluts or props for a man’s storyline, yet if I try to disrupt that portrayal, I have to minimize the parts that are “uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable for whom?

Right, which takes us to Wolf of Wall Street.

Yes, which made me so angry reading that Deadline Hollywood thing. I mean, look, I love Scorsese, and I bet The Wolf of Wall Street is a great movie. I remember seeing the trailer in a theater and having that stomach churn of, OK, if I see this movie I will have to do the switch-off thing that a lot of women have to do to enjoy a movie that glorifies misogyny. But even that isn’t what bothers me. What seems insane is that the MPAA allowed the scenes described — of a man receiving oral sex from a woman while another man is having sex with her from behind — but I had to cut far less sexual material to get an R instead of an NC-17. That’s what’s infuriating.

Well, and it’s obvious that there was some kind of double standard here for women.

But it’s not just women, it’s for anyone who’s other, who isn’t helping glorify the myth of the straight white hero male. By their nature, indie films disseminate the voices of people who are not commonly heard— women, queer people, people of color. These are pieces of our culture that attempt to dismantle the straight white male perspective, but because they don’t have the political muscle of the studio backing or the consigliore to walk them through the MPAA process — the likelihood that they’ll have to cut out what’s “uncomfortable” is much higher.

Do you have a solution?

I hear people call out to abolish the MPAA. I’m not sure. I don’t want to censor Scorsese, that is not my solution. We live in an age where teenagers can watch all kinds of porn all over the internet, but the same gatekeepers, same systems are in place that made me have to sneak into a theater to watch Blue Lagoon. This system is so unevenly applied and it ends up just reinforcing all the sexist, gender-violent, women-hating stuff. So sure, maybe the system can be changed, but maybe it is just time for a new way.