Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oliver Stone's 1987 Masterpiece, Wall Street

Later this year a sequel to Wall Street will be released. The film will be called Wall Street:Money Never Sleeps, which was a line from the first movie. It has been 23 years since the original film came out, and it is still the quintissential movie about New York stockbrokers and the world of high finance. An Oliver Stone film has never had a sequel. According to a documentary on the Blu Ray DVD version of Wall Street, stock brokers still quote lines from the film all of these years later. Traders have said that this movie is the best representation of what really goes on at the New York stock exchange. Michael Douglas says he gets people coming up to him all of the time telling him that his character influenced them to go into finance. He says that people do not seem to realize that his character of Gordon Gekko was not a good guy, but a bad person whom no one should view as a role model. Nevertheless, people seem to love the bad characters more than the good ones.

The multi-talented Oliver Stone co-wrote and directed Wall Street after writing and directing Platoon just a year earlier. He has an impressive resume, having written Scarface, Midnight Express and Conan the Barbarian. Post-Wall Street his writer/director resume grew with the films Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, and more. His father had worked as a Wall Street trader, so he wanted to make a film about what goes on in that environment.

Wall Street is the story of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a young hotshot stock broker who wants to make as much money as he can, and he will do anything to get what he wants. He persistently calls Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) every day in an attempt to meet him and give him stock tips to make him money. Gekko is a giant in the finance industry. He buys companies, breaks them into pieces and sells the parts for enourmous profit. He is one of the richest people on Wall Street and Bud Fox becomes his protege. Fox realizes that to make the kind of money Gekko makes, one needs to engage in the illegal practice of insider trading. Fox's dad Carl (Martin Sheen) is an airline mechanic for Blue Star airlines and Bud gets inside information about that company that he gives to Gekko. Carl Fox wants his son to be successful, but he also wants him to stay on the right side of the law. He is concerned that Gekko has taken his son under his wing, and he does not like that his son seems to idolize Gordon more than him.

Wall Street is a morality tale. There is good money to be made as a stockbroker who follows the rules, but one who breaks the law can make endless money, but this comes with consequences. Hal Holbrook plays Lou Mannheim, Bud Fox's boss. He has a feeling that Bud is getting stock tips illegally and he has a memorable quote in the film:

"Man looks in the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss."

Lou also says: "The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."

The most quoted line from the film is when Gekko says "Greed is good." This is the context of where he says that, at a stockholder's meeting.

"Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I've been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

There are so many outstanding quotes from this film. The relationship between Bud Fox and his father explodes with this exchange:

Carl Fox: He's using you, kid. He's got your prick in his back pocket, but you're too blind to see it.
Bud Fox: No. What I see is a jealous old machinist who can't stand the fact that his son has become more successful than he has!
Carl Fox: What you see is a guy who never measured a man's success by the size of his WALLET!
Bud Fox: That's because you never had the GUTS to go out into the world and stake your own claim!
[Long Pause]
Carl Fox: Boy, if that's the way you feel, I must have done a really lousy job as a father.

Gekko and Bud Fox see the world of Wall Street as not unlike a conflict on the battlefield. At one point when about to buy stock, Gekko says: "We're in the killzone." Bud Fox, quoting "The Art of War" says: "Sun-tzu: If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not split and reevaluate." Gordon Gekko enjoys the thrill of being in a battle with someone else. There is a scene at Gordon's house where he is negotiating a stock deal with a rival. He shows off his collection of vintage pistols. Stone has drawn comparisons between the world of Wall Street, the Vietnam war battles, and the drug dealers in Miami he chronicled in the film Scarface.

I think that Wall Street is Stone's best film. Like directors such as Hitchcock and Scorsese, Stone had a cameo in his film where he played a broker on the phone during a montage of deals being made. Richard Gere and Warren Beatty almost got the role of Gekko instead of Douglas. Tom Cruise almost was given the part of Bud Fox. Stone worked with him in Born on the Fourth of July. Michael Douglas deservedly won a best actor Oscar for his pivotal role. The storyline was loosely based on Ivan Boesky and the insider trading scandals of the 1980s. Daryl Hannah played the role of Bud Fox's girlfriend and she has never seen the film. She has said that she had an "unhealthy working relationship" with Oliver Stone. I love all aspects of this film, even the soundtrack. Frank Sinatra's Fly Me to the Moon plays over the opening credits and later a song by The Talking Heads is used (This Must be the Place-Naive Melody). The film Boiler Room (2000) is a must see for fans of Wall Street. It is also about stock brokers, and the characters in the film are obsessed with Gordon Gekko and Oliver Stone's portrayal of the world of finance. Another film that Wall Street fans should check out is American Psycho (2000) since it also features the 1980s New York yuppie era. It is based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero), and it stars Christian Bale as a self obsessed, materialistic psychotic executive.

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