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Can ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Devour Oscar Competition?

Martin Scorsese's latest finally premieres for audiences

Following months of speculation on whether it would make it in time for the 2013 Oscar race, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” finally started screenings for guilds over the weekend, beginning with a Saturday afternoon show for SAG nominating committee. And the response was as boisterous and wild as the ride on which stockbroker Jordan Belfort—played by Leonardo DiCaprio—takes the audience over the course of three hours. Yes, it’s official: The film runs three hours. But the crowd didn’t seem to mind, laughing enthusiastically up until the end.

I had the privilege of moderating the Q&A following the first screening, attended by DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Cristin Milioti, Edward Choi and PJ Byrne. The cast received massive applause, culminating in a standing ovation for DiCaprio.

Many of the cast members were seeing the film for the first time. Reiner, who plays Belfort’s accountant father, admitted to being a little stunned. “It was really good. I knew it had laughs, but I didn’t realize how many laughs,” he said. He also admitted he was nervous agreeing to do the Q&A before seeing the film, saying, “What if it stunk? Luckily, it was the reverse of stink.”

While formal reviews are embargoed, it’s safe to say that critics are likely to agree. The film opens with a bang, with DiCaprio narrating both in voiceover and in direct address to the camera, and the laughs come fast. The actor, a three-time Oscar nominee, has never been better as the slick, determined and utterly unrepentant Belfort, and is likely to land another nomination. I say “likely” only because best actor is a crowded field and he will have to bump some serious competition, but his odds are good.

While the Academy might balk at some of the more salacious elements, a best picture nomination seems a sure thing, as does a nom for Terence Winter’s adaptation of Belfort’s memoir. Also a surefire nominee is Jonah Hill for supporting actor, who plays Belfort’s sycophantic and adoring underling, called Donnie Azoff in the movie (real last name is Porush). Hill good-naturedly pointed out, “Every time I play someone real in a movie they ask to have their name changed.” While Hill’s is a comic sidekick role, there is something tragic in the actor’s performance, and his genuine love for Belfort comes through.

But will Scorsese muscle into the crowded director field? All signs point to yes. While the film could benefit from some trimming, Scorsese is in top form—having just turned 71, the filmmaker is still managing to find new and creative ways to tell stories. A sequence involving Belfort and Azoff on Quaaludes ranks among the director’s best work ever and is sure to become one of the most buzzed-about scenes of the year—the Saturday crowd burst into long applause mid-screening.

The laughs and cheers continued into the Q&A, where DiCaprio, also a producer on the film, described reading Belfort’s book and comparing him to a modern-day Caligula. When it came time for audience questions, DiCaprio recognized a young man in the audience and after an exchange of pleasantries, the man asked how he stayed on the top of his game, being such a great actor for so long. Hill instantly jumped in, “Thank you for asking…,” causing DiCaprio and the audience to explode into laughter.

Paramount held another screening of the film that night, this one including a reception featuring a marching band, in homage to a scene in the movie. With the film just beginning to screen, the studio will have to make up some lost ground considering critics’ awards start coming out this week and ballots for SAG nominations are due Dec. 9. But the studio should have every reason to feel confident.

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