Not since Three Mile Island served as a preview of "The China Syndrome" has the real world lent such a hand to fiction. The Big One on Wall Street is a perfect teaser for Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," no matter what Stone's film has to say. It arrives in time for Christmas.
A 200-point drop in the Dow Jones might have whetted interest in "Wall Street" almost as well, with a less bitter aftertaste, but you have to admit there is nothing like a 500-point collapse to get people's attention.
What is curious, historically speaking, is how little heed the movies have paid to Wall Street and stock-trading generally. The market is always the incidental music to something else.
For years, the tape extruding like pasta from the glass-domed ticker (it was always being fingered by a man in a three-piece suit, with beads of perspiration on his forehead and a look of horror in his eyes) was a ready symbol of changing fortunes.
Nine times out of 10, the news couldn't have been worse. All had been discovered, the shares were plummeting, the next move was prison or--cut to the secretary's desk--the sound of a single shot from inside the big office.
Or the ticker meant that Freddie would have to give up polo and loose companions and go to work, or Gwennie wouldn't get to come out at the debutante ball, or Mumsie would be humiliated before the lorgnette ladies of her club and forced to Face Reality. Perfect hell, all of it.
Now again it's time to dust off all the visuals left over from movies in which 1929 figured at all: the ticker suddenly silent in a vast mountain of telltale tape, the newspapers whirling like propellers and snapping to a halt with the bad news in giant type. (Variety's "Wall Street Lays an Egg" showed up as a backdrop on a television newscast Monday night.)
Picking a decade at random, I checked a subject index of all the movies of the '60s. Stock trading is an item in only eight films, all comedies ("The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom") or melodramas ("The Money Jungle") in which the stocks are only convenient plot devices. The best of the lot, the Peter Ustinov-Maggie Smith "Hot Millions," is really about computer fraud.
In a later title, "The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker" (1971), it was the combined dullness of marriage and stockbrokering that led Richard Benjamin into extracurricular trouble.
Last year "Quicksilver," an alleged comedy, had Kevin Bacon as a bike messenger turned whiz-kid trader and vice-versa. It did its own nose dive. "Trading Places" with commodity trading (and a manipulated crash) was on the other hand a major hit, part of its appeal possibly being its implicit message that the market was a joke, not to be taken seriously.
A serious if melodramatic attempt to explore international currency speculations, which are a kind of first cousin to the stock market, was the Jane Fonda-Kris Kristofferson "Rollover." The trouble was that the love story and the skulduggeries left the meaning of the operations as obscure as the fine-print tables in the trailing pages of the financial section.
You don't really wonder that Hollywood has had so little meaningful to say about the stock market. The exchanging of bits of paper with cryptic markings on them is exciting if you're at one end of the exchange or the other, but to a spectator it does not equal a chase or a stampede (except, of course, on those rare days when the DJ sky is falling).
The wonder of "All the President's Men" was that Alan Pakula made a suspenseful drama of what was in its essence a matter of words on paper, however significant the words were.
Yet in the '70s and '80s, as in the '20s, stocks ceased to be a specialist interest and surpassed poker as a national enthusiasm. Stocks were part of mainstream lives, entitled to be reflected in any account of our times.
There was an anecdote out of the '20s in which a trader (was it Bernard Baruch?) sold everything he had in the market after the man shining his shoes asked him for a stock tip. He knew things had gone too far. A lot of traders this week are wishing they'd had their shoes shined.
The fact was that the stock market had become an indoor sport in which the spectators were also combatants. The news media understood this well enough, with radio's half-hourly market quotes and with print's juicy and dramatic stories about a later generation of suave manipulators (who used to be played by Edward Arnold and Gene Lockhart among others).
The movies chose to sit it out.
A former movie person, Richard Ney, now an investment adviser, wrote "The Wall Street Jungle" years ago, disclosing its menaces as he found them. It may be that Oliver Stone, who grew up around that jungle before he chopped his way through another jungle in "Platoon," has at last brought the market from the periphery to center stage.
Not a moment too soon; possibly a moment too late.