Wall Street (1987) Written and directed by Oliver Stone. Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Darryl Hannah, Martin Sheen (125 min).
A hungry young stockbroker stalks Gordon Gekko, amoral high finance demon, who believes, famously, “Greed is good.” Ambitious Bud Fox must choose between his good father and his bad father (Oscar winner Douglas) clawing his way up to a heady financial pinnacle. But, what is the bond rating on his soul?
This film was the inspiration for my Get Rich Quick Series since we are all a little bit in the dark about how we got in this big financial mess. Perhaps, some of the answers can be gained from watching or re-watching Wall Street. There has always been a tension in American society about balancing the desires of the individual with responsibility to the community as a whole. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” as Mr. Spock said as he gave his life for his shipmates in The Wrath of Khan made just five years before (1982). Watching Wall Street gives some insight into how economic checks and balances went astray.
Oliver Stone has always gravitated towards controversy in his films. He was born in 1946, his father was a stockbroker, and he had a privileged upbringing. Stone’s father was politically conservative, and thought his son was a bum when he dropped out of Yale in 1965 to teach English in Viet Nam. Nobody was interested in the 1400 page novel he wrote about his experiences after returning to the US, and he went back to Viet Nam as an infantry soldier during the Viet Nam war, hoping to prove something to his father. He was wounded twice during his 15 month tour of duty and decorated for bravery. Copious amounts of pot and LSD colored his combat experiences. After the war, he went back to college on the GI bill, graduating from NYU Film School where he was mentored by Martin Scorsese.
His inroads into Hollywood began with screenplay writing. His second script, for Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, won an Academy Award as Best Adapted Screenplay, and he went on to write the screenplays for Conan the Barbarian and Al Pacino’s Scarface, among other films. His success in writing for the movies gave him the opportunity to direct Salvador, a political film about Central America. This film led directly to Platoon, an autobiographical distillation of his experience in the Viet Nam war, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. His next film was Wall Street. Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, and the third of his Viet Nam trilogy, Heaven and Earth, were still in his future. Of course, a sequel to Wall Street is being filmed now, for release next year. His films naggingly questioned the establishment, “bold ‘statement films’ superbly crafted and told always from a strong male perspective. Stone jarred, provoked, irritated, as he simultaneously captivated. Undaunted by the public ire his films provoked, he marched on guerillalike—headstrong, blustery—into motion picture history; a finger-waggling filmmaker” (Beaver xii).
Stone was under a lot of pressure after Platoon, since it had been such a critical and commercial hit. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser didn’t know anything about Wall Street when he began collaborating on a script with Stone, a work the director hoped would be inspired by either Crime and Punishment or The Great Gatsby. Instead, Stone mined material by reflecting on the career of his father, a Wall Street broker during the Great Depression, and the contemporary careers of famous corporate raiders like Ivan Boesky (who went to jail for three years right as Wall Street was hitting theaters) and Carl Icahn, but Gordon Gekko’s speech patterns were inspired by Stone, himself. The film is set in 1985, the peak of the insider trading scandals. He was motivated because his father had always complained, when taking his young son to the movies, that there were few good films about businessmen. “He took me to the movies, and he would bemoan the lack of a good business movie. Businessmen were generally lampooned.” (Demos). His father was represented by the moral stockbroker to tries, and fails to mentor Bud Fox. “He keeps trying to teach Bud Fox the ethics of the business. Hal Holbrook represents my father, who always said Wall Street can do a lot of good. It is not simply a function of making money.” (Demos).
Stone said in an interview, ” It was dedicated to my father, but I don’t think he would recognize present day Wall Street. Wall Street had a more creative purpose for my father, and I think he would be offended by the excesses and the directions that a lot of the Wall Street money has gone to. Too much money has gone to speculation, speculation that doesn’t really create or produce anything for society.” (Crowdus 57)
Tom Cruise was interested in the role of Bud Fox, but Stone wanted Charlie Sheen, in part because the “stiffness” of his acting style would convey the character’s naïveté and hero worship. Michael Douglas was suddenly a romantic action hero after Romancing the Stone, and was looking for a darker role to play. This was the year of both Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, roles that helped Douglas feel he was moving outside the very long shadow cast by his father, Kirk Douglas. Stone remembers, “I was warned by everyone in Hollywood that Michael couldn’t act, that he was a producer more than an actor and would spend all his time in his trailer on the phone”. But the director found out that “when he’s acting he gives it his all” (McGuigan). Douglas loved the part, although at first he was somewhat alarmed about his long speeches, 2-3 pages of single spaced dialogue, unusual in a Hollywood script. Douglas won an Oscar for his part, and thanked director Oliver Stone for “casting me in a part that almost nobody thought I could play” (Gorney). Michael Douglas said later, “Oliver and I had several battles during the making of it. No matter how much I gave, he seemed to want more., I don’t mind telling you there were times I hated him during the filming…but I forgave him when I won the Oscar.” (xv Riordan)
Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick researched real Wall Street powerhouse’s wardrobes, including Ivan Boesky, T. Boone Pickens, Carl Icahn, Asher Edelman and Donald Trump. “Gekko was a composite of how the superrich looked then, Actually, no two of them looked alike. When you get to that kind of position of power, you create your own style (240 Riordan ). Manhattan tailor Allan Flusser made his suits, of English and Italian worsted wool, added 24 Swiss and English cotton shirts, and handmade silk ties, all of which were gifted to Douglas after the shoot. Douglas credited the sleek wardrobe with helping his characterization. “It was another key for me to Gekko–the hair, cufflinks, suspenders, immediately gave me a costume (241 Riordan).
Charlie Sheen was given the choice of Jack Lemmon or his father, Martin Sheen to play the part of his dad, and he picked his real father, which gives the film an interesting texture. Stone cast Charlie Sheen feeling, “there was a devilish side to him…a strong streak of rebelliousness combined with an inner grace.” Only twenty-two, much younger than the real crooked brokers, Sheen was aged by Stone with good suits, a haircut, and enought food to put on weight and jowls” (Kagan 113).
Real Wall Street traders were brought in to coach the actors on how they did their daily tasks for complete authenticity. Sheen weathered a 6 week course where he absorbed the work and lifestyles of young Wall Streeters, the actor said, “I was impressed and very, very respectful of the fact that they could maintain that kind of aggressiveness and drive”(Rattner). Lesser players carefully studied real Wall Street traders, and Michael Douglas met with executives and studied tv footage of indicted raiders. If Charlie Sheen was occasionally criticised for his lack of research diligence, he had Stone’s complete confidence, as the star of Platoon. One of Hollywood’s hottest young actors at the time, he passed on numerous projects to work with Stone again. Sheen even invested $20,000 in the market to get into his character.
The director had the camera circle the actors “in a way that makes you feel you’re in a pool with sharks” (Wuntch) seeing the financial capital as a battle zone. He got permission to film on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange during business hours thanks to one of his chief technical advisor, Kenneth Lipper, investment banker and former deputy mayor of New York for Finance and Economic Development. Lipper wanted the film to be both accurate and balanced; he insisted not every investment banker could be a scoundrel without a soul.
Wall Street is man’s world, where the women are just another corporate perk, and it’s not surprising that the female roles in the film are unsatisfying. Darryl Hannah was unhappy with her character’s materialistic nature, and her acting was mocked to the point she won a Razzie award as the worst supporting actress of the year. She knew she was miscast, and wanted out, but Stone couldn’t admit he had made a mistake. He had difficulties working with Sean Young also, and both actresses were vocal about their displeasure in the press, which contributed to Stone’s reputation of being an actor’s, not an actresses’ director.
The film was made outside the studio. Both Gekko’s offices and Jackson Steinham where Bud works were shot at a vacant downtown high rise 222 Broadway The actors worked a corporate work week, Monday-Friday “riding up real elevators to real offices. Then, they worked fourteen hours in front of cameras and lights as brokers, traders, messengers, secretaries and executives” (114 Kagan).
Bud Fox with his bad father…
Although some critics condescendingly thought that the intricacies of the market too complicated for the average moviegoer to understand, the verisimilitude of the milieu, on which Stone insisted, contributes to the fact that you can understand the financial machinations perfectly.
There were a handful of 80s business films, like Rollover and Working Girl, just as there were a few 50s business films, like Executive Suite, and Sabrina. “In the recent business films, the young protagonist is not only ambitious but deceitful and dishonest in his/her pursuit of the American Dream. Typically, this behavior is indulged in the context of a knowing parody, as an entertainingly twisted excess of basically good intentions” (Kunz 134). Stone’s Wall Street, as much as his Viet Nam, is a war zone, where only the strong–and the wily survive. Just as his father’s war, WWII, was different from Viet Nam, so Depression era Wall Street was unrecognizable in comparison to the Wall Street of the 80s, as once again, a son has to prove his manhood to his father.
“I think what links all my films…is the story of an individual in a struggle with his identity, his integrity and his soul. In many of these movies, the character’s soul is stolen from him, lost, and in some cases he gets it back in the end. I do not believe in the collective version of history, I believe that the highest ethic is the Socratic one, from the dialogues of Socrates, which says, ‘Know thyself.'” (Beaver 100).
…and his good one.
Some investment bankers were offended by their portrayal in the film, and most lead a much duller life than Bud Fox. Wall Street reached screens just two months after Black Monday, Oct 19, 1987, a stock market crash in which the Dow plunged 508 points, a figure that now seems quaint. (The one day stock plunge in the summer of 2008 was 778 points, the ten day total was 2,399 points). The film received mixed reviews, dismissed conversely both as vapid soap opera and left wing propaganda. Ironically, another film that had the benefit of a topical release was another Michael Douglas film, The China Syndrome, which arrived in the wake of Three Mile Island.
Only a modest $40 million hit when it was first released (#1 at the box office in 1987: Three Men and a Baby) it was an unequivocal smash in the financial world, where nacent brokers were inspired by both Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko. Although Michael Douglas is in the sequel, he has said, he wouldn’t mind if he never had “one more drunken Wall Street broker come up to me and say, ‘You’re the man!’ ”
Sometimes, when watching films, juxtaposition between two unrelated films makes a big impression. As it happened, I watched The Lady From Shanghai, the first film in this series, right before Wall Street. And, I realized that one of the things that makes Wall Street so effective, is that it has adapted the basic structure of film noir into the brightly lit offices of the stock brokers. Bud Fox is the perfect film noir hero. He’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, which makes him a prize sap. There is no femme fatale in this film, but rather Gordon Gecko, an homme fatale, flattering and seducing his slimy way into Bud’s fatally weak and ambitious mind.
(B & W photos from Beaver. Sources include: Oliver Stone Interviews edited by Peter Brunette, “Personal Struggles and Political Issues: An Interview with Oliver Stone” by Gary Crowdus, Films of Oliver Stone, edited by Don Kunz, Oliver Stone:Wakeup Cinema by Frank Beaver, Oliver Stone’s USA: Film History, Controversy, edited by Robert Brent Toplin, The Cinema of Oliver Stone by Norman Kagan, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker by James Riordan, and the wikipedia.org sources: McGuigan, Cathleen (December 14, 1987). “A Bull Market in Sin”. Newsweek, Wuntch, P (December 21, 1987). “Stone’s War on Wall St”. Herald, Rattner, Steven (August 30, 1987). “From Vietnam to Wall Street”. New York Times, Gorney, Cynthia (April 12, 1988). “Douglas and Cher Win Acting Honors”. Washington Post, Cieply, Michael (May 5, 2007) “Film’s Wall Street Predator to Make a Comeback” New York Times and
Demos, Telis (September 21, 2007) “Oliver Stone: Life After Wall Street” Fortune.