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Wall Street Movie Essay

“They love that quality of take no prisoners … if I have one more person, it’s so depressing and sad, they come up to me and say, you know, you’re the reason that I got into Wall Street … that’s a, that’s a sad commentary.” —Michael Douglas

There is a fabulous irony to “Wall Street” that perhaps can’t be adequately explained.

The movie is an unequivocal denunciation of Wall Street excess but remains the preeminent film of those aspiring to it. They love anything Gekko, and a lot of the other scenes too.

Michael Douglas was a savvy Hollywood producer but apparently wasn’t much of a Wall Street aficionado before the film was shot. He understands that his character is not so much a stock speculator, but a nouveau riche success story. He lifts Gordon Gekko to the same level as Michael Corleone, an endlessly admirable bad guy. Douglas’ Gekko never realizes how cool and funny he is. It is too easy to forget about the Bud Fox story and simply await the next Gekko appearance. He’s right about everything, but only in the most cynical way. One wonders if “Wall Street” might have been a blockbuster in the mold of “The Godfather” had Gekko been the protagonist, seizing control of a firm and dominating the financial world in a method similar to Michael Milken. Douglas is reportedly working on a sequel featuring Gekko. But that is not this movie.

Many think of the movie merely as Gordon Gekko, greed is good. “Wall Street” is a common coming-of-age narrative, a young man discovering whether he will follow the good guys or the bad guys. What makes it unique is the setting. Oliver Stone was drawn to this concept because his father was a stockbroker, exemplified by the Hal Holbrook character, and because Wall Street, by the mid-1980s, was suddenly controversial. There were junk bond kings, leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers. People making lots of “easy” money without necessarily delivering a public benefit. This troubled Stone and evidently the “Wall Street” cast, according to interviews.

Through his own interviews, but more explicitly through certain characters and scenes, Stone expresses these opinions of Wall Street:

♦ Profit should result from making companies better and not from trading or speculation ♦ The amount of money involved invites powerful con artists to game the system ♦ There is a clear line between what is “enough” and what is “greed.”

“Wall Street” faces some issues of financial absurdity. Its worst flaw, though, is casting.

Charlie Sheen, a red-hot young actor at the time, does not have the gravitas for this role. This must be a character of testosterone, not wisecracks. Whether he did not take the role seriously enough, as has been suggested, or was simply overmatched, is debatable. Given that his career post-“Platoon” gradually tumbled into sitcoms, where he is very successful, it seems the latter is true.

Without Gekko in the scenes, it is hard to take Bud Fox seriously, including what should’ve been a very tense moment for him, near the end when he is trying with the union leaders to persuade Sir Lawrence Wildman to buy their company. Sheen delivers that scene as though he were asked to film it at 4:59 p.m. on the way to the racquetball court and was annoyed by the interruption.

Worse though are the scenes in which he is paired with his phony muse, Darien, “played” (we use that liberally here) by Daryl Hannah. Hannah, by all accounts, did not like her role to begin with, personally objected to the values depicted and mailed in her part with postage due. One would guess that, had the studio recognized the long-term appeal of the film, it would’ve allowed or forced the recasting of Darien and perhaps Bud as well. As it was, she was probably considered passable, given the shallowness of the character and the need for pure beauty.

For a protagonist, Bud’s motivation is alarmingly empty. All he wants is to have some money, maybe a better job. There is no way he could do what Gekko did. Gekko is driven by perhaps the most common motivator of the nouveau riche, social status. His money brings him entree to the elite clubs, restaurants, neighborhoods, art auctions, charity boards, etc. Bud has very little grasp of, or interest in, these subjects. The idea of Gekko taking him under his wing is farfetched.

It also defies belief that Darien would fall for Bud. A standard-bearer of this phony social climate, Darien would quickly realize that Bud doesn’t belong, is not in her league. Their scenes together are the film’s albatross.

It is curious that Bud’s righteous revelation stems not from the rampant phoniness of Gekko’s world — driving dune buggies around, buying ridiculously expensive pieces of art, throwing parties with people who aren’t really your friends — but from the collapse of his Blue Star plan. Gekko lied to him, and now it’s clear, greedy quick-buck artists are bad. Bud evidently has trouble appreciating the extent of Gekko’s greed until his own father’s company is the target. This leap calls into question several of the film’s technical points.

Gekko is portrayed as evil for his plot against Teldar Paper. But what kind of a plot is this, and how is it illegal? He gradually buys chunks of Teldar stock. Activist investors do this all the time. We are led to believe he is buying more shares than is legally permissible, that’s why he uses offshore accounts. Why that would be necessary, or illegal, is unknown. This buying takes place over many months. Clearly he sees a value to Teldar stock that management is not realizing. The board meeting is conducted out in the open. He’s the single largest shareholder. He apparently wants shareholders to reject the board or oust some of its members. Again, this is the regular practice of activist investors, many of whom have perfectly fine objectives.

It is said that “stock parking,” a tactic that tripped up Michael Milken (though it wasn’t the crux of the case against him), was occurring. But the movie doesn’t explain how this would hurt Teldar or why Gekko couldn’t just submit and resubmit tender offers. He attempts this in the scene where he first meets Bud Fox. Apparently Mr. Cromwell, the Teldar CEO, refused to entertain the offer, prompting Gekko to angrily buy more shares on the open market. There is nothing preventing him from making the offer to all shareholders. Clearly, if he is making offers to Cromwell, his standing as a major holder of the stock would be widely known.

Cromwell, at the shareholders meeting, decries how the company “is now leveraged to the hilt.’ This would not be the fault of Gekko. Buying shares in the company does not “leverage’ it; if anything, the buying helps prop up the share price. Gekko points out the company is losing money. That is why it is leveraged. Most investors would welcome an activist buyer with a plan to maximize shareholder value. If Gekko is a quick-buck artist out to “wreck’ a company, why is he spending months and months buying Teldar stock with no guarantee of any kind of success?

This head-scratching scheme dovetails with the Blue Star plan. According to the movie, Gekko is able to completely bypass the board and negotiate directly with unions despite only owning less than 2 percent of the company. Evidently, the Blue Star management, praised by the film’s moral conscience, Carl Fox, has not tried similar negotiations with the union. Somehow, Gekko expects Blue Star stock to soar nearly 100 percent, to $30, after his takeover is confirmed. This would be a phenomenal gain for any stock, let alone an obscure airline that even the employees fear is ripe for going under (except its stock still trades above what Gekko initially bought it for months earlier).

This is a problem with the film’s three takeover scenarios; all three companies are supposedly failing but worth remarkably more as an acquisition. With Blue Star, any gain of this size would be a clear indication the Street likes the potential of the business. And with those union concessions, it might indeed be a semi-promising business. Instead, we’re led to believe the Street would pay $30 a share for a company about to go defunct. Gekko, then holding stock which would have massively appreciated, would give up that gain and take a loss to liquidate the company, whose pieces are somehow worth more than the collective operation even after these extreme union cuts, which would send the price to nearly $0, all so that he could somehow keep the $40 million pension overfunding to himself — and accomplish all of this in a “month’s work.”

Throughout the film it is not actually clear which activities might be illegal and which aren’t. For Bud to trade off of information he swipes at a law firm is likely illegal. But to follow Sir Lawrence Wildman around New York City and ask about his plane’s destination seems completely legal, even though Bud tells Gekko it would be illegal. Again, Stone flirts with serious logic issues … a buyer like Wildman would have to pay a 57% premium to acquire a fading steel company?

Wall Street insiders will easily notice a startling omission of the film: the absence of any ethnic characterization. Trading floors are a notorious source of ethnic rivalries, the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the British, the Japanese, etc. Michael Douglas is half-Jewish, but Gekko’s ethnicity is a mystery. The name doesn’t register any stereotypes; he could be Presbyterian. Charlie Sheen is something like 1/4 Irish and 1/4 Spanish, but a name like Fox offers no clue. Stone is half-Jewish, half-French Roman Catholic. Clearly, he believed the crux of his film, wealth and greed, to be above the various ethnic biases obviously still present in the financial world today. Those biases would no longer matter to Gekko, but might to Bud Fox or others at his firm. Most would probably agree that John C. McGinley’s Marv is Irish, but it really doesn’t matter, he might as well be Polish.

Stone isn’t concerned about the technicalities and he probably shouldn’t be. It’s a movie, and it’s about drama, emotion. He sees companies not as consenting players in the machinations of high finance, but as helpless lambs targeted by the wolves of greed. Company jobs, not shares, are his primary concern. To Stone, every company is somehow worth far more money “broken up” than in its present form. Many people feel the same way. The logic of capitalism escapes them or doesn’t appeal to them, and they are comfortable with this view, that the rich are only getting there in scurrilous fashion. Those people, though, aren’t the ones who idolize this movie.

In Stone’s eyes, two guys at the Jackson Steinem firm represent what Wall Street should be all about.

One is Lou Mannheim, played by Hal Holbrook, who urges the youngsters in the firm “to stick with the fundamentals. … Good things, sometimes, take time.” How he makes money isn’t clear. He throws out a couple stock picks and dismisses a few others. Is he feverishly cold-calling clients while off-camera? We don’t know. It is pointed out that instead of being an executive somewhere, he is coming into the office in his 60s “still pitching.”

The other noteworthy broker is Bud’s peer, Marv, played by McGinley with a laugh a minute. Marv is a high-octane account executive who loves the drill. But he knows his place. “It’s the big-game hunters who bag guys like Gekko, not guys like us.” He evidently does just the amount of work to maintain a living on Wall Street but knows 4 p.m. is quitting time. He wants the Knicks and chicks. He’ll gladly listen to tips but won’t go out of his way to uncover one. He’s steady, not getting rich, not hurting anyone, reveling in the semi-exciting life he’s got.

Those characters, and some others, relieve Gekko of the burden of carrying the entire movie. Franklin Cover, as a down-on-his-luck trader, utters a few memorable lines. Sean Young is delightfully dippy. The guests at Gekko’s party talk comically. Mr. Panos, who owns the cleaning company, utters the hilarious “thank you for telling me what I already know.” Bud’s Realtor is too funny. The union reps are dedicated, but can deliver a line too.

Stone might be most underrated for his scene selection; he has a knack for picking exciting ones. Anyone the least bit intrigued by New York City gets an adrenaline rush out of “Wall Street” — the crowded subway and elevators, the bustling high-rises, the suits, the blue-collar types, the street people, the super-rich. Bud’s job — even before he hooks up with Gekko — is an appealing place, a high-testosterone, money-making operation with a great collective sense of humor. Surely there must be office politics involved somewhere but this is a meritocracy battleground where the score is kept in dollars and the winners absolutely get rewarded and the losers absolutely get punished.

“Wall Street” is also appealing for a rarity in movies, the concept of gentlemanly conflict. Wildman even visits Gekko’s home, exchanges pleasantries with Gekko’s wife, and exits after a tough deal by saying “Good night,” and you have the feeling he means it as a matter of principle, even though he hates Gekko. No need for punches, or worst of all, a murder of some sort. These are people who take protocol seriously, similar to Cary Grant and Claude Rains in “Notorious.”

It is likely just coincidence, but it’s remotely possible Stone is making a nod to “The Maltese Falcon.” Near the end of the film, Gekko is watching television coverage of his airline debacle and learns Wildman was involved. He grabs what must be an expensive object on his desk and smashes it. The sound effect is a bit off — there does not appear to be glass breaking — but the object itself might be significant. It is shaped like a large, brown egg … but looks curiously similar in shape to the bird in “Falcon.” Might it be that Gekko’s possessions are just the stuff that dreams are made of?

Gekko — inadvertently it would seem, given the movie’s point of view — exemplifies a few Wall Street characteristics that are actually considered admirable. He believes in maximizing shareholder value. He believes underperforming management has only itself to blame. He is an expert at assessing value. He works extremely hard (despite one of his comments) and rose to prominence from a blue-collar background.

Screenwriter Stanley Weiser, who 20 years later would also write Stone’s “W.,” laments in an Oct. 5, 2008, essay in the Los Angeles Times that Gekko has become a cinematic hero. In most excellent detail, he describes how the film came together and says Gekko is a composite of Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, Asher Edelman, Michael Ovitz and even Stone himself.

Stone failed, but failed colossally. His movie was intended to be a morality tale for the masses who loathe financial excess. That audience never bought it. Instead he created the Michael Corleone of Wall Street, widely embraced by those of a center-right disposition who also admire the characters in “Patton,” “Dirty Harry” and “Scarface.” They know he’s not pure, but it’s a movie; they don’t care.

Blame Charlie Sheen and Daryl Hannah for running stock of “Wall Street” into the ground. Thanks to Gekko, the breakup value is higher … a lot higher.


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