In a pivotal scene in HBO’s The Wizard of Lies, disgraced financier Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro) and his devoted wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) don their pajamas and climb into bed — just as the couple did most every night of their 49-year marriage. A Judy Garland film flickers on the television and a bowl rests on the nightstand. It doesn’t contain a late-night snack. It holds every pill the pair could scrounge up in their opulent Manhattan apartment.
“Our last night on earth will be you, me and Judy Garland. How romantic,” Pfeiffer drones in Ruth’s distinctive Queens accent, which decades of privilege failed to polish into something more posh. “We had a good life, didn’t we?” Bernie says fondly, as his wife snuggles in.
“Yeah,” Ruth retorts. “Until you ruined it.”
You already know how the scene turns out. Both survived the overdose — a bid to escape the fallout of what would soon be revealed as the largest Ponzi scheme in history, one that bilked investors of $65 billion, earned Bernie 150 years in prison, and imploded his family.
But Lies isn’t about dredging up a near-decade-old financial scandal. Based on New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques’ insightful 2011 bestseller The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust and directed by Barry Levinson, the film is, instead, a devastating character study centered on the fickleness and frailty of the human psyche. Was it faith, ego or psychopathy that led a world-renowned financier to feed a decades-long fraud for which he had no exit plan? What drove wise business minds to ignore Madoff’s improbable returns in a tempestuous market and trust him with millions? And how much did Madoff’s own family members truly know of the scam?
Henriques — who plays herself in the film and serves as its narrator — had unprecedented access to the imprisoned Bernie, earning the enigmatic financier’s trust. Re-creations of their interviews frame the film — and allow De Niro to deliver a quiet storm of a performance as the fallout of his sins becomes ever more apparent despite his attempts to tell himself otherwise. “He came off candid, relaxed, sincere and trustworthy,” Henriques observes. “That is his talent and his curse.”
De Niro, who executive produces the film with Levinson, agrees. “We felt that he’s somebody who doesn’t have to make a huge effort to get people to invest,” the acting legend says. “They’re lucky they can even get his attention. It’s a classic element of a certain type of con — it’s a privilege to get his recognition. That’s a very powerful position, and he got into that position, probably through his demeanor. He looked like a guy you could trust — Uncle Bernie.”
Papa Bernie is another story. Secretive and unsentimental with sons Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola, a veritable study in devastation), he set the men up for financial success via the legitimate brokerage arm of his investment firm, while keeping them and their mother in the dark about the fraudulent wealth management arm until it was too late to save them from the scorn and implication that would turn Ruth into a recluse and drive the tormented Mark to suicide.
Instead Madoff employed everyday folks on the firm’s now infamous 17th floor — the kind of blue-collar souls who buy weekly lotto tickets and believe that earning millions despite no financial education is their due. Though Madoff’s right-hand man Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) would later admit he knew their dealings were shady, his boss universally caused people to believe. In one of the film’s most resonant scenes, Madoff welcomes suspicious federal regulators into his firm — for a sixth time and with no lawyers present — and offers his International Securities ID Number without hesitation, knowing it would either expose the fraud or augment his belief that the whole American financial system is a sham.
“It’s a great moment,” De Niro smiles. “He has to be a certain type of person to be able to pull it off. Just leap off a cliff and hope for the best. It’s almost nihilistic. I mean, what’s he going to do? He’s got to play it out to the end. And they bought it.”
Levinson says Pfeiffer met with the real Ruth Madoff and her understanding of her character, coupled with her and De Niro’s intense connection, made his job easy. “When she finally stepped into that role, they would be talking, and somebody would go, ‘This is Bernie and Ruth,’” Levinson says. “It wasn’t a struggle with these scenes. They found this chemistry and this interaction. It’s one of the times where, as a director, I can just sit back and watch and just let it go.”
“I love Michelle,” De Niro says. “This is the second time we’ve worked together. We did The Family, and that was a lot of fun, so I was very, very happy that she was playing Ruth.”
And so the film’s most shattering guessing game is deciphering whether Ruth — an intensely devoted wife who, nonetheless, describes her life as a series of regrets — and her sons suspected that all was not right with the family business. “This is an important part of the piece,” Levinson says. “You grow up with everybody telling you your father is this wonderful man — even though he may be verbally abusive, even if he controls what Andrew eats — so that’s what you know. So when this thing blew up, emotionally your world is upside down. The man that you went to, no matter how abusive he may be, was your father, admired and loved — and he is a complete fraud.”
“He might have rationalized that their not knowing would protect them — but what else could he do?” De Niro adds. “He wouldn’t let them on the 17th floor — ‘Don’t question this.’ What could he do except protect them as best that he knew and rationalize it that they would not be held accountable? They were held accountable in another way, by public opinion. That was an unbelievable nightmare for those kids.” An avoidable nightmare had Bernie not spent decades dancing around a devastating truth — which makes all the more poignant the scene of a beachside celebration, in which Madoff lets down his guard and gathers his family to dance to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
“They did have moments where things were joyous, so I wanted to show that dynamic,” Levinson reflects. “As I remember it, we just said, ‘All right, we’ll put the camera here, and then Bob started to dance with Michelle. I was pretty much just allowing their behavior to take over the scene. It was that simple. Just dance.”
The Wizard of Lies premieres May 20 at 8/7c on HBO