Greed Is Bad. Bad!
Gordon Gekko was supposed to be a villain. Instead, he became a Wall Street folk hero.
Ten years ago in The New Yorker, Kurt Andersen suggested that maybe the 1980s 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-'90s recession before roaring back on the momentum of a resurgent stock market. The '90s version of the '80s 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 '80s 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 '80s—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."