Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors to work for if you want an Oscar nomination for acting. Over the past 40 years, he has helped his stars earn a total of 20 nominations spread out over the performance categories, and you may be surprised to hear that half of those went to women. Yes, the filmmaker who has occasionally been accused of being a misogynist and who tends to make movies led by men (often undoubtedly misogynistic men), is pretty good at finding strong actresses for his leading ladies — or he’s good at making them appear to be very talented, whether they are or not. Margot Robbie, who plays the dynamic trophy wife of Leonardo DiCaprio’s scumbag stock broker in The Wolf of Wall Street, ought to be the next in line in this tradition, and yet she’s not being talked about for an Academy Award at all.
Robbie’s performance in the movie is one of the standouts of the year for me, though I have to admit this is partly because I’d never heard of nor seen her before. The actress isn’t quite as out of nowhere as 12 Years a Slave breakout Lupita Nyong’o (pretty much a sure thing for the supporting actress win at this point), especially if you’re a fan of the Australian soap opera Neighbours or if you gave the American TV drama Pan Am a shot, but she is a fresh face in Hollywood, and between WoWS and About Time she’s making a very grand entrance this year. Under Scorsese’s direction, she’s more than the bombshell eye candy with love interest charm and chemistry that both DiCaprio’s character and the audience might expect. Robbie portrays “Naomi Lapaglia” (based on the real life Nadine Macaluso) as a smart and assertive yet spoiled and ultimately scorned woman, sexy to be sure but not worth reducing discussion of her role to articles about how she handled her nude scenes.
If we’re to view WoWS as a companion piece to Goodfellas, which also aligns it with Casino, then Robbie’s part is the equivalent of those films’ respective wives played by Lorraine Bracco and Sharon Stone, both of whom were nominated. Maybe we can also count Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull as relevant. Yes, she too was nominated. None of these women were particularly celebrated actresses beforehand, and Moriarty was even more of a debutante on the big screen than Robbie. Stone was a movie star at the point of her recognition, though not of the prestige sort. Her level of fame might have helped make her performance contend in the leading rather than supporting category — the first and only other time one of Scorsese’s actresses received that distinction since Ellen Burstyn’s winning turn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are the only two members of the WoWS ensemble with genuine Oscar buzz, and they definitely deserve it. They’re basically the De Niro and Pesci of this movie if you consider the Scorsese context. But those guys were never honored without their female co-star also being honored. Both joined Moriarty, while De Niro’s other two nominations were accompanied by Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver) and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear) and Pesci’s other nomination was paired with Bracco. DiCaprio’s previous nod under Scorsese went with Cate Blanchett (The Aviator). Actually, the only two times an actor was nominated for a Scorsese movie where there was no actress alongside him was with Daniel Day Lewis for Gangs of New York and Mark Walberg for The Departed. If anything, it historically makes more sense for Robbie to be the sole nominee, as there have been three movies (Alice, Casino and The Age of Innocence) represented in the acting categories solely by women.
Plus Robbie’s character has the most interesting arc in terms of range and change. Naomi grows over the course of the movie in a way none of the awful, drug-addicted manchildren do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of showy scenes. At least nothing on the level of what DiCaprio and Hill get to do. I’ve even heard buzz for Matthew McConaughey’s two-scene stint over Robbie, only because he has a very memorable, quotable moment on screen. Robbie is tragically only memorable to a lot of critics for being naked and for a scene where she teases DiCaprio’s character by wearing a short skirt and no underwear. She is terrific in that scene, as it were, but it’s because of her acting rather than what she’s wearing (and not wearing). Naomi does sort of wind up a victim, in that moment and in the story overall, but she’s hardly a naive character and Robbie has her exuding strength and power as a person with desires, including those of a sexual nature, as well as convictions. From her introduction to her emotional climax as abused wife and mother scared for her and her child’s life, Naomi is anything but a simple supporting character, and Robbie is tremendous in every second she appears.
And yes, as much as it would be nice to see another Scorsese actress up for lead and as much as her screen time is significant mostly because it’s such a long movie, hers is a supporting role. If nominated, she could be up against Jennifer Lawrence in what’s basically the same part if we go along with the American Hustle is a Scorsese wannabe talk. I love Lawrence in that movie, in spite of hating everything else about it, and it too is a showy display that overshadows Robbie’s as much as DiCaprio and Hill’s do. But I think while Robbie is probably not as interesting an actress as Lawrence is in general (I haven’t seen enough of her work to tell yet), she gives a more consistent and appropriate performance in WoWS than Lawrence does in Hustle. And for two actresses who are only about a month apart in age, Robbie sure does a better job of seeming older when she has to.
Scorsese’s latest, like so many of his in the past, is an ensemble piece. And almost everyone in that ensemble is exceptional. A lot of this is because Scorsese himself is so exceptional as an actor’s director (only Cukor, Wyler and Kazan have topped him with acting nominations, and he’s probably about to pass Cukor’s 21). Robbie isn’t the only standout in the bunch going unacknowledged, either. Kyle Chandler is really amazing in a very subtle way in his relatively minor role as DiCaprio’s FBI agent adversary. Is there anything in the fact that these two characters are the most honorable in the end (not that Naomi is all that innocent)? Perhaps that might actually be a selling point to Academy members who are disgusted with WoWS. They should recognize the “good” parts.
Ballots went out to Academy voters on Friday, so it might already be too late to start a strong campaign in Robbie’s favor, but it also could be the perfect time to start some serious buzz for her to receive a nomination, while people are in need of being influenced and convinced of who to choose. If she misses out and the boys don’t, it’ll be a big hiccup for Scorsese’s balanced tradition with acting nominations, but it may not be the last time she gives a worthy performance. Here’s hoping that, Oscar recognition or not, this is just the beginning for a wonderful young actress who will have an exciting film career. For your consideration: Margot Robbie for The Wolf of Wall Street and for many strong female roles in her future.