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Commentary: Gordon Gekko may be a problem for Mitt Romney

The 'Wall Street' character Gordon Gekko has long been met with ambivalence. That could be bad for Mitt Romney, who had a Gekko-istic career at Bain Capital.

April 15, 2012|By J. Hoberman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in 1987's "Wall Street."
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in 1987's "Wall Street." (Andy Schwartz )

"It's thrilling left-wing trash," Village Voice critic David Edelstein ended his review of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," "and it's more or less disposable."

Thrilling (at times), left-wing (I guess), trash (not entirely), the movie Oliver Stone began shooting in lower Manhattan 25 years ago this month has proved anything but disposable. "Wall Street" remains one of the few Hollywood business yarns to lodge itself in our national memory, and, in the character of flamboyant corporate raider Gordon Gekko, portrayed with vulpine, Oscar-winning gusto by Michael Douglas, has added a remarkably durable archetype to American mythology — the personification of capital.

Douglas was recently featured in an FBI public service ad meant to discourage insider trading: "The movie was fiction," Douglas maintained, "the problem is real." Until recently the swank W New York Downtown hotel encouraged its guests to "unleash their inner Gordon Gekko" — an invitation modified last fall after it was revealed that two leaders of Occupy Wall Street had abandoned Zuccotti Park for those luxurious digs. More recently, Greg Smith, the trader who blew the whistle on Goldman Sachs, was hailed as the "non Gordon Gekko." And then, there is the rhetoric of the presidential campaign and the persona of candidate Mitt Romney.

Actually, "Wall Street" — which Stone co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Stanley Weiser — was a buzz generator from the moment 20th Century Fox announced it. Coming off best picture and director Oscars for "Platoon," Stone's latest was hyped as a new kind of war film that, the Los Angeles Times predicted, would "make the airstrip at Khe Sanh look like Club Med." Stone was himself a stockbroker's son. No less than "Platoon," the story was personal and nothing if not ambitious (the movie was first known, with a nod to Erich von Stroheim, as "Greed"). "Wall Street" intended to lay waste to the rampant speculation and excesses of the Reagan boom.

With miraculous timing, it was released in December 1987, less than two months after Black Monday saw the Dow nose dive 508 points and a week before arbitrageur Ivan Boesky was fined $100 million and sentenced to prison for inside trading. Both detractors and proponents called "Wall Street" a documentary.

Some at the preview thought the masses wouldn't get "Wall Street" — it was too arcane and too "New York." In fact, despite mixed reviews, the movie proved to be a moderate hit, finishing 26th for 1987 with grosses of $44 million. And by the time Douglas won his Oscar, it had assumed its position in the zeitgeist, alongside Tom Wolfe's bestselling "Bonfire of the Vanities," as the final word on the boom-boom '80s.

No doubt that "Wall Street," which opens like an episode from the first season of "Mad Men" with Sinatra swinging "Fly Me to the Moon," has dated. The movie unfolds in a world of cramped cubicles and clunky green computer terminals, but its conflict is timeless. As in "Platoon," an unformed American boy played by Charlie Sheen (who 20 years later would become the poster child for another sort of excess), here named Bud, is caught between good and bad fathers. The good dad is a salt-of-the-earth machinist and union rep (Martin Sheen), the bad one is Gordon Gekko, all slicked-back hair, red suspenders and outrageous sneering pronouncements: "Lunch is for wimps." A downsizer and a union buster who refers to his trusted assistant as the Terminator, this guy doesn't need lunch, this carnivore devours entire companies.

Gekko was at once the genius of the system, exhibiting what Karl Marx called capital's "werewolf-like hunger for surplus labor," and a new version of the Ugly American. But not everyone was scared. By January 1988, New York Newsday reported that Gekko's outfit offered a new "look for the successful man"; 22 years later, a fashion writer for the Washington Post imagined that this peacock was something of a drag act, "the 1980s boom years required women to look like curvy Gordon Gekkos."

"Wall Street" made Douglas a hero on the real Wall Street; by his own account, he was high-fived in his travels through haute Manhattan. These accolades would eventually grow old (years later, the actor told the New York Times how pleased he'd be to never have another "drunken Wall Street broker come up to me and say, 'You're the man!'") but, in 1988, the actor fully identified with the character: "I don't think Gekko's a villain. Doesn't beat his wife or his kid. He's just taking care of business. And he gives a lot of people chances."

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