'Wizard of Lies' tells Madoff story as 'dark tragedy' of betrayal

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Michelle Pfeiffer was convinced real footage of incarcerated conman Bernie Madoff had been used in her new film The Wizard of Lies because co-star Robert De Niro's likeness was uncanny. They are both glum, forbidding presences who demand respect and banish all light and joy. "But who is he REALLY?".

De Niro was pleased to invoke such a reaction from his own co-star, because he fought the idea of simply wearing a bald cap for the role.

Bernie Madoff lived a life of privilege and power, with a penthouse in Manhattan, homes in Montauk and Palm Beach, and access to titans of finance, philanthropy, show business and real estate. "De Niro says, 'Let's experiment, let's see what happens here". Director Barry Levinson explains that the movie is based on the account of journalist Diana Henriques, who was the only journalist to interview Madoff in prison. Maybe because there's just that not far to go.

The film is framed with the prison interviews that Madoff granted to New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques, author of the 2011 book "The Wizard of Lies". He demands to know if his interviewer thinks he's a sociopath. When his sister-in-law wants to invest her life savings, he doesn't bat an eye.

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Appearing in the HBO Bernie Madoff drama "The Wizard of Lies" had an extra layer of resonance for Hank Azaria - who as a kid growing up in Queens knew Mark Madoff, the son who committed suicide in the wake of his family scandal. There's no sympathy for this devil in "The Wizard of Lies", a bleak and fascinating TV film debuting Saturday on HBO. In a scene near the end, Andrew addresses a writing class and tells them that his suffering and that of his brother and mother can't begin to compare to the people who were wiped out by Madoff's scheme. "They were getting a certain amount of money in return".

De Niro says what Madoff did was "beyond my comprehension". (It's hard not to find it telling that Madoff's sons were the ones to turn him in.) The only affecting scenes here involve the brothers and Ruth. "Our vision of a con man isn't a slick-talking guy who's trying to win you over with a smile and good spiel". Nivola's taste is such that given what some actors might seize as an opportunity to fall apart, he chooses to play Mark's destruction as a quiet implosion. One hopes that Michelle Pfeiffer's next TV project - and there should be a next one - takes greater advantage of her many talents. The strength of Pfeiffer's performance is how she captures a woman shocked into consciousness when the perfidy of the husband she never questioned becomes undeniable. The actor portrays Ruth in the movie, and was actually able to meet her and speak with her in preparation for the role. In HBO's new movie The Wizard of Lies, production designer Laurence Bennett, perhaps best known for his work on The Artistwas tasked with just that: recreating the sudden downfall of Bernie Maddoff, arguably the biggest thief in American history. What it needs is the kind of shpritz that animated Levinson's movies back when he was working with a comic sensibility.

Here was a man who defrauded thousands of investors on a scale of almost US$65 billion, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who lost US$15.1 million in foundation money on top of the life savings he and his wife had accumulated.

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