26 September 2007

Gordon Gekko was supposed to be a villain.
Instead, he became a folk hero

Ten years ago in The New Yorker, Kurt Andersen suggested that maybe the 1980's never really ended. Or rather, that maybe the greedy, tawdry era imagined in Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and Oliver Stone's movie Wall Street had merely gone on hiatus during the early-90's recession before roaring back on the momentum of a resurgent stock market.

The 90's version of the 80's expired in the dot-com bust, but that High Reagan feeling is liable to come rushing back when lightly taxed hedgehog riches push the New York art and real estate markets into obscene overdrive, or whenever Steve Schwarzman throws himself a birthday party. Leveraged-buyout king Henry Kravis and all-around vulgarian Donald Trump, both 80's axioms, remain as ubiquitous now as then, and the new boss looks a lot like the old boss: Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, has invited comparisons to Gordon Gekko, the suave and ruthless finance titan played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street.

In fact, Schwarzman made a clever inside joke of sorts earlier this month when Blackstone announced it was investing $600 million in a Chinese company called BlueStar, which just happens to share a name with the spunky mom-and-pop airline that Gekko attempts to liquidate in the movie. Enhancing the sense of déjà vu, Douglas and Wall Street producer Edward Pressman are in the early stages of a Gekko sequel called Money Never Sleeps (albeit without the participation of Stone or Charlie Sheen, the first film's nominal protagonist), and Fox has just released a two-disc "20th anniversary edition" of Wall Street on DVD.

Then as now, the movie had good timing. Sporting power suspenders, pomaded hair, and no-mercy machismo, Gordon Gekko epitomized Wolfe's "Masters of the Universe"—only Gekko made a more attractive villain for being a self-made man, lacking the WASP pedigree and Ivy League credentials of Bonfire's Sherman McCoy.

Released in December 1987, two months after the Black Monday stock market crash and just one week before Ivan Boesky was sentenced to three years in prison for securities fraud, Wall Street appeared like the indignant coda to an era that had suddenly self-destructed. (Parts of Gekko's famous "Greed is good" speech are freely paraphrased from comments Boesky made in 1985.)

"The eighties are over," Newsweek announced in its first issue of 1988, adding, "Maybe the best pop-culture indicator of the post-'80s spirit is the respectful reception given to Oliver Stone's dreadfully ham-handed Wall Street." Audiences are "predisposed to despise stockbrokers," Newsweek explained, and would therefore welcome any movie, no matter how awful, that put them in their place.

Viewed with two decades' hindsight, Wall Street remains a slick diversion as a time-capsule artifact and whenever the very quotable Gekko is hogging the screen. In other respects, though, Stone's morality play stands up about as well as many a notion held dear by some in the 80's—that furniture design could emulate Julian Schnabel's broken-crockery aesthetic, say, or that Daryl Hannah could act. At the film's outset, our protagonist, the not-quite-despicable stockbroker Bud Fox (Sheen), is ambitious and venal but still bumming cash off his salt-of-the-earth dad (Martin Sheen), a union rep at Bluestar Airlines. The youngster's luck turns when he wins an audience with Gekko and nervously blurts out an inside tip on Bluestar, which earns Gekko a tidy profit and a place for Bud beside his throne. (The perks of proximity include broken-crockery furniture and Daryl Hannah.)

The central moral conflict of Wall Street is transposed from Stone's previous film, Platoon (1986), which also cast Sheen as the eager-to-please newcomer torn Skywalker-style between a Good Father and a Bad Father. The young actor is serviceable in the mode of awkward upstart who's out of his depth, but he's tense and unconvincing as the avenging son once Gekko decides to pulverize Dad's little airline that could. It's not Sheen's fault, though, that Bud has to wander onto his balcony late at night and ask the stars, "Who am I?" The script's hackneyed language only comes to life when it feels the thrill of the kill, when the characters are salivating about bagging the elephant or sheep getting slaughtered or when Gekko says of an irritant that he wants "every orifice in his fucking body bleeding red."

He's not exactly being hyperbolic, either. Gekko's business, of course, is to eviscerate entire organizations and profit from the steaming entrails, even though he insists, "I am not a destroyer of companies—I am a liberator of them!" (Despite the reptilian name, Douglas cannily plays the villain as a vaguely animatronic shark—as a well-lubricated death machine.) Carnivorous bravado is integral to the era's most memorable portraits of greed, whether in Bonfire (there's a telling moment when someone mishears the title of a book called Merger Mania as Murder Mania) or in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho (1991), in which serial killer Patrick Bateman tells an acquaintance that he works in Murders & Executions.

The Draino-strength wit of Ellis' blackhearted satire might have been overshadowed by all those lovingly depicted M&Es, but American Psycho is a more incisive and efficient (not to mention funnier) summation of the era than Wall Street: It distills both the slash-and-burn frenzy required of Bateman/Gekko's professional milieu and the purgative effects that extreme wealth and power can have on the soul, and encapsulates them within one sharply dressed, vigorously exercised, homicidal maniac.

Given the excesses of the late '00s, we may be overdue for a maniac to call our own. On the Wall Street DVD, Stone reckons that his film made Hollywood more amenable to making movies about business, but if there was little evidence for that claim in 1987 (13 years passed before the release of Wall Street's closest descendant, Boiler Room), there's less so now—with the obvious exception of Money Never Sleeps, which nonetheless reanimates another era's icon rather than inventing one from scratch.

Money Never Sleeps promises a newly globalised milieu (Pressman has stated that the film's locations include London, the United Arab Emirates, and "an Asian country"), but it may also provide an opportunity for Douglas et al. to provide a corrective to one of the unexpected side effects of Wall Street: the cult of personality attached to Gordon Gekko.

Douglas says he's still stunned by the number of people who tell him that his Oscar-winning role was the reason they went to work on Wall Street. "It's so depressing and sad," Douglas says. Perhaps the actor's bemused remorse will result in a Gekko II that's a filthier piece of work, less glamourous, more pathetic. After all, nobody ever went into finance because of Patrick Bateman (or at least, no one would ever admit it), but there's no shame in naming Gekko as one's Bad Father. "I recall looking at that film and saying, 'That's what I want to be,' " recounts the late hedge-fund manager Seth Tobias in one of the Wall Street DVD featurettes. Somehow, an oleaginous villain meant to embody the worst excesses of his era became a folk hero and highly persuasive career counselor. Wall Street was intended as a cautionary tale, but oddly enough, it endures as a possibly timeless model for success.

By Jessica Winter

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